city, houses

Joburg’s Concrete Tower

Brett Steele


The Ponte Tower: what would Joburg’s skyline be without it? Its unyielding, monolithic appearance is deceiving and its history is vibrantly colourful. Built in the 1970s as a swanky apartment block in upmarket Hillbrow, it quickly descended into a slum, harbouring the frightening and ugly side of Joburg in the early 1990s.

In a story by the Guardian UK, writer David Smith describes the dire state of the building 15 years ago. Known for its questionable tenants, the building has gone through a major clean-up in the new millenium. Investment by new owners saw increased security, refurbishment and ultimately, residents with higher incomes. Today, instead of bumping into drug-dealers and pimps, you’re more likely to be waving hello to young middle-class professionals in the hallways and stairwells of the Ponte.

‘Most people imagine a derelict building full of criminals and drug lords. Nothing could be further from the truth,’ photographer Brett Steele explained in an interview with us.

Sunrise from Ponte Tower. Credit: Brett Steele Sunrise from Ponte Tower. Credit: Brett Steele

‘Today Ponte is filled with massive diversity and the building seems to resonate with a great deal of energy.’

For much of 2012, Steele lived on the 52nd floor of this monolithic concrete structure, taking photographs of the incredible Joburg sunrises and sunsets from his lofty vantage point.

His work offers some beautiful angles of the Ponte Tower.

The tower was built in 1975 by design trio Mannie Feldman, Manfred Hermer and Rodney Grosskopf, and it is Grosskopf who suggested the cylindrical feature as a compromise to bylaws stipulating that kitchens and bathrooms required windows.

At its worst during the 1990s, the building’s hollow core was said to have been filled with refuse tossed out by residents. Some say garbage piled as high as the third storey.

ponte3 A view of Ponte Tower's core. Credit: Brett Steele

‘The magnitude and scale of things are incomprehensible at first, and I’ve never seen views of Johannesburg and its surrounds that compare,’ says Steele.

Not only is the building home to thousands of Joburgers, it is also where Nickolaus Bauer and partner Michael Luptak run a project called Dlala Nje which offers insightful tours of the building. Get more details here.

Visit brettsteele.co.za to see the full series