Transwerke: Artists Bring a Crumbling Building to Life

by | Nov 7, 2018 | Arts and Culture, Hillbrow/Yeoville, Johannesburg, Museums and Buildings | 35 comments

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.”

35 Comments

  1. Erla Rabe

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

    Reply
    • 2summers

      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

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

        Reply
        • dizzylexa

          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.

          Reply
          • 2summers

            Oh thank you! That would be so interesting.

  2. Ben Kelly

    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

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

      Reply
  3. Ben Kelly

    That was my other theory 🙂

    Reply
    • 2summers

      More comments coming in – no consensus yet!

      Reply
  4. Carolina

    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

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

      Reply
    • Norman Lamport

      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

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

        Reply
  5. Eva Melusine Thieme

    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

      I also thought it sounded vampire-ish!

      Reply
  6. Rosemary

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

    Reply
    • 2summers

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

      Reply
  7. Norman Lamport

    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

      Thank you Norman!

      Reply
      • Norman Lamport

        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
        • Norman Starr Cooke

          Hi there. I stayed in that building. My mum and 4 siblings from 1986 till 1994. Went to school across the road. I have the most amazing memories of growing up there. Not to mention that place is super haunted. So many times I’ve experienced doors opening with no one around. Shadows in empty hallways.

          Reply
          • 2summers

            Wow, that’s so cool Norman. Thanks for telling us about it!

  8. Ashly Pashlee

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

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks!

      Reply
  9. Gaisang

    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
  10. Dieter Aab

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

    Reply
    • 2summers

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

      Reply
  11. Leigh

    Tampa Florida USA
    I was a student midwife here in the 1971/ 1972 time frame & following graduation worked in the outpatient clinic. Many memories of this building & our dorm rooms at/near the back.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      That’s fascinating! Thank you Leigh.

      Reply
    • Devon Pyoos

      wow, this post has sparked a new motivation for me to be involved in this space. I have been having great chats with conhill and it looks like there is always a way to breath new life into spaces. There is hope !

      Reply
      • 2summers

        Hi Devon, I am so pleased to hear that!

        Reply

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