With a height of 173 m, the view over Johannesburg from the Ponte City skyscraper is breathtaking, but Africa’s tallest apartment building is struggling to shake off its reputation as a symbol of a run-down city centre.
Built in the brutalist style, the Ponte building – as it is known – is a cylindrical skyscraper designed by the South African architect Manfred Hermer. It consists of 54 floors and was completed in 1975 in the once thriving Johannesburg city centre.
However, the remarkable skyscraper, and also the tallest residential building in Africa, began to become increasingly dilapidated as large companies – initially due to sanctions imposed against South Africa’s apartheid regime – began to flee from downtown Johannesburg. In the 1980s and 1990s, the building became a refuge for violent gangs and a central point for drug trafficking and prostitution.
The windows were sealed at one stage – when there were no rubbish bins in the area – to prevent people from scattering their rubbish in the shared yard.
The building was renovated before the World Cup in 2010 and squatters were kicked out.
Today, many middle-class families live in the skyscraper and pay between R3 000 and R8 000 in rent per month.
Polite Ngwenya (33), a music teacher and resident of the Ponte City skyscraper, can look out from his apartment window over a metropolis in one of the most economically unequal countries in the world.
“The security here is good, the building is clean and the view is wonderful and unique.
“People in the neighborhood don’t realize how lucky we are,” says Ngwenya.
The hollow core in the middle of the tower offers a dizzying view of the courtyard and it brings light to the apartments. The driveway to the building leads to a large and empty underground parking lot, where a few unused vehicles stand and rust.
Access to the building is through metal turnstiles manned by security guards – and then only if proof of identity can be provided.
But in a neighborhood that is still extremely run-down and considered one of the city’s most dangerous areas, Uber drivers are afraid to venture there, especially at night.
The city center foundation Dlala Nje – Zulu for “let’s have fun” – wants to change the negative views about the area.
The foundation has been offering walking tours of the neighborhood for the past decade, with the Ponte City skyscraper becoming a tourist attraction.
“However, there is still a long way to go to change the negative image of and prejudices about the building,” says Ngwenya.