Back in 1976, principal designer Mannie Feldman, together with Manfred Hermer and Rodney Grosskopf, unveiled the first cylindrical skyscraper in Africa. Ponte City was hailed as a sleek utopian housing complex in the exclusively white, well-to-do inner-city neighborhood of Hillbrow. At the bottom of the building, lucky residents had access to retail stores, restaurants, and a gym. And at one point, the designers even envisioned a ski-slope in the building's massive hollow core.
We all know what happened to Ponte. Whenever people start talking about the idea of utopia, I want to point them in the direction of Ponte, to witness the physical evidence of the rise and fall (and subsequent rise) of the utopian dream. That's the thing about buildings: they stand where you build them, no matter how the world changes around them. And boy, the world has changed.
Gated Communities and Little Tuscany
In only a few decades since Ponte's unveiling, Johannesburg became the home of the "gated community." Utopia was no longer a high rise apartment, but a Tuscan-styled villa with a walled-in postcard garden and a guardhouse.
In a 2004 report presented by the The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) about gated communities in South Africa, the rise of security villages - particularly in the densely urbanised areas of Gauteng - was attributed to the alarming crime rate and a demand for security. "These areas are purpose-built by private developers with security being the most important requirement, although lifestyle requirements are also important."
How we jumped from the need for security to the ubiquitous Tuscan Villa as an architectural answer, one can merely postulate. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Tuscan architecture denotes a sense of community in an increasingly insular society. As we retreat further and further behind our walls and electric fences, we long for a quaint piazza where we can greet the village baker by name, Ciao Mario!
Unfortunately, at the height of the "Little Tuscany" trend, developers weren't including the piazza in the deal. They were squeezing out as many profitable townhouses as they could in the allotted land space, usually situated a forty-minute or longer commute from the city. And poor us, with few options, were buying the house but getting short-changed on the lifestyle.
Which is why it's interesting to see how the golf estate has been designed and started redefining village living in a concrete jungle!
An Ideology Designed Around Happiness
When one looks at Golf Estates such as Blair Atholl and similar offerings in the form of Monaghan Farm and Waterfall Estate, they have all been designed according to an ideology of happiness. It's all about the lifestyle here. The security features are simply a given. If we could define utopia in today's Johannesburg, wouldn't it equate to a living space that provides not only security, but the luxury of the piazza lifestyle too? Estates in Johannesburg that offer luxury living with direct access to a safe and secure outdoors lifestyle. These developments offers the most of it, if not the best there is.
The Steyn City development under the guidance of property developer Giuseppe Plumari and businessman Douw Steyn who both shared a dream to develop a city that feels uniquely South African, based the design of the City within a city on the pedestrianized, community-orientated cities of old. Steyn City puts people (not cars) at the centre of all activities.
Basically, to follow through with the analogy we've presented, Steyn City is designed around the piazza. What you'll get, if you live here, is a heretofore unprecedented quality of life in Johannesburg. All your amenities are conveniently within reach in a secure, upmarket environment. These estates are selling you not only happiness but peace of mind.
Encouraging the Relationship Between a City and its Inhabitants
Everything you want out of life is on your doorstep at estates like Steyn City, Blair Atholl and Monaghan Farm. If you're a resident, you'll have access to acres of green belts and parklands, health clubs, swimming pools, tennis courts, squash courts, a 60km off-road mountain bike track, a running track, a promenade, and an equestrian centre. You get to wake up in the morning and decide whether you want to play a round of golf, or go fishing. All of this is available on the property!
On some of these developments education facilities are and will be made available and Waterfall Estate and others boast their own Medical Centre. And if you're worried about your parents, there are retirement options on hand.
Steyn City however is redefining utopia with the development of the city's piazza (scheduled for completion in 2018) which will include retail outlets, restaurants, boutiques and delicatessens. Steyn City is redefining utopia.
Keeping up with the Joneses
When it comes to status, you'll be able to wear your golf estate address like a badge (but you'll probably be too busy mountain biking or horse riding to care). If you're keen on the idea of opening your door on a Sunday morning and being able to jog around a lake (or two), or letting your kids ride their bikes in the street without the fear of them being hit by a car, you may have found your version of utopia in Johannesburg's secure estates.
Their adoption of a lifestyle-centered approach is a breath of fresh air in a faux-Tuscan-smothered Johannesburg. Here you'll get the house and the lifestyle. And if you ever doubt the limitlessness of the capacity to dream, you need only cast your eyes towards Palazzo Steyn, Douw Steyn's palatial Steyn City residence and its manmade aqueduct. Whether you think it a nouveau-rich eyesore or a visionary expression of imagination, it's there to tell a tale many years from now: one that begins with the definition of utopia.