Transwerke building in Hillbrow

Transwerke: Artists Bring a Crumbling Building to Life

In Hillbrow, at the corner of Joubert and Sam Hancock Streets, is a striking Art Deco building with a strange, ominous-sounding name: Transwerke.

Transwerke, and the many buildings like it in Joburg, are a perfect illustration of this city’s strange, fascinating, maddening contradictions.

Outside the building appears dilapidated and forlorn. It smells like pee.

But Transwerke is also majestic, unlike any building I’ve seen before. It has graceful, oval-shaped balconies jutting out in all directions.

Transwerke building in HillbrowGoogle doesn’t seem to know what “Transwerke” means and no one in the building could tell me either. Do you know? 

Interior courtyard at TranswerkeAn interior courtyard.

Behind TranswerkeBehind the building.

Transwerke was designed in 1939 by acclaimed architect Gordon Leith. Back then it was the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital — a place where women gave birth and also a residence for midwives. The hospital sits just below the Old Fort Prison, now Constitution Hill.

Under apartheid, the midwives living at Transwerke were sent to deliver babies in the women’s prison.

The building closed in 1983 and Transwerke sat vacant.

In September 2017, Transwerke received a “black plaque” from the Gauteng Heritage Action Group. Black plaques are meant to shame heritage building owners into stopping rampant decay in buildings that should be treasured as historical landmarks.

Transwerke is part of Constitution Hill. The owner is the Gauteng Provincial Government itself.

At some point between the black plaque dishonor and now, Transwerke’s ground floor was converted into artists’ studios. There are at least ten artists in there, making beautiful paintings and prints and photographs in the old doctors’ offices and midwives’ flats.

Art in TranswerkeArt and a printing press. Perhaps babies were once born in this room? Who knows. The prints are by Mandlenkosi Mavengere.

Read more about Transwerke in this Mail & Guardian article.

My Visit to Transwerke

I went to Transwerke last Thursday as part of an artists’ open studio night. Very few people knew about the open studio as it was not widely advertised. I’m lucky to be friends with some artists in the know.

When I tried to park my car in front of Transwerke I was shooed away by security guards who told me it was dangerous to leave my car there. This was confusing because: 1) There were several cars, all much fancier than mine, parked there already; and 2) Isn’t that what security guards are for? But I digress.

The vibe inside Transwerke that night was the opposite of dangerous. It was filled with art and music and wine and laughter and fun. I took portraits of some of the artists.

Artist Mbali Dhlamini at TranswerkeMbali Dhlamini.

Artist Isaac Zavale at TranswerkeIsaac Zavale.

Artist Khotso Motsoeneng in TranswerkeKhotso Motsoeneng.

Mmabatho Grace Mokalapa in TranswerkeMmabatho Grace Mokalapa.

Victor Dlamini at his studio in TranswerkeVictor Dlamini, one of South Africa’s top portrait artists, who has the coolest studio in Transwerke. This room must have been the hospital lobby at some point.

I’ve been feeling a bit jaded about life in Johannesburg lately but visiting Transwerke restored my faith. Thanks to all the artists and to the beautiful building for improving my attitude.

An update on the history of Transwerke, via the Heritage Portal: “Queen Victoria Maternity Home closed when the maternity section was incorporated into the new Johannesburg Hospital, now Charlotte Maxeke. The Transvaal province then converted it into flats for their staff – hence Transwerke – Transvaal works.”

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  • Reply Erla Rabe November 7, 2018 at 11:02 am

    Transwerke was Transnet’s engineering department now called Transnet Rail Engineering. A direct translation from the Afrikaans would be Trans Works.

    • Reply 2summers November 7, 2018 at 11:04 am

      Ahhhhhhh, that makes sense! Now I know why every time I googled it I got results for Transnet and not Transwerke 😂 But now I want to know why the building was named that if it was actually a maternity hospital.

      • Reply dizzylexa November 7, 2018 at 12:45 pm

        It was originally named the Queen Victoria and only after Transnet took it over was the name changed.

        • Reply dizzylexa November 7, 2018 at 12:49 pm

          Forgot to mention when Transnet took it over it was changed into apartments for their workers. We have some information in the archives and will try and find you an original photograph of the building.

          • 2summers November 7, 2018 at 12:50 pm

            Oh thank you! That would be so interesting.

  • Reply Ben Kelly November 7, 2018 at 11:15 am

    I assume the Trans is for Transvaal, no idea where the werke came from. I would guess that when they renamed it they had a plan for what they were going to use it for, but that never happened.

    This is, of course, pure supposition.

    • Reply 2summers November 7, 2018 at 11:19 am

      Someone else just commented that Transwerke is the Transnet engineering department. I’m going to update the post 🙂

  • Reply Ben Kelly November 7, 2018 at 11:20 am

    That was my other theory 🙂

    • Reply 2summers November 7, 2018 at 11:35 am

      More comments coming in – no consensus yet!

  • Reply Carolina November 7, 2018 at 11:30 am

    In those days Transnet did not exist yet. It was then still the South African Railways and Harbours. The fact that the building belongs to Gauteng Provincial Government makes me think that the “Trans” rather refers to Transvaal. Insidently, The Discoverer’s Memorial Hospital in Hamberg, Roodepoort was build at the same time and is also a fabulous art deco building. It is still functioning as clinic run by provincial health services. maybe that is what the Transvaal government did at the time – build hopsitals! There was a massive population boom in the 1930s as technological advancements and leaving “the gold standard” made gold mines profitable again.
    Apologies for the history lesson – I cant help myself.

    • Reply 2summers November 7, 2018 at 11:34 am

      Hahaha, no thank you! I’m enjoying this discussion. Hope all is well at the museum 🙂

    • Reply Norman Lamport November 10, 2018 at 3:09 pm

      Hi Carolina did you know that across the road from the Queen Vic. the children’s hospital was also named a memorial hospital if I not mistaken it was the Transvaal Memorial hospital before that it was the fever hospital.

      • Reply Gillian April 29, 2020 at 11:18 am

        TMH was nrver the Fever Hospital, I worked there and Fevers was up the hill.

  • Reply Eva Melusine Thieme November 7, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    LOL, to me the word sounds like a sinister combination of vampires and nazis, but that is just my imagination running wild. You always dig up the most interesting historical gems in Joburg, well done!

    • Reply 2summers November 7, 2018 at 7:30 pm

      I also thought it sounded vampire-ish!

  • Reply Rosemary November 7, 2018 at 9:32 pm

    How interesting….I was born there lol! I never knew anything about the hospital – thanks😎

    • Reply 2summers November 7, 2018 at 9:34 pm

      It’s amazing how many of my readers were born there!

  • Reply Norman Lamport November 7, 2018 at 10:31 pm

    How the name Transwerke came about was that it was the Transvaal Works Department that maintained the all the government hospitals and it’s nurses homes,doctors quarters etc. I worked there I should know.

    • Reply 2summers November 8, 2018 at 6:07 am

      Thank you Norman!

      • Reply Norman Lamport November 10, 2018 at 3:01 pm

        When it was no more a maternity hospital it was turned into flats for the TWD European staff that was in around 1978. When the ANC government took over from the Nats. the TWD was dismantled that’s when all the government hospitals in the Transvaal went to ruins.

  • Reply Ashly Pashlee November 8, 2018 at 6:52 am

    Your pics were so very photogenic! And the building structures, wow! Loves this post!

    • Reply 2summers November 8, 2018 at 8:11 am


  • Reply Gaisang November 8, 2018 at 11:10 am

    The CEO of Constitution Hill is the brain behind the project and it is through her vision that she transformed Transwerke into creative studios, providing artists and creatives across the spectrum with work spaces. This is part of Constitution Hill’s initiative to contribute valuably to the economic development of the creative industry in Gauteng. I kindly advise that you speak to the head of communications of Constitution Hill for more information and approval.

  • Reply Dieter Aab April 29, 2020 at 5:37 pm

    I have just discovered this post and find it fascinating – 66 years after I was born there! Thank you.

    • Reply 2summers April 29, 2020 at 5:40 pm

      Thank you! I’m glad you found it. Where did you discover the post (just out of curiosity)?

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