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architecture

Somerset House, Fox Street entrance

JoburgPlaces and the Restoration of Somerset House

About three years ago, I was roaming around downtown Joburg on a drizzly Sunday afternoon with some photographer friends. As we walked along Fox Street near the corner of Rissik Street, just behind Gandhi Square, we noticed an open doorway and walked inside. I didn’t know it then but this doorway led to Somerset House. What I saw when I first walked into Somerset House, sometime in 2015. The Fox Street entrance is behind me. The building’s staircase is somewhere behind those metal grates. I had no idea what I was looking at but I could tell this building was special. My eyes went immediately to the dazzling black-and-white checkered floor and the bright green tiles along the walls. I looked up; the building was three stories tall and the two stories above were painted in various shades of red and blue, with ornate wood and iron railings lining the balconies overlooking the atrium. I now know the vaulted ceiling is made of glass, but the ceiling was covered in metal sheeting back then so I couldn’t see it. One end of the building was closed off so I didn’t know Somerset House was actually an arcade, with one side […]

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Oldest house in Johannesburg in Bezuidenhout Valley Park

The Oldest House in Johannesburg

A few weeks ago I visited the oldest existing house in Johannesburg. I’m a little confused as to exactly how old the house is. The house standing beside the oldest house was built in 1852. At least that’s what the historical plaque on the house says; this article by the City of Joburg says it was built in 1863. This second house (not the oldest one, but the one standing beside it) is referred to as the Bezuidenhout Farmhouse. It was built by the Viljoen family and later taken over by the Bezuidenhout family when a Viljoen married a Bezuidenhout. The Bezuidenhout Farmhouse, built in 1852 (I think) and currently used as a Rotary Club office. Blue plaque on the Bezuidenhout Farmhouse. But the actual oldest house, which the Viljoens presumably lived in before building the larger house next door, doesn’t have a plaque. Isabella Pingle, the heritage activist who showed the houses to my friend Marie-Lais and me, says it was built around 1850 — more than 35 years before Johannesburg itself became a city. The oldest house in Johannesburg, built sometime around 1850.  The most interesting thing about this house, to me at least, is that there are a bunch of regular people living […]

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Downtown Joburg from 120 End Street

On Top of Joburg at 120 End Street

Nothing beats watching the sunset from a Joburg rooftop. Looking down at the crazy evening traffic from the roof of 120 End Street. On Sunday evening, Mark Straw from the Joburg Photowalkers organized a rooftop mission for all of the photographers who contributed their pictures to the recent #JoziWalks weekend. We drove together to 120 End Street, a 26-story residential building in the middle of the CBD, and spent the evening taking pictures there. 120 End Street (center) shot a few months ago from the roof of August House. I’ve always been curious about the view from the top of this building.  On the roof at 120 End. Another Take on the Joburg Skyline I’ve said this a million times before, but Joburg’s skyline is its best asset and I never get sick of looking at it from various angles and heights. Every rooftop provides its own unique interpretation of the city. 120 End Street has a particularly interesting view of Hillbrow and the most chaotic section of the city centre, between Ellis Park and the Noord Street taxi rank. Someone on Instagram asked me which street is in the middle of this frame. I’m pretty sure it’s De Villiers […]

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Skyline from the Sentech Tower

Some Shots From the Top of the Sentech Tower

Last week I got an incredible opportunity to visit the Sentech Tower, a.k.a. the Brixton Tower. A picture I took a few years ago of the Sentech Tower at sunset. While not as tall as the Hillbrow Tower, which is 269 meters (883 feet) high and the tallest structure in Africa, the Sentech Tower is still massive at 237 meters (778 feet). Also, the Sentech Tower is closed to the public and virtually no one gets to go inside. So this was a lucky break. The Sentech Tower was built in 1961 to broadcast radio stations, and later TV stations. It used to have a viewing deck open to the public, but it closed in 1982 due to apartheid paranoia. Same goes for the Hillbrow Tower, which used to have a revolving restaurant at the top. Joburgers live in hope that the towers will both reopen someday. Anyway, visiting the Sentech Tower was cool. I got to see the radio broadcasting equipment on the bottom floor, then took the remarkably fast elevator to the top, and even checked out the hollow inside of the tower on one of the middle floors, with nothing inside it but an elevator shaft. Since […]

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Culture section of National Museum of African American History

From Africa to America: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

I’ve just returned to Joburg after two weeks in the United States. I spent most of the trip trying to stay warm (this was my first dose of American East Coast winter since 2010), running errands, and spending time with family and close friends. I didn’t have much time for cultural pursuits, but I did achieve one major Washington D.C. tourism goal — a visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (I’ll call it the African American Museum for short), located prominently on Constitution Avenue right beside the Washington Monument. The museum opened in September 2016. Read more about the museum’s award-winning architecture here. I feel it’s important for me to write a post about this museum, as it links the two halves of my life together in a couple of ways. First, the African American Museum was designed by acclaimed British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, who also designed the Hallmark House building in downtown Johannesburg. I stood in the same room with David at the Hallmark House media launch a few years ago but was too shy to talk to him. I regret that now, as I’d like […]

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Man walking through Killarney during Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tour

The Heritage of Johannesburg’s Middle-Class Suburbs

The weekend after Heritage Day, the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation has an annual tradition of offering a whole programme of tours at very affordable prices. There are about a dozen tours to choose from over the course of two days and you can do three tours for R150, or about $11. (Read about last year’s Heritage Weekend.) This year I intentionally chose two walking tours through neighboring Joburg suburbs — one in Forest Town and one in Killarney — because I thought they’d be fun to blog about together. Walking through Forest Town. For those of you who don’t live in South Africa, I should explain that the term suburb has a different meaning in South Africa than it does in the U.S. or other places. The city of Joburg is made up of dozens of suburbs, which are more like neighborhoods in American cities. Each suburb has its own identity and often engenders fierce loyalty among its residents. (My love for Melville is a good example.) Forest Town and Killarney, despite being almost adjacent, are totally different from one another. I loved exploring them both. Forest Town: Joburg’s English Forest Forest Town was founded in the first decade of the 1900s, […]

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Post box sign in Jeppe Post Office

Inside Joburg’s Historic Jeppe Post Office

There are sections of downtown Joburg where things are so chaotic and colorful and slightly scary that I find it hard to focus on any one thing. Such is the case at the corner of Jeppe and Kruis Streets, home of the Jeppe Post Office. Look here — a clothes shop entrance lined with dozens of curvy mannequin legs in tight-fitting jeans, packed so close together there’s hardly space to walk through. Look there — the hood of a car spread with 100 pairs of colorful flip-flops. Look here — a trolley piled high with oranges selling for a rand each. Look there — a man pushing a shopping cart full of bloody cow heads. Look here — a highjacked apartment building spilling garbage from every window. Look there — a newly restored, gleaming white office block with shiny black glass windows. Spaza shops, hair salons, honking taxis, muscular police vans, and a hundred people squatting, standing, walking every which way. A quick glimpse of Jeppe and Kruis Streets. My eyes dart from one thing and one person to another and my brain considers what or who I should or shouldn’t photograph, or whether I should even take my camera out of its bag at all. […]

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View of Joburg from Ansteys

Johannesburg, 13 Floors Up

Yesterday my friend Ted invited me to check out the flat he just bought on the 13th floor of the Anstey’s Building. Anstey’s is a legendary art deco high-rise in the center of downtown Joburg. A shot of the back of Anstey’s (the building in the middle) I took about four years ago from a rooftop on Rissik Street. Anstey’s was built in 1935. I’ve written about Anstey’s twice before (see here and here) so no need to repeat myself. I’ll just show you yesterday’s pictures. The views from Anstey’s are, for lack of a better superlative, epic. The view from Ted’s 13th-floor bay window. View toward the west. View toward the northeast. Colorful taxis queuing at a traffic light. I love the massive graffiti piece above that building across the way. It was painted by Tapz, Joburg’s most prolific graffiti writer. Woman in a window across the street. I’m told the white building is beautifully renovated but the pink building next door, as you can see, is empty. This is a common sight in downtown Joburg. If you’d like to learn more about the Anstey’s Building, it has its own Facebook page. There is also an art gallery in Anstey’s, called the 13th […]

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People studying at Joburg library

Long Live the Johannesburg City Library

I keep reading articles about gentrification in downtown Johannesburg. These articles — usually written by foreign journalists, or Capetonians — proclaim the city of Joburg remains blighted, crime-ridden, and poverty-stricken with the exception of a few pockets of upscale hipsterdom, like Maboneng and Braamfontein. I dispute this proclamation. As proof, I present the Johannesburg City Library. A typical Tuesday morning at the Johannesburg City Library. The Johannesburg City Library is a huge, beautiful building on Albertina Sisulu Road (formerly Market Street), overlooking Beyers Naude Square (formerly Library Gardens) in the center of the Joburg CBD. Originally opened in 1935, the library closed for three years between 2009 and 2012 as it underwent a major renovation and expansion. The library’s imposing front steps. I poked my head into the library once or twice after the renovation was completed. But I never got around to exploring it properly until last week, when I went with Marie-Lais Emond to take photos for the Citizen “Other Side of the City” column. I couldn’t believe: 1) how nice this library is; 2) how many amazing things are contained inside of the library; 3) how many people use this library; and 4) that people still go to libraries at all. I confess […]

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The Angel of the North sculpture outside Constitution Hill in Hillbrow

From Mansions to Muti Shops: Exploring Johannesburg’s Heritage

Last Saturday was Heritage Day, a South African public holiday celebrating the nation’s heritage. This holiday is interesting because “heritage” can mean so many things. South Africa has 11 official languages and dozens of distinct cultural groups, each with its own heritage. There’s also historical heritage, architectural heritage, artistic heritage, archeological heritage…Pretty much anything can be heritage. On top of that, South Africa’s big-brand advertising industry has rebranded Heritage Day as “Braai Day” (braai means barbecue in South African), in an effort to convince South Africans — as if they need convincing — to consume piles of meat and gallons of beer on this holiday. All this means that there are dozens of different Heritage Day activities to choose from in Joburg, especially when the day falls on a weekend. I was overwhelmed by all the options, but settled on a full weekend of historical tours with the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation. Holy Family College, opened as the Parktown Convent in 1905, where the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tours started and ended. How cool is that intricate latticework? The beautiful staircase inside Holy Family. Flo Bird, founder of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, in the chapel at Holy Family. This woman is a legend and so […]

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Corner House Capital Cafe coffeeshop ceiling

Downtown Joburg’s Newest Secret Coffeeshop

2017 Update: I’m very sad to break the news that the Capital Café has closed. Sniff. 2017 Update #2: A new coffee shop has moved into this space. Yay! It’s called DM Coffee. I haven’t been yet but I’ve heard good reports. Secret coffee shops are popping up in downtown Joburg, in strange, wonderful little corners where the city is coming alive. Craft Coffee in Newtown was my favorite discovery last year. This year’s discovery is Capital Café in the center of the Joburg CBD. Capital Café. I first glimpsed Capital Café a few weeks ago on my friend Jay Jay’s Instagram feed. (Jay Jay’s feed is fantastic, by the way. You should follow him.) I have been looking for an excuse to go there ever since, and finally found one last weekend when I scheduled an Internations Coffee Time get-together there. Capital Café’s coffee is decent. The café also serves nice breakfast sandwiches, baked goods, and other light fare. But this café’s big selling point is not the food or the coffee. It’s the ceiling. Have you seen a more beautiful coffeeshop ceiling in your life? I haven’t.  Another look at the Capital Café ceiling. It looks like there was once a grand chandelier hanging from the center. […]

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Mini Ponte: My New Favorite Joburg Building

Earlier today I found myself standing on Houghton Drive beneath a cylindrical apartment building in Berea, on the outskirts of the Joburg CBD. The Imbali Building, also known as “Mini Ponte” or “Little Ponte”. I took this photo from the side of Houghton Drive, just below Louis Botha Drive, where Mini Ponte is located at the corner of Tudhope Avenue. I’d driven past this building dozens of times, and I knew it was nicknamed “Mini Ponte” for its resemblance to the much larger Ponte City apartment building just to the south. But this was the first time I’d looked at Mini Ponte up close. “I’ve always wondered what that building is like on the inside,” I said to my friend Tecla, who was next to me. “Maybe we should try to get in,” Tecla suggested. “Sure,” I said, although inside, I wasn’t. Mini Ponte is in an edgy part of Johannesburg, just on the border of Hillbrow and Yeoville, and residential buildings in this area can be unpredictable in terms of how they’re managed and who lives there. But…We were literally across the street. It seemed silly not to try. We climbed the pedestrian stairway between Houghton Drive and Louis Botha, crossed the street, and looked […]

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