<this story first appeared in the Sunday Times newspaper>

Nechama Brodie on why the city has such a troubled relationship with its past.

[from ‘Dark City’ by Hermann Niebuhr]

Johannesburg was never considered a city with a future. It’s one of the reasons the city has always been incredibly bad at preserving its past.

When public diggings were proclaimed in 1886, the government appointed a surveyor – Josias Eduard de Villiers – to map out a mining village on a piece of state-owned land. It was planned as a gold-rush town: make a quick fortune, get out even faster.

De Villiers was specifically instructed to lay out the town with unusually small city blocks and narrow roads, to maximise the number of profitable corner stands that could be sold.

Nobody expected the gold would last.

A different sort of short-sightedness afflicted later generations of town planners when the first black township areas were proclaimed, designed to function as temporary residences for migrant labour. Jo’burg’s lawmakers determined it should be a white city, serviced by a “native” population that would return to their various designated homelands once the work was done.

They, too, were wrong.

With such a loaded legacy it’s not surprising Johannesburg struggles to define a heritage that’s anything close to inclusive. There are geographical markers of history – the Randjeslaagte Triangle; the (now disappearing) mine dumps; a dusty field in Kliptown (now Walter Sisulu Square) where the Freedom Charter was adopted; a struggle route that starts from Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto – but very few remaining significant architectural ones. Unless you’re interested in the Randlords.

For many reasons – the simplest being that the buildings in question were mostly privately owned, and owned by people with money – the most prominent “heritage” homes remaining in Johannesburg are those built by its early elite, the mining magnates who commissioned architects like Sir Herbert Baker to help them decorate Parktown and Westcliff’s ridges.

The homes are beautiful, but they present a romanticised, exclusively white “colonial” version of a city that was built on cheap black labour.

Architect Brian McKechnie, who sits on the board of the Gauteng Institute For Architecture and is involved in a number of heritage projects, recalls someone commenting that “they [black residents] should love this – because their people built it.”

It’s a bit like taking a Jew to the pyramids and saying “good job”.

The city’s preservation of other historical homes and buildings has been erratic. Dr AB Xuma’s house is the site of the underfunded Sophiatown Heritage Centre; 8115 Vilakazi Street, the Mandela House museum, has been restored to its original state but much of its history has been lost in renovation. The Drill Hall (where the first Treason Trial was held) was beautifully restored in the early 2000s, made habitable but still under-used and inaccessible to outsiders, in a part of the city that’s tricky to get into and around, and without any parking. Museum Africa in Newtown (next to the Market Theatre, formerly the city’s fresh produce market) has plenty of parking and is easy to get to but has lacked any clear or decisive curatorial vision for years, with most of its best exhibits hidden behind closed doors in its cavernous storage areas. Constitution Hill, on the site of the Old Fort and home to the Constitutional Court, is architecturally beautiful but, for an ordinary citizen, has far more symbolic value than anything else.

There’s a section on Rissik Street where Jo’burg’s throwaway relationship with its past is perhaps most evident: where one of the city’s oldest buildings, the crumbling, burnt-out Post Office (owned by the city, due to be renovated) overlooks the old City Hall (now owned by the province, still being renovated), a block away from the newly restored Barbican building (owned by Old Mutual, renovated after lengthy battles).

Johannesburg clings on to its goldrush mentality: when a building outlives its original purpose it’s generally easier to knock it down and build a new one – or simply abandon it.

In a living city, heritage needs to go beyond conservation. It’s not enough to preserve a site or a building; they need to become spaces where the past links to the present, and that happens through human interaction not just bricks and restored parquet.

There are, however, spaces in the city where old buildings are doing just this.

Chancellor House, on the corner of Fox and Gerard Sekoto Street in Ferreirasdorp – where two young lawyers named Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo once ran a law firm – has been completely restored by the Johannesburg Development Agency, housing a museum on the ground floor and a library (dedicated to Mandela and Tambo’s legal cases), with plans for a possible legal clinic on the premises.

“When social history connects to a building with architectural value,” says McKechnie, “it adds an extra, fantastic layer.”

McKechnie also suggests the recently reopened Johannesburg Public Library. Designed by John Perry and originally opened in 1935, the library was renovated over a period of two years at a cost of nearly R70-million (part of which was donated by the Carnegie Corporation) and now offers – in addition to its many beautiful original architectural features and some 1,5-million books (including the Michaelis Art Library, the largest public collection of art and design books in the country) – more modern facilities like free WiFi. Books are free too (when you take out four or less).

Another gem, hidden in plain sight and in need of a little more love and attention than it tends to get, is the Johannesburg Art Gallery, opened in 1911 and designed by Edwin Lutyens. Its location, on the edge of Joubert Park, makes some residents reluctant to visit, but it has secure parking. It also has works by Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet, Moore, and many of South Africa’s most important historic and contemporary artists, from Gerard Sekoto to Zanele Muholi.

If you need some perspective on Jo’burg, past or present, McKechnie suggests visiting another architectural treasure, the 40-year-old Carlton Centre, and taking the lift up to the 50th floor. It’s still the tallest building in Africa. Which isn’t bad going for a city that wasn’t expected to last.

Walk history: Take one of the Parktown & Westcliff Trust’s (www.parktownheritage.co.za) exceptional tours – not just grand mansions, but all aspects of the city’s history and architecture – or book a custom walking tour with Past Experiences (www.pastexperiences.co.za)

Read history: If you can, invest in a copy of Clive Chipkin’s out-of-print collectible Johannesburg Style: Architecture and Society 1880s-1960s, and its more recent companion Johannesburg Transition: Architecture and Society From 1950

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