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Reimagining the Futures of Forsaken Johannesburg Towers

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series which will invite an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers.

During apartheid, Johannesburg's downtown business district held the densest collection of skyscrapers on the African continent. But when the country's apartheid-era government began to crumble in the late '80s, making way for South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, businesses deserted downtown headquarters for what they perceived to be "safer" suburbs. Over time, many of the empty skyscrapers were occupied by the city's neediest residents, yet many companies still retained legal ownership of their spaces, resulting in ungoverned colonies of urban squatters living without utilities and vacant structures now undergoing slow demolition by entropy.

Johannesburg, with just under a million residents within city limits and 4.5 million in the metro area, has yet to settle fully into a new urban identity within a democratic South Africa. Prestigious business addresses now cluster in northern suburbs, particularly Sandton. Many lower-income residents remain downtown, where buildings have been in varying stages of physical abandonment since the late 80s. And as developers have started to examine the area's possibilities, the former business district has become the arena for a necessary discussion of gentrification's value, necessity, and color, who it accommodates and leaves behind, and what it can and can't address.

As that debate roils, as artists create guerrilla installations to call attention to the number of buildings in disrepair, and as academics, planners, and architects try to hone feasible models of urban democratization, historical buildings collect moss. The area contains a dense collection of valuable if freighted architecture, from nondescript office buildings—easily converted to affordable apartments for locals who might otherwise be pushed to its outskirts—to historic buildings. Curbed asked GASS Architecture Studio, a Johannesburg-based firm, to reimagine three of these historical buildings. The firm's proposal attempts to address the area's gentrification while, at the same time, essentially implementing it.

The three buildings, all by the same architect, all currently vacant, and all owned by a single real estate development company, sit on one block, a few streets over from Gandhi square and its plentiful public transportation, central to the headquarters of three large banks, the country's high court, and the weekend markets that pull hipsters and tourists into town. The New Kempsey building, five stories tall, built in the 1920s, is unique in Johannesburg. Stuck somewhere between the Edwardian, with classical corners and ground floor colonnade, and Art Deco and Nouveau, with pink ornamented pilasters, it's the city's only architectural relic of this transition. The other two buildings, the imposing Shakespeare House and the erstwhile headquarters of the Central News Agency, sit more firmly in Art Deco aesthetic territory: tall and visually commanding, inset window bays, monolithic.

GASS Architecture Studio sees the three buildings as a block-wide complex that might encompass a school, offices, apartments, retail space, and a hotel, all above and around a large public plaza. "Our idea," says Johannesburg-based Georg van Gass, "was to redevelop it but not take it away from the city, to refurbish the buildings and then give them back to the city."

The buildings' current owner initially targeted converting the buildings into 200-square-meter high-end loft apartments, similar to a nearby refurbished skyscraper whose apartments are selling for $80,000 to $1.6 million. That bid was unsuccessful. "The streets need to be more friendly before that could happen," van Gass says. As individuals and families move into the city, into the racially integrated, already-gentrified pockets of Maboneng and Braanfontein, the need not only for safe streets but also for schools and other infrastructure emerges.

"We see this development as spearheaded by its educational and office components," he explains. "Beyond that, we've tried to do something that talks not to the now, but to the next thing, or what's two levels away."

Van Gass suggests building atop the shorter New Kempsey building, cradling a new office volume between what he imagines as a hotel in the former CNA building and the Shakespeare House. A new volume hovers above the New Kempsey's roof—which would provide a cafeteria, roof garden, and outdoor space for the complex—on slim pilotis, or pillars, that echo the building's ground floor columns. The overall structure would, with these additions, become tiered, generating outdoor space five stories above the city.

"We're trying to contrast the new with the old, accentuating both," says Van Gass of the proposal's aesthetics. He sets slim, floating new spaces against the solidity of the current buildings.

New structures echo the existing vertical lines of art deco facades, but one volume breaks visually from the vertical, nesting a glass-fronted, open-faced exhibition space between the New Kempsey building and the Shakespeare House in what is now empty space at the center of the block. With wide, unbroken windows, this new addition floats above a landscaped public plaza connecting Commissioner and Fox streets and houses an exhibition space for a fine arts school or, says Van Gass, nonprofit. He floods the exhibition spaces with natural light, keeping them highly visible from the street, in contrast with the closed stone facades of the historic buildings that bracket it.

Across the ground floors of all three buildings, his team conjures mixed retail use on either side of an open plaza of sheltered public space: "we're imagining small local providers or concept stores," says architect Frederik Labuschagne, pointing out that these buildings all initially housed ground floor retail space. Within the plaza, a long, open ramp offers oversized stairs that Labuschagne envisions as a flexible performance and civic square. "It could not only house formal performances but also informal, lunchtime community space," he says.

The GASS team nests a tall high-end apartment building into the empty corner of its lot, creating an interior courtyard among the residence buildings. The perception both outside and inside of South Africa, says Van Gass, is that income in the country is divided expressly along the lines of race, placing South Africa's black population in affordable housing and whites in luxury high-rises. "But we're seeing income growing extremely integrated," he says, and to that end, he suggests that housing developments like his might provide new, appealing homes for black, white, and multi-racial professionals and families.

Rather than return to the neighborhood's pre-apartheid business identity, privatizing space where change has rendered them unrecognizable, GASS Studio's proposal tries to bend to the reality of the buildings' owners while providing what seems like a healthy balance of development and civic improvement. Whether development alone can begin to find solutions for a new, vibrant, equitable central business district in Johannesburg remains to be seen, but Van Gass points out that the area is "as far from, or close to, [former township] Soweto as Sandton."
· Why Johannesburg's Empty Buildings Are Splattered in Paint [Curbed]
· The Architect's City archive [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]