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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