Cities fascinate us geographers, especially if they fluctuate as much as Johannesburg. From a bunch of grassy hills with starving farmers, Johannesburg developed into to a metropolis with skyscrapers in the space of just 12 years. And its collapse in the 1980s/90s was perhaps even more spectacular as apartheid laws failed, immigrants moved in, crime increased, middle classes moved out, and whole apartment blocks were abandoned and hijacked by hoodlums.
But this town is not finished yet. Despite the blows it received, its bad reputation and the clear inability of local politicians to do their jobs, there are clear signs of improvement. The Newtown district was already given an impuls in 1976 when the Market Theatre opened, before the rest of the city centre even began its slow downward slide into disaster. Now the district is home to many cultural institutions and nightlife venues. But in recent years, improvements to city centre streets, the new rapid bus system, the revamp of Ghandi square, the employment of hundreds of street guards and the fixing up of tatty buildings has stopped the rot. It’s still not ideal, but at least it’s not getting worse.
The newest and coolest of all developments can be found in the old low-rise warehouse district, just a kilometre east of the CBD skyscrapers. Some enterprising young Turks converted a city block full into Arts on Main, a wonderful cultural node, with galleries, shops, a courtyard with grass and olive trees, and the Canteen restaurant.
After this initial success, they set their eyes on the next city block, which incorporates a tall-ish 1970s office building. The lower floors were opened earlier this year as Main Street Life, with a funky design/fashion shop and cupcake café called Malva, an alternative cinema called The Bioscope (with R35 tickets and fresh popcorn). But to really inject life into the city centre you need permanent residents, and that’s why the other floors of the office building are being converted into apartments (from €50,000, buy buy buy).
Best of all, the new 12 Decades Art Hotel occupies the top floor, and we visited the opening last weekend. There’s one room for each of the 12 decades that passed since Johannesburg was conceived in 1886. Local designers and artists have furnished each room, inspired by events from their decade.
The customising of hotel rooms is quite popular in Europe (I’ve seen some good examples in Berlin, and every scummy hostel in Poland seems to be doing it too), but it’s new for Johannesburg, and in this case it has been executed very well. The opening was well-visited and the rooms really looked great. The hotel is not aimed at business travellers (Sandton in the north is their preferred hangout) and it may not offer the services and comfort they’d expect; each room has a stove for cooking but only TV in the 1976-1986 room (South African politicians only allowed that instrument of the devil to start in 1976).
But it’s a great place for intrepid travellers who want to experience more of the real Johannesburg. There’s even bike rental (a first for the CBD) so guests can go explore. The entrance itself (photo above) is a work of light art – words are beamed all over the hall. The roof offers great views of the city, and a remarkable telescope-like artwork is yet to be installed there.
In the 1886-1896 room, the walls are graced with traced Google map views of the huge Vredefort Dome meteorite impact crater (100km south of Joburg and the probable reason that gold was found here in such quantities from the 1880s), placed next to outlines of Joburg’s city centre blocks; from chaos to order. There are stepladders – one in the shape of a mine headgear – so you can peer into tele-kaleidoscopes suspended from the ceiling. Peeking through a circle painted on the window you should have seen a real mine headgear just south of the centre – but unfortunately this was demolished just before the hotel opened. Such is the pace of change in Joburg (or the utter incompetence of local authorities when it comes to protecting industrial heritage).
The 1936-1946 ‘Who is Herbert Dlomo?’ room, furnished by a theatre designer, features a high bed like a stage for a naughty play, heavy velour curtains, a superstar mirror in the dressing corner and period theatre posters. Dlomo was in fact a talented theatre maker from that decade whose career was cut short by racist laws.
The 1946-1956 room by Love Jozi, a cool local T-shirt brand, had everyone smiling despite 1948 being the year that apartheid started to dramatically change South Africa. The bedspread is an oversized T-shirt stating the inter-race rules of the era. Doen dit nie (don’t do this); persecution and arrests of mixed couples, heavier punishment for non-whites. Get into bed and the back of the shirt reads ‘Fuck for freedom’. Note the marvellous (21st century) Joburg skyline woodwork on the headboard and the lamp in the shape of the Hillbrow Telcom Tower (on her side it’s Brixton’s Johannesburg Tower).
The vile laws of apartheid make another appearance at the room’s vertical exit – they’ve been printed in the toilet bowl, so you can kak on this part of history.
My other favourite room was the 1926-1936 Marabi room, named after a variety of Dixieland jazz that was popular in the shebeens at the time. Simply furnished with lovely chairs and cupboards from the period, with a flapper dress and an old wedding picture on the wall.
One room that didn’t work was the 1976-1986 Ponte Obscura room – but that’s only because it was dark outside. The stark white interior of the windowless room is a screen for the lens that is mounted in the wall. Guests see the upside-down projection of the view, with the 173-metre high Ponte Tower from 1975 prominently in the middle. This is what it looks like during daytime.
The last room I’d like to show is the 1986-1996 Catwalk Customs room, which was full of the stuff that filled my youth; geometric shapes, the colour yellow, plastic and coated metal, funny rounded fonts and adjustable desk lamps that go boiing when you play with the springs while you’re supposed to be doing your homework.
Then there’s the room with a huge shower area taking centre-stage, and a room with Mondriaan-style geometric patters on canvas covering one wall, and more. If they manage to add one more room on that floor, I hope they’ll do a 2086-2096 room of the future.
Anything bad to say? I’m not sure I’d stay here in Joburg’s chilly winter months, as I don’t think the little electro-oil heaters will win from the concrete floors and single-glass window panes. I also hope they’ll replace the nasty neon lamps used to illuminate the kitchen corners (not made for human consumption according to the three Philips Lighting experts that accompanied me that evening). Otherwise it’s a really cool hotel… pity I’m not a tourist.