Ponte City Book Introduction
Ponte City dominates the Johannesburg skyline. This unavoidable 54-storey apartment building on the Berea ridge has become an icon of the city it towers over.
The building has had a chequered history. Built for white sophisticates in the heyday of apartheid, it always held more appeal for young people and immigrants, for those on their way to somewhere else. During the South African transition in the early 1990s it became a refuge for black newcomers from the townships and rural areas, and then for immigrants from elsewhere in Africa. Then followed a calamitous decline, and by the turn of the century Ponte was the prime symbol of urban decay in Johannesburg, and the perceived epicentre of crime, prostitution and drug dealing.
In 2007, developers evicted half the tenants and gutted the empty apartments, but their scheme to refurbish the building soon ran aground. It was in this period that Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse began working at Ponte, getting to know the tenants who remained behind, taking their portraits and photographing the life of the half-occupied block.
In the winter of 2008, Subotzky and Waterhouse started collecting documents and other debris in the abandoned apartments. Over the following five years, they returned repeatedly to document aspects of the block, photographing every door and the view from every window. When they knocked on doors to ask permission to do this work, they were often invited in. Sitting in apartments where the televisions were tuned to South African soap operas, Congolese sitcoms, Hollywood romances and Nollywood melodramas, it sometimes felt to them that all the stories of violence and seduction they had heard about Ponte were not in the building itself but on the screens. Thus the television screens of Ponte became a third typology of apertures alongside the doors and windows: three grids arranged exactly in the sequence given by the building’s structure.
This body of images is presented here in counterpoint with items from the found archive and historical documents, including plans and photographs. The visual narrative is integrated with a sustained sequence of essays, stories and documentary texts presented in 17 booklets. With one exception, the essays and stories were written specially for this book.
Perceptions of Ponte have always been extreme, its joys and ills exaggerated equally. It has been hailed as the next big thing in urban living and derided as a suicide centre and a rubbish dump. The commentary here does not discount these myths but positions them in relation to the many other historical accounts of the building. It is an attempt to understand the unique place of the building in Johannesburg and in the popular imagination.
Today life in Ponte goes on, as ordinary and extraordinary as life anywhere else. But the building is still enveloped in contending projections. It remains a focal point of the city’s dreams and nightmares, seen as refuge or monstrosity, dreamland or dystopia, a lightning rod for a society’s hopes and fears, and always a beacon to navigate by.