It's been described by some as something out of Star Wars with its unusual inner perspectives; by others as the Tower of Babel. It's the tallest residential building in the city with a huge flashing Vodacom advertisement on its roof. It's probably one of the most striking urban landmarks in southern Africa.
It's the cylindrical Ponte City, of course, standing tall on the edge of Hillbrow's flatlands, at 54 storeys. Completed in 1975 at a cost of R11-million, it was in its heyday one of the city's most sought-after addresses, described by newspapers at the time as "heaven on earth".
Ponte has six penthouse apartments and five of them are vacant. Each penthouse comes with a sauna, bar and rooftop braai area, spread over three levels. It has classic 70s features like dark brown carpets running up the walls, linoleum floor tiles in the kitchen and those garish, brightly-patterned bathroom tiles that were all the rage at the time. If that's not to your taste, the view surely will be. It must rate as the most spectacular city view south of the Sahara.
At night that view is breathtaking - a twinkling panorama, with the 50-storey Carlton Centre and the nearby 90-storey Hillbrow Tower soaring into the heavens. (Ponte was originally meant to be 64 storeys, but the city council wouldn't allow it.)
Early construction of Ponte
Building manager Danie Celliers says he's "not going to give the penthouses to just anyone. Tenants would have to be responsible and look after them properly", and pay a modest R3 900 per month.
Ponte's fortunes have been very much tied to its surroundings. When it was completed, Hillbrow was a popular cosmopolitan area, with pavement cafes, coffee shops, record bars and nightclubs servicing residents living in the mostly large, spacious flats that make up the dense flatlands of the suburb.
But those residents starting moving out of Hillbrow in the 80s,along with businesses from the city centre, in an exodus to the suburbs. At the same time, towards the mid-80s, the Group Areas Act was abolished; and immigrants from west Africa started moving into Hillbrow. The demographics of the area changed, Ponte become an overcrowded, untidy block, and lost its desirable status.
The architect, Rodney Grosskopff, says Ponte was originally built as low-cost housing but it was much admired as a tall, unique building, at a time when skyscrapers were reaching for the clouds allover town. Each of its 470 flats were furnished (another factor making it desirable for immigrants), and it had a self-contained shopping centre with over 50 shops.
Ponte is a huge hollow cylinder, with the rock it was built on still visible at the base of the cylinder, if you have the courage to stick your head out one of theupper floor windows to look down. In fact, it's hard to focus on the bottom from the top without the roundness and depth tugging at you,almost pulling you down.
Grosskopff says of the rock: "I liked having mother earth evident at the bottom."
The building is finished with a rough, grey concrete look, called "hacked concrete", a style referred to as "New Brutalism".
Grosskopff says the construction of Ponte posed problems. There was a fault in the ground rock on which it was built. This was plugged with concrete and reinforced with steel girders, one of which slipped,killing one of the construction workers.
"It's the sheer magnitude of the project," says Grosskopff, "it's actually two buildings, one on top of the other." The top 23 floors are separately supplied with water from another set of tanks,housed on the 31st floor.
Each floor took two weeks to complete, and the building took around two years to construct.
The wind was another problem. It whistles up the building,colliding with the wind coming down, causing great gusts of wind around the bottom of the building. As a result the windows had to have special seals, and only sliding windows were used, opening from about 1.5m above floor level.
The open inner core was necessary to ensure that every room had access to natural light, a ruling at the time.
Ponte in the 90s
Ponte went through a periodin the 90s when it attracted criminal tenants, who most people believedwere Nigerian druglords, in keeping with the general deterioration ofconditions in Hillbrow. The streets of the suburb still show signs ofthat degeneration: they're blowing with garbage, the pavements aredotted with hawkers and their wares, and unemployed people gather ingroups on street corners.
Perhaps Ponte hit its lowest point when in 1998 it was suggested by the ANC Youth League that it be turned into a prison, an idea soon discarded.
Ponte had armed guards in this period, giving it a forbidding look. When property management company Trafalgar Property and Financial Services took over four years ago the first thing they did was disarm the guards, and install a new security system.
In the past year the building has seen a drastic turnaround in its fortunes. Building manager Celliers says Ponte's biggest problem has been the stigma attached to it. And that's a stigma that's held by many Joburgers, even today.
But Celliers says the new security system has been finely tuned -residents each receive an access control disc, and when they leave,those discs are cancelled. "You simply can't get into the flats without the disc," he says. The system also helps control the number of people living in each flat. He can monitor from his desk who is coming and going, each entry being reflected on his computer screen.
A year ago this system helped catch a thief, who was entering the building legitimately with a disc, but stealing from flats. His disc identified him and he was arrested. The system has also chased away the criminal element, and now the flats are mostly occupied by students and families.
Celliers says there are five agents actively working to push the present 70 percent occupancy higher."There are daily ads in the paper, and they have a table and chairs at Park Station, soliciting business."
Neville Schaefer, CEO of Trafalgar Property and Financial Services,says he doesn't think occupancy will ever get to 100 percent. "We bank on an 8-10 percent vacancy." In the building's history, it's never been 100 percent occupied.
Some R6-million has been spent in the past four years to upgrade the building. Ponte has a single owner, a family living in East London. Schaefer says a recent survey established that tenants wanted the simple things to be fixed before they felt comfortable with their accommodation: cleanliness and ongoing maintenance.
There are 10 different size flats, with flats from the 41st floor upwards classified as "luxury flats", meaning they're slightly bigger,with better carpeting. Bachelor flats go for R850 a month, while one-bedroomed flats come in at R1 200 a month. Tenants sign a "flat condition form" before taking up residence, and if they default on rent payments, they are immediately removed.
And before moving in, Celliers has the flat painted, carpets cleaned,and the electrics fixed. He is busy replacing stoves in many of the flats, and gradually removing the last of the furniture that was originally put into each flat.
He says too that the area is a lot better, largely due to an increased police presence in Hillbrow. In the past year since he has taken over, there has not been a single problem in the building.Previously, broken fire extinguishers and windows were a regular feature.
Three storeys of garbage
A huge problem was the three storeys of garbage filling the base of the cylinder,accumulated since the first tenants moved in. That's now clear with just odd pieces of paper caught on window sills down the length of the building. Although, says Celliers, people still can't resist throwing rubbish out the windows. There's a dedicated person employed to spend his day picking up that garbage.
The building is patrolled by 24-hour security officers, and now has only three entrances open, one conveniently placed on one of the lower levels for Wits Technikon students, who come out across the road from the technikon.
Its eight lifts are all working these days (none were working a year ago, says Celliers), courtesy of a new maintenance company. And in the commercial area on the eighth floor, there's an active gym operating, a very busy laundry, a restaurant, a cellphone shop, an internet café,and a tuckshop. A supermarket is to open shortly, and a church has just taken a lease on the community hall.
Architect Grosskopff describes this commercial level as "a big disappointment". He wanted to create a village shopping area, with small, cosy shops and a terrace. But instead small flea market-type kiosks were created, in an effort to collect more rent. One of the shops, Mary's Last Stand, used to sell fresh game, poultry, fish and vegetables, straight from a farm in Honeydew. But even it didn't survive long - within several months most of them had closed for lack of support. The problem persists: nowadays some of them are again empty.
In the grounds is a medium-sized swimming pool, and two basketball courts (converted from a tennis court). There's seven levels of parking for tenants, although at the moment only two are being used.
The building is occasionally used by film companies as a setting for a shoot. Celliers says he's very selective about who he allows to use it for this purpose. He asks for a synopsis of the film and is very wary of how the building is portrayed, and if negative,will turn down the request.
Over the years suicides have taken place from Ponte, although no record of the exact number has been kept. Grosskopff says that soon after it was built, several suicides occurred. There have been two since 2000, the last one occurring 18 months ago. The tall windows were designed to make jumping out more difficult, he says. The windows around the inner core were all barred,and most still are.
When asked if he could build another Ponte, Grosskopff says it couldn't be done, but "if you could uproot Ponte and put it in Sandton, it would be most desirable once again".
Grosskopff still has an affinity with the building. "The shape of the building on the skyline is still quite thrilling," he says. He adds that he likes what photographers have explored with the angles and shapes that the building conjures up. "It's very exciting."