In just 40 years Ponte has gone from being an audacious experiment in skyscraper homes, to a crime-riddled de facto prison, to its current life as a trendy living location for South Africa’s ever-swelling middle classes.
Featured in newspaper articles, photography exhibitions, documentaries and movies, Ponte symbolises the rise and fall and rise again of South Africa’s commercial capital, Johannesburg. Its own story goes hand in hand with a wider inner-city renaissance that has taken place in the City of Gold in recent years. Areas that were previously far too dangerous to set foot in are now morphing into gourmet food markets, artists’ studios and trendy apartments. But this time around, will the good times last?
In his 52nd floor penthouse apartment, resident Mile Luptak tells The Guardian about the building’s seedy past life. “On the 13th and 14th floor you could get anything from a blow-job to an acid trip in a few minutes. Essentially, the building was hijacked.”
Ponte was supposed to be a revolution in inner-city living (and still is the tallest residential building in the southern hemisphere), introducing the concept of ‘skyscraper homes’ to the architectural lexicon.
“Through the 1970s, this was the crème de la crème of living,” says Luptak, 30, an ex-chartered accountant who now runs youth projects in Ponte. “If you had this address, you were part of the in-crowd.”
But by the 1980s Ponte had been infiltrated by a squalid network of drug dealers, gangsters, pimps and prostitutes. The middle classes fled to the suburbs as the inner core of Ponte’s 173-metre high concrete cylinder turned into an enormous rubbish tip, with trash piled right up to the fifth floor. A common urban legend will tell you that amidst the five stories of refuse and junk lay the bodies of residents who had taken a suicidal leap.
By the late 1990s, people were talking about turning Ponte into a prison and sealing it off from the rest of Johannesburg. But in 2001 a husband-and-wife management team, Elma and Danie Celliers, were called in by the building’s owners to rehabilitate the monolithic structure. In just a decade the Celliers were able to refurbish nearly all of Ponte’s 54 floors, eight lifts and install two kilometres of electrical wiring and sanitary piping.
Following the epic refurb and as optimism about the skyscraper and Johannesburg’s future rises in tandem, South Africa’s young middle class are now beginning to move back into Ponte. Although critics have complained that Ponte is little more than an island of development surrounded by an ocean of urban poverty.
3,000 middle and working class people now live inside Ponte, a sundry mix of young professionals, students and Congolese, Nigerian and Zimbabwean immigrants.
The Guardian report that Luptak’s 120-square-metre home is “pleasantly furnished with porcelain tiles, wooden floors, a granite kitchen top, hanging plants, three chandeliers, a flatscreen Samsung TV with sound system and a framed picture of Jimi Hendrix.”
Hopefully, the building and Johannesburg’s wider renaissance will continue. Because of its dark and recent past, residents of Ponte are much more conscious about the need to maintain both the physical and social structures that keep a building alive.
Luptak runs a social enterprise at Ponte called Dlala Nje, organising cultural, educational and sporting activities for local kids. The enterprise utilises 2,000 square metres of commercial space and a ground floor swimming pool for its activities, as well as operating tours of the building and surrounding neighbourhood aimed at challenging people’s perceptions about Ponte.
“It has a sad story,” says Luptak, “but also a resilient one.”