Adapting the existing with contemporizing ponte city and tower mains
Johannesburg’s mesmerising skyline is filled with contested icons. In this city with a unique range of needs, like many others it still calls for reliable and safe mixed-use accommodation for all income levels. The potential is by no means lacking; the approaches are what need to catch up. From this course of thought, Adrian Maserow from AMA Architects reflects on the ever-increasing rate of building, and casts a projection of how reduction and readaptation might be the advantageous alternative South Africa needs.
When AMA Architects was tasked with reimagining Egoli’s old ABSA Building, they knew the approach would require a sensitivity to what the city was lacking. The resulting Towers Main project ensured that Joburgers could work, live, shop, exercise, enjoy childcare, dining, and other amenities all while overlooking the city. The process led to the repurposing of a mothballed 30-storey, 1970s concrete structure. In its transformation into a new urban asset, AMA Architects created a public piazza, which introduces a human scale, to a previously vehicle-dominated environment. Local art defines the space, affirming Johannesburg’s rich culture and identity. Further, the public areas draw people into the street and create a focal point for the ABSA precinct. Overall, the development increases the density of residents, workers, and visitors, while reinforcing the sustainability of the area.
Tenants with a range of incomes inhabit Towers Main – one of the key goals that drove the revamp. The units were arranged on a pinwheel plan, preventing dead ends, and creating light-filled corridors. The 15th floor of Towers Main especially contributes to a true mixeduse experience, with a fully open Northeastern side which presents unobstructed views of the city. Full-height windows on the rest of the floor frame these views, highlighting the natural art of the landscape. Continuing in the endeavour for increasing spaciousness, the opening of the floor at the center of the tower changes the atmosphere of the building and creates a unique spatial experience. Finally, Johannesburg’s gorgeous weather and minimal winds mean vertical buildings like this one allow people to thrive, promoting feelings of connection to their surroundings, whether in a dazzling outdoor space 50 metres in the air, or in a ground-level, art-filled plaza. The change was a tangible one that was bound to inspire.
Today, Joburg stands the chance to strike gold again in its revivals to existing skyscrapers. Adam Maserow, a 2023 dieDAS fellow and architectural designer from South Africa, incorporates in his research analytic philosophy to understand design methods, architectural critique, and the effects of adaptive reuse on commemoration. His resulting Contemporizing Ponte City project recognises that the film-famous building finds itself in need of renovation and exemplifies a new way to satisfy the needs of the city’s residents through an approach that should be encouraged over demolition and reconstruction: PAUSE. By adapting existing buildings rather than erecting new ones, Johannesburg has the potential to reinject density, social connection, and economic proximity within its built fabric while maintaining environmental sensitivity.
The original construction of Ponte City was a major geological event in the 1970s. Swathes of terrain were moved and removed; immense amounts of concrete were sunk into and piled above the earth; and the building was left containing roughly 10 thousand tons of embodied carbon in the concrete alone. While this might seem a good reason to rid the city of the building entirely, Ponte’s demolition would only be another harmful environmental act. It’s a given that a city needs its built environment functioning to its full potential across its existence, rather than inevitably reaching an expiration date. Ponte has managed to continuously reinvent itself through eras of South Africa’s Apartheid and post-Apartheid societies. However, while the building has undeniable symbolic power in the city’s skyline, it currently lies half empty.
In discussion with AMA Architects, Adam Maserow embarked on a design and research project to reimagine the Ponte City building to suit the city’s current and future climate. Threading a timber structure through the centre of the cylindrical tower aims to allow for the building to function as a tertiary education hub and alleviate the city’s shortage of education spaces. The timber’s construction logic also allows an expansion of the building from the inside, while adhering to the rules imposed by the building’s heavy, layered shell. Alongside some necessary extraction of Ponte’s 50-year-old robust concrete, the project plans to reprogram the structure with teaching facilities, student housing, and public amenities spaces.
This intimate connection between construction and building use is the type of circularity that already exists in South African cities, as in Durban’s Warwick Junction, a bustling hub that hybridises local public institutions, informal traders’ associations, and central transportation.
The ethos of halting the construction of new buildings and working with existing ones demonstrates the shifts that may occur in the near future, and the ways in which they may act more in line with the informal commercial, cultural, and social activities that have already developed in and around such buildings. In Johannesburg, the people already have a close relationship to their built environment, which revolves around a persistent nurturing of both transience and community. The development of a new adaptive reuse architecture would provide the circularity needed for architecture practices to proceed in meaningful and contextually sensitive way. Such a circularity, a pause in new construction, means the history of iconic constructions are continually rewoven into their ability to provide for the present needs of its locals. Taking inspiration from this opens up the possibilities for predicting future needs, using the power of pause to accelerate sustainable and fruitful projects in a country that needs it now more than ever.