Sandton, GP may be the embodiment of all things new and glitzy, but its history predates its current status as Africa’s richest square mile in the country’s wealthiest province, and the nerve centre of South African financial affairs.
Lonehill, for example, boasts the remains of an Iron Age iron smelter, and Setswana and Sesotho groups lived in the area before the Voortrekkers took it to farm in the 1800s. The Rivonia Trial refers to the site Lilliesleaf (in Rivonia), where some of the famous triallists were captured in 1963.
By the 1980s, though, suburban Sandton was shedding its “mink and manure” coat and starting to emerge as a built-up hub with the construction of Sandton City (in 1974), a shopping centre that retains the quintessential Sandton identity to this day.
Almost everything else has changed in Sandton since the 1980s. Just about the entire CBD of Johannesburg packed up and headed north, en masse, in the late 1990s, most significantly the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 2000. Today, this nine-storey building has pride of place on the corner of Maude Street and Gwen Lane.
The Sandton skyline is ever-evolving, and, in the competitive spirit of the area, there was excitement when the Leonardo skyscraper (designed by Co-Arc architects) “surpassed the Michaelangelo Towers (140m) and then the Sandton City spire (141m) to become the tallest building in Sandton,” according to James Ball of The Heritage Portal. And it’s still going. Originally planned for 150m, the online forum Skyscrapercity’s enthusiasts estimate the luxurious mixed-use building’s expected height at 227m, though owners Legacy are virtually silent on the matter. It may exceed the Carlton Centre’s 223m and attain the trophy of being the highest building in Africa.
The Leonardo skyscraper “surpassed the Michaelangelo Towers (140m) and then the Sandton City spire (141m) to become the tallest building in Sandton.”
“Sandton is a highly regulated space – it’s highly regulated by capital!” quips Thireshen Govender, architect, urbanist, and UJ lecturer of the design studio Urban Works. “People fight in Sandton for control of their image, space, and their corporate identity. The skyline has become a commodity – with competition to be the highest, tallest, flashiest. In this battle of showmanship, we can forget that buildings need to serve people. In Sandton, powerful players feel the need to demonstrate corporate strength and architecture plays an important role in displaying that confidence.”
Boogertman architects describe their creation, the Discovery building, accurately: “Like a spaceship set to sail, the building’s sensual shape and form create a monumental statement that gives the building a unique visual signature.”
The World Green Building Council says green buildings preserve natural resources by using energy, water and other resources efficiently; use renewable energy such as solar power; reduce waste and pollution and promote recycling; and, use non-toxic and sustainable building materials. The R3-billion Discovery building and Sasol’s new R2-billion home “are two of the largest green buildings developments in Africa,” says Elaine Jack, the city improvement district manager of the Sandton Central Management District. “They add to Sandton’s ever-growing list of landmark green buildings.”
Paragon Group Architects designed the iconic Norton Rose Towers and the Sasol building (and many others). Of the glass and aluminium towers of Norton Rose, the company’s media manager Hugh Fraser says, “The project employed cutting-edge glass technology that had not been used in South Africa before. The north and south facades are wrapped in … seemingly random planes of clear, dark grey and translucent glass. The east and west facades eliminate direct sunlight with sculptural hand-formed aluminium boxes.”
Sasol in Katherine Street is as outré. Fraser says Paragon pushed boundaries in this design as well as in its environmental efforts. The building has a 5-star green star rating. “The Sasol corporate office incorporates high-performance glazing; extensive landscaping and park-scapes; a vast atrium with large skylights to allow for natural lighting; water recycling measures; and extensive insulation.”
“Sasol is very committed to supporting birdlife in South Africa and we have incorporated a mini-ecosystem that will encourage birdlife, butterflies and frogs,” explains architect Tershia Habbitts.
The skyline has become a commodity – with competition to be the highest, tallest, flashiest.
In 2015 Sandton hosted an EcoMobility Festival, which looked at whether Sandton could become a car-free zone, and last year Mayor Herman Mashaba launched a Sandton transport project aimed at prioritising public transport, bicycles and foot traffic.
“You cannot build more roads, you must look at alternatives to cars,” agrees Elaine Jack. “There are 100 000 cars a day moving in and out of Sandton, and numbers are growing. We need better walkways, a bridge from Alex for safe walking, we need dedicated cycle lanes, with a critical mass of cyclists so people own the lanes.”
Govender says there is an orientation towards market forces and less to human experiences in Sandton: “For instance, the lobby is traditionally the grand front door that welcomes the visitor. In Sandton, my ‘lobby’ is my access boom gate – I am isolated and mechanised. The lobby is redundant. Nobody walks off the street into a lobby in Sandton. In that sense, Sandton suffers from its own success: in single-owner, single-use buildings, when the office closes and the workers go home, there is no other function for that building."
Brendan Copestake of Parts & Labour, a studio that works in specialised art project management, says more can be done for Sandton to become friendly to pedestrians and residents. “In many European cities, the ground floor is reserved for retail space, with residential and commercial use higher up,” he says. “But many buildings in Sandton are still a private space, where any existing retail space is ‘for employees’, and not open to the passing foot traffic."
While many Sandton buildings are so flashy they qualify as works of art in and of themselves (the Marc building’s golden oval looks like it would fit on a perfume shelf at the duty-free shop), in other parts of the CBD, there are separately commissioned pieces of art.
Parts & Labour was commissioned by property developer Abland for work in the Alice Lane precinct. Lorenzo Nassimbeni created the staircase mural Colourway, constructed from tiles applied to the risers of the stairs.
Marco Cianfanelli installed the Synapse II sculpture. “Gateway sculptures are often intended to create urban markers that help people navigate public spaces – as in, ‘Meet me at the big sculpture’,” says Copestake.
The most unusual feature of the Sandton skyline? A giant, anchored, 120m hot air balloon in Mushroom Farm park, which really was once a mushroom farm owned by Dr Charles Kark, according to The Heritage Portal.
Welcome to our unique Jozi, the cowboy town we love, and love to hate, where monuments to achievement co-exist with beautification efforts, creative energy, attempts at regulation, good intentions and a measure of self-satisfaction. Out of this hodge-podge, will order emerge? Or is order itself overrated? You decide.
Gateway sculptures are often intended to create urban markers that help people navigate public spaces – as in, ‘Meet me at the big sculpture.’
7 spots to view the Sandton skyline from
Suggestions by James Ball at The Heritage Portal:
1. St Stithians School (above the dam)
2. Bryanston Shopping Centre
3. Innisfree Park
4 Delta Park
5 Kallenbach Drive
6 Katy’s Palace Bar in Kramerview
7 From one of the high-rise buildings in Sandton itself