Several months ago, Thorsten and I took a walk through the old Johannesburg Gas Works. Our visit happened spontaneously and we definitely shouldn’t have done it. Most of the Gas Works has been abandoned since gas production terminated 30 years ago, and the buildings aren’t safe. I felt guilty afterward and I don’t want to encourage anyone else to do this, which is why I didn’t blog about it for so long.
But we kind of just stumbled upon it. And once we peeked through the first doorway, a powerful magnetic force yanked us inside and kept pulling us further in. There’s something magical about this abandoned industrial space, filled with old machinery and stray piles of ancient coal, slowly crumbling away as weeds and vines creep through the windows and spontaneously sprout up through the floors.
I happened to have my camera that day and Thorsten had his sketch book. The opportunity was too good to pass up.
We spent 30 or 40 minutes wandering around, photographing and sketching, before it finally started to sink in that those rusty floors could easily give way and we were probably inhaling a lot of asbestos.
A Very Brief History of the Johannesburg Gas Works
The Johannesburg Gas Works, owned by Egoli Gas, opened in December 1928 and was the city’s main gas producer for several decades. The plant produced gas out of coal, which was obviously not a very environmentally friendly process. The Gas Work’s production gradually decreased throughout the mid-20th century as the city began to source more gas from Sasol. The plant closed down completely in 1992.
The Gas Works is now considered an important architectural heritage site. The buildings are beautiful, in an early-20th-century-industrial kind of way. Egoli Gas still has offices in a section of the Gas Works property, and Liebermann Pottery occupies another section. While there have been various proposed plans over the years to redevelop the unused buildings, nothing has happened.
I used to do a lot of urban exploration during my early years in Joburg, sneaking into abandoned buildings with my photographer friends and taking pictures of whatever we found. Exploring the Gas Works took me back to those days — to that heart-revving feeling of being in a place I know I’m not supposed to be, climbing rickety ladders and shooting through broken windows.
As I crept through the Gas Works, I missed my buddies who I used to explore with back in the day. Most of them have since become wildly successful in various creative endeavors and moved away from Joburg to other corners of the world. Y’all know who you are — I wish we could all travel back in time to 2013, when Instagram was still cool, and explore the Gas Works together.
In conclusion: Please don’t visit the Gas Works. But if you do, please dress smarter than we did. And wear a mask.