Africa’s tallest building lives in Joburg. At 50 stories and 223 meters (730 feet) tall, the Carlton Center is modest by Western and Far-Eastern skyscraper standards. Even when you get within a couple of blocks, the Carlton Center looks strangely unimpressive. It doesn’t appear much taller than the buildings around it.
The views from the top convey a different perspective.
The Carlton Centre is actually more than just the skyscraper – it’s a mixed-use retail and business complex. It was a revolutionary concept when it was designed and built in the 1960s and 70s. In addition to the skyscraper, there’s a hotel, an underground mall, and a parking garage with an ice-skating rink on top. (To my very great disappointment, the skating rink is now closed.) The underground mall connects the parking and the hotel to the skyscraper so you can get from one to the other without crossing the street.
In the 1990s, the Carlton Centre fell into disuse and disrepair. The hotel has been closed since 1997. The mall was once a crime-infested ghost town but it’s now coming back to life — the retail spaces are filled and it was teeming with people when we were there last week. ( I wasn’t brave enough to take out my camera in the mall, which I now regret.) The skyscraper is still occupied, mostly by SARS (the South African Revenue Service).
Going to the top of the Carlton Centre is nothing like going up the Empire State Building or the John Hancock Tower. We had some trouble finding the ticket window — you have to wind your way through a confusing maze of underground mall shops to get there. Tickets are R15 (about $2) and there was no line. We paid and stepped onto the high-speed elevator, alone.
The 50th floor of the Carlton Centre, nicknamed “The Top of Africa,” tells a familiar Joburg story. The halls are lined with empty souvenir stalls and shops – not a single Carlton Centre mug or magnet in sight. The only thing open is a small cafeteria. The corridors are neat and tidy but the windows are scattered with finger- and nose-prints, which made photos difficult. I wish I’d brought along a bottle of Windex.
It was nice to have the breathtaking views nearly to ourselves, but it also felt kind of sad.
Looking down at Gandhi Square on Main Street.
I passed a smiling Carlton Centre employee who I’m sure was dying to chat. I have no idea why I didn’t stop to talk with him. I guess I’ll have to go back.