This article first appeared in City Press in November 2014

At the start of the just-released trailer for Marvel’s new Avengers movie, the Age of Ultron (out in May next year), the villain – a seriously bad-guy robot – whispers ominously: “I’m going to show you something beautiful.”

What he reveals is the skyline of Johannesburg.

Even though most of the city’s signature structures are barely 40 years old, it’s now almost impossible to imagine Joburg without them: the Brixton and Hillbrow towers; Ponte; Marble Towers; the Carlton Centre. These buildings are an architectural braille. Their shape, height, materiality and location tell parts of our history. Giant skyscrapers rose in the early 1970s, at a time when South African gold production had reached its peak. The ostentatious glass facades of the later Diamond Building, on Diagonal Street, or the former Johannesburg Sun on Smal Street, literally reflect the excesses of the 1980s – completed in defiance, or ignorance, of the States of Emergency imposed outside the shining city centre and white suburbs.

By contrast, Joburg’s current generation of statement buildings have, largely, decided to forgo extreme heights in favour of a very different footprint – with designs that emphasise concepts like transparency, and sustainability, and which create spaces and structures that are consciously environmentally friendly.

“What we find now, with corporate office buildings in South Africa, is that between 70% and 80% of our clients will go for a Green Star rating,” says Vivien Yun, architect and associate at Paragon Architects, and who was the project architect for the Alexander Forbes building on West Street in Sandton.

The Green Star SA rating system is a set of voluntary standards and benchmarks used to assess the green/environmentally-friendly design, construction and management of a building, and which are evaluated by the Green Building Council SA (GBCSA). According to the GBCSA certifications, four stars indicates “best practice”; five stars shows “South African excellence”; and six stars represents “World Leadership” in green building.

While, these days, “green principles are often applied by default, mostly for the sustainability of a project,” Yun says the star ratings have specific appeal for corporate tenants but are currently less of a factor in retail developments where they “haven’t perceived a value for it”.

“Obviously there is a price tag attached,” she says, “because you need to put in additional features. The building has got to perform on a slightly different model, depending on the rating tools. From the perspective of the tenant, though, it does offer better performance. There are savings in terms of maintenance, running costs, water, lights… And big corporates like big bragging rights,” Yun adds. “You have to be seen to be doing your part.”

Whether a building is Green Star-rated or not (the Alexander Forbes building has four stars), Yun says there are still “very good principles for the end user, in terms of indoor environment quality. Making sure a certain amount of fresh air is pumped into a building keeps people feeling fresh and alive and focused, so they don’t have that 3pm afternoon slump. When the air in an office is stale people tend to get tired and grumpy.”

Similar benefits apply to the inclusion of more natural light, which simultaneously “reduces the amount of electricity consumption for artificial lighting. At Alexander Forbes we used incredibly high-spec glass that allowed us to increase the amount of translucency together with increased high performance specifications [mitigating factors like thermal exchange, for example],” says Yun.

Natural light is a key feature of Standard Bank’s new five star-rated head office in Rosebank, which “has floor-to-ceiling glass on every floor and basically provides 360-degree views over Joburg,” says project architect Louise O’Raw of Grosskopff Lombart Huyberechts and Associates Architects (GLH).

The building’s design incorporates a unique double façade – the first of its kind in Africa – where a “system of blinds [has been installed] between the glass’s internal and external panels. The blinds are motorised and connected to sun sensors, allowing for full climate control. But people are still able to override the system individually, allowing a level of human interaction,” says O’Raw. “The blinds also reflect light back into the office space. In terms of their colour and shape, they are specifically designed for light harvesting.”

Additional features in the complex include a large main atrium and landscaped external piazza, so that users effectively “walk through a garden before you enter the building”, and a series of internal sunlit atriums that link the inside with the outside, and connect people across workspaces.

“We were quite focused on creating an experience,” says O’Raw, “not just a closed environment. Rosebank itself inspired us, in terms of its character. Obviously the building is enormous. But we wanted to keep it at a human scale, and to maintain the connection with the rest of the area.”

This informed the rugby field-sized public piazza fronting the complex, planted with over 400 trees, and which, O’Raw says, is already being used by the local community. “The restaurant and coffee shop on the ground floor of the building is fully open to the public,” she says, “and we really want to encourage people to visit.”

The idea of integrated precincts is something that is slowly starting to take shape in notoriously pedestrian-unfriendly Sandton, at the Alice Lane development. Here, Yun says, in addition to mixed-tenant office buildings and a small number of retail spaces and restaurants, there are plans to install features like specially commissioned public art installations, which will “turn it into a very modern metropolitan space”.

But this notion of “space” – and questions around who owns or, more importantly, who has access to Joburg’s spaces – is going to become increasingly contested as the city continues to grow.

“What’s important to understand is that Johannesburg – unlike most other cities in the world – is still a densifying city,” says Professor Philip Harrison, Research Chair in Development Planning and Modelling at the University of the Witwatersrand. “In most cities the physical space is expanding faster than the population, so they are de-densifying,” he says. “Johannesburg is one of the very few spaces where the opposite is happening, and it’s happening both formally and informally.”

Harrison explains that significant residential densification is happening in “inner city buildings, and inner-ring, previously working-class white suburbs” – people are “moving where the services are”, he says, rather than into peripheral informal settlements, as happened in the past – but adds that the private sector remains “very focused in the north. The potential in the south isn’t really being unlocked.”

According to Harrison, we “should be seeing a lot more [development] in Soweto, instead of shipping people north. We’re stuck with this framework where the bulk of people live in the south, and most of the growth is in the north and far north, which means there is a huge problem of moving people every day. Mobility is probably at the core of what we should try and address.”

While projects like the Gautrain have “made a very significant impact on the spatial form of the city” – it’s no coincidence that major developments, whether at Newtown, Rosebank or Sandton, are linked to the proximity of Gautrain stations – Harrison says there is a widening gap between the city’s own development strategy, and where the private sector is putting its money.

“Major developments like those at Waterfall Estate, Steyn City or Modderfontein, are pulling the city in a completely different direction from where city planners would like to consolidate,” Harrison says. “It’s one of the biggest tensions – the [official] vision of transit-oriented corridors linking nodes in city… and where the private investors are going.”

The solution, Harrison suggests, may be to widen our perspectives: to see Johannesburg as part of a larger regional system, rather than only focus on the inner city. “If you look at it that way, those areas [Waterfall, Modderfontein, Steyn City, etc] become quite central – they connect Johannesburg to Tshwane and Ekurhuleni.”

Huge commuter flows between municipalities indicate that, for all practical purposes, we already have an effective mega region. But it’s only once new transport networks are in place – public facilities like the Gautrain and BRT services, rather than freeway-based e-tolls – that, Harrison says, “we will begin to see it as an integrated city”.


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