Ponte City: A Portrait of Johannesburg

Ponte City was, once, a tower of dreams — a specific, Apartheid-era dream. The residential tower was first envisioned in the 1970s, at the height of Apartheid confidence and white Johannesburg's economic boom. Amidst the tower's 54 stories, the builders promised purpose-built bachelor pads (complete with raised bedchambers, offering dazzling views of the city), "Pallazzo-en-Paradiso" suites (flanked by meticulously screened off servant's quarters), and so many amenities — men's leisure wear outlets, sundecks, an indoor ski slope — that the tower's builders promised "Live in Ponte and never go out". 

Like a failed science-fiction utopia, the dreams of Ponte were quickly dashed against the sharp truths of reality. Even the initial fantasies never came to fruition and then the tower began its long descent into infamy and decay. The building's center space, known as "The Core", became the tower's trash dump. An urban-legend reputation began to surround the tower, as its name became a byword for squatters, drug-dealers, prostitution and any number of other illicit activities. It remains (to this day) the tallest residential skyscraper in South Africa and its continuing physical prominence, combined with its equally prominent failure, rendered the building the city's "focal point [of] dreams and nightmares, seen as refuge or monstrosity, dreamland or dystopia, a lightning rod for a society's hopes and fears..." 

After another failed revitalization in the late-2000s, South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky and British artist Patrick Waterhouse were drawn to investigate. Thus began their six-year, encyclopedic project, in which they endeavored to deconstruct this massive building's meaning within the fabric of Johannesburg. Their approach was, indeed, exhaustive. They photographed every door, every television set, and every view from every single window in the building. They took portraits of the current residents in the tower's infamously dangerous elevators. They sorted through decades of trash, finding discarded possessions, identities and lives. They researched the geological composition of the foundations of the building, tracing the provenance of every pound of building material back to its source. In the end, they uncovered not simply a busted real estate development scheme or a disadvantaged immigrant's story, but a symbol for Johannesburg.

In 2011, the two artists produced a series of lightboxes, which were designed to imitate the tower's window, door, and television arrangement. The latest exhibition of the series, at Le Bal, expands the scope of what's on display. The show includes dozens of photographs, but also contains a wide variety of multimedia material: promotional advertising from the building's opening ("AFRICAN QUEEN") and re-opening ("LIVE YOUR LIFE") and 3-D reproductions of the building's bulletin boards, complete with documents salvaged from former tenant's homes. The two artists have even reproduced copies of the original architects' plans from the 1970s, which focus inordinately on the aforementioned bachelor pads — a small stand-in for the sleazy, faux-luxurious fantasy that has propped up the tower from its inception.

Mikhael Subotzky, in describing his compulsion to photograph, has said, "For me, photography has become a way of attempting to make sense of the very strange world that I see around me. I don't ever expect to achieve that understanding, but the fact that I am trying comforts me". His and Waterhouse's bold, persistent, though always impossible, efforts could not be clearer in Ponte City. The project combines exhausting research and tremendous exactitude with a powerful human face. Although no one could ever fully understand the legacy of this twisted symbol of Johannesburg's history, hopes, dreams, and future, Subotzky and Waterhouse try, admirably.

—Alexander Strecker


Editor's Note: Ponte City will be exhibited at 
Le Bal from January 23rd to April 20th, 2014. A book will also be available shortly.