From Swanky to Slum, a short history of the Ponte City Appartments

Featured Image Source: Geoffrey Hancock, Under Creative Commons,

The Ponte City Appartments is one of the tallest skyscrapers in Johannesburg and it’s the tallest residential tower in Africa. The building has a total height of 173 meters, this gives the building 55 floors. The building in situated just south of the city centre of Johannesburg in between the Saratoga Avenu and the Joe Slovo Drive. The building was finished in 1975, at the height of apartheid. The building was designed by  Manfred Hermer ‘as the height of luxurious (white-only) living’ (Archdaily).

The building is shaped like a toilet roll with a large open-air hole in the middle. The building was designed like this because of a few reasons. Firstly under South African law both the kitchen and the bathroom needed a window, secondly, the developers had a tiny area of land, so a thing long building wouldn’t be possible and thirdly the developers wanted a huge amount of apartments to be realised.

Source: Geoffrey Hancock, Under Creative Commons,

To be able to meet all these demands the architect decided to basically take a long thing building and bend it in on its self to get the shape. Sadly this design did have some major flaws. The most obvious one is that very little light actually gets to the lowest floors on the inside. It’s dark and gloomy on the lowest floors. Furthermore, the building has very little social control which led to a lot of crime in the building. The building started to deteriorate quite quickly. After apartheid ended the building really started to deteriorate.

Source: fiverlocker, Under Creative Commons,

The building became rife with drugs, prostitution and gang violence. The problems became worse and worse and the centre started to be used as a large garbage dump, garbage reaching the 5th floor at one point. It was said that ”on the 13th and 14th floor you could get anything from a blow-job to an acid trip in a few minutes. Essentially, the building was hijacked.” (The Guardian). Much has been written about why this building failed so spectacularly. It was for a number of reasons. The failure of the architect to create a space the could be effectively used, there being little social control, the apartment almost all being for single white people. The block was effectively built for one type of people, people who soon after the building being finished found out they would much rather live in the suburb, rather than in a huge apartment block.

The second reason was Johannesburg itself. Almost every building in the city centre saw a similar development after apartheid. White people left the city and headed for the suburbs, and many buildings were filled with poor and underprivileged black South Africans who still couldn’t find work. The building effectively turned into the tallest slum in the world. After the poor couldn’t find work in the city centre they often turned to crime, drug dealing or prostitution, which the local gangs were more than happy to cater too. In this time the building became worse and worse. The building is in many ways a reflection of many problems in South Africa. The building signifies the dream of a better life and an unbearable reality.

Source: Earth Hour, Creative Commons,

The building has though in recent years seen a comeback. Many new young South Africans are starting to move in, they are bringing new life to the building and crime has started to come down. The future is hopeful for the building and for the country.


WikipediaThe GuardianArchdailyThe AtlanticBBCJeff Blumen KrantzPinterestSlateGeo Architecture

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