Mikhael Subotzky and
Probably the most notorious building in South Africa is Ponte City in Johannesburg – a monumental, concrete cylinder with a hollow core. The view from the top floor of the 54-storey block into its gigantic maw is dizzying. At 173 metres tall, this high-rise in the district of Hillbrow is the second-highest building not just in Johannesburg, but in the whole of South Africa.
In their multimedia project “Ponte City”, the two photographers Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse documented the tower’s awe-inspiring, almost terrifying architecture in powerful images. But from the outset, their interest in the edifice went beyond its design vocabulary, as they increasingly focused on the countless stories about the building. It seemed as if almost everyone in Hillbrow had a tale to tell about Ponte City. Considering its past, this is hardly surprising, after the many radical changes it has undergone. The tower was completed in 1975 as an exclusive apartment building and was an object of prestige for the white upper classes with luxury flats, restaurants, a swimming pool and boutiques. The political upheavals that shook the country in the early 1990s and led to the end of white-minority rule also brought about a transformation in the structure of its residents: The white population fled the area, and poverty, violence and hardship moved unchecked into Hillbrow and Ponte City. Numerous gangs and criminals holed up in the building, and very soon it gained the reputation of being the most dangerous place in the city. When planning started for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the decision was made to completely renovate the tower, and it became an attractive residential block thanks to comprehensive security measures. Most of the almost 500 apartments are now leased out again, with the low rents attracting primarily students. Even if the tower itself has been cleaned up and made safe, the problems in the Hillbrow district surrounding it have not changed.
In their joint project “Ponte City”, Subotzky and Waterhouse chronicle both the tower’s fascinating history and the everyday life of its residents. They collected countless documents, including building plans, newspaper articles, old pictures and advertising leaflets. Between 2008 and 2014, they visited Ponte City many times, knocking on every door, taking photos from almost every window, and talking to anyone who was prepared to tell them about life in the tower. The longer they spent working in and on the building, the more they recognised how closely its biography is intertwined with that of South Africa. The two artists’ photographs offer a glimpse outside and inside the tower, show it from far away and close up, and in doing so convey a comprehensive picture of an edifice that is symbolic of the history of the country.
born in Cape Town, South Africa
graduates in Fine Art at Michaelis School of Fine Art and the University of Cape Town
becomes a member of the photoagency Magnum Photos Paris
is awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize together with Patrick Waterhouse for the “Ponte City” project
lives in Johannesburg, South Africa
born in Bath, United Kingdom
graduates from Camberwell College of Arts
is awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize together with Mikhael Subotzky for the “Ponte City” project
lives in Venice, Italy