Yesterday morning I watched the Bank of Lisbon Building, a 31-storey tower in downtown Joburg, fold inward on itself and collapse to the ground in a cloud of dust.

The Bank of Lisbon building behind the Joburg City Library
The burned-out shell of the Bank of Lisbon Building stands behind the Joburg City Library at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday morning.
The Joburg City Library
Ninety minutes later the library stands alone, sprinkled with a layer of dust.

I photographed the implosion from just under three blocks away, on the eighth floor of Corner House — one of Joburg’s oldest and most iconic buildings — while peering through the porthole-shaped window of a turret with a giant jacuzzi tub in it.

Hot tub inside the Corner House turret
The Corner House turret. I watched the implosion from the window in the center.

Before I get to the exciting demolition pictures, let me back up a bit.

The Sad Story of the Bank of Lisbon Building

The Bank of Lisbon was built in 1967 in a Late Modernist/Brutalist style of architecture. Based on the name, I assume the building once housed the offices of a bank from Lisbon. Most recently it was home to three Gauteng provincial government offices.

Bank of Lisbon Building
Another look at the building yesterday morning.

In September 2018, amidst tenant complaints about potential safety issues in the building, the Bank of Lisbon caught fire on the 23rd floor. The blaze burned for three days before the fire department managed to extinguish it (water supply issues reportedly hindered efforts to put out the fire), and three Joburg firefighters lost their lives.

The building’s shell remained standing after the fire but obviously it was no longer structurally sound. So the city made plans to demolish it.

Watching the Implosion

Urban Ocean, the property company that owns Corner House, invited five members of the Joburg Photowalkers group (along with a bunch of other VIPs) to watch the demolition from the eighth-floor “Apprentice Penthouse”. (Read about my prior visits to this penthouse here and here.) I was lucky enough to be one of the five Photowalkers selected.

When my friends and I arrived at the penthouse, there was already a line forming along the balcony wall.

View from the ledge of the Apprentice Penthouse.
View from the ledge of the Apprentice Penthouse.
View of Library Gardens from Corner House
Just to give you an idea of what the Bank of Lisbon looked like before the fire, here’s a photo I took from virtually the same spot in 2014.
Photographers ready to photograph the implosion
Photographers lining up along the ledge on Sunday morning.

I decided to try to beat the crowd and set up my spot inside the turret. It wasn’t the most comfortable place to sit and I had to battle a bit with the window, but I think I made the right choice.

Bank of Lisbon building as seen through the Corner House window.
The soon-to-be-demolished Bank of Lisbon as seen through my porthole window.

Waiting to photograph a building implosion is kind of stressful. Although it appears to happen in slow motion, the building only takes a couple of seconds to fall and if you miss it, you miss it. I knelt uncomfortably in front of that porthole window for at least half an hour, nervously shifting my camera and phone about, fiddling over settings and switching from one camera lens to another and back again, trying to decide which was best.

When the warning siren finally went off I snapped to attention, awkwardly holding my phone in one hand and my camera in the other.

You might be wondering: Isn’t Heather, like…a professional photographer? Shouldn’t she have a tripod and a remote shutter release and all the useful tools photographers are supposed to have for important shoots such as this?

The answer is: Of course not. I shoot photos in much the same way that I travel — i.e. very unpreparedly. (See my recent post on how to be a terrible traveler.)

Anyway, my cell phone video didn’t work out but I did pretty well with the still photos. Here’s the sequence:

Bank of Lisbon Building falling.
Building falling
Building demolition in progress
Bank of Lisbon Building imploded
At this point I wasn’t breathing. This experience was so intense.
Pigeons fly up after the building is imploded
I felt really bad for the birds. They must have been so scared and confused.
Johannesburg City Library engulfed in dust after the Bank of Lisbon Building imploded

Photographing a building implosion is hard. But I imagine that performing the actual implosion is quite a bit harder. Hats off to Jet Demolition, who took down a 108-meter (354-foot) building without causing any damage to the surrounding buildings, including the stately, beautifully renovated Johannesburg City Library standing right in front of it.

Goodbye, Bank of Lisbon. I was honored to take part in your farewell.

Joburg city skyline without the Bank of Lisbon Building
A new take on the Joburg skyline without one of its tallest buildings.

Thanks to Hermann at Urban Ocean and Mark at the Joburg Photowalkers for making this experience possible.

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