Rooftop Revolution in Jozi

August 8, 2015

Things are looking up for Jozi, quite literally. Smart and creative types are exploiting the potential of the city’s abandoned buildings, breathing new life into them and showing Joburgers there are views to sigh for after all in a city that doesn’t have skyscrapers and too many buildings that reach for the stars.

I loved checking up Jozi’s emerging rooftop culture for the August edition of HIGH LIFE magazine  – the British Airways mag. Yes, I managed a sneak-peek at the urinals in Randlords. Can you believe that the guys slash against clear (well, mostly) glass wall that looks 22-storeys down. The ladies’ are far classier, I have to say, with a very sexy swing to enjoy the view. And yip I had to  stop saying “wow” and “sjoe” with every sentence while I got the tour of  the Michelangelo penthouse in Sandton. The Cupola Suite is the dome at the top of the towers, and you’ll read in my piece that its hosted the likes of Prince Harry and Floyd Mayweather. The price tag is a whopping – R55 000 a night. It’s what you pay for your own private lift to go up one or two levels and to have a TV set bigger than my car. I am jealous of Ade Ashaye’s rooftop fire-pit and his home in a converted Gordon Leith building in downtown Jozi. Imagine the silence of waiting up in the inner city on a Sunday morning, then the contrast of a city jolting to life by 5am on weekdays. My eny of Ade’s “pad” aside, I did get to do the Jacuzzi thing on the deck of the penthouse at The Residence in Houghton, sipping bubbles and star-gazing and yip … I could get used to the lifestyle.

But bubbles and laps of luxury aside, this article is a celebration of the beauty of re-invention, about the vision some people have and the guts and creative genius they pull out of the hat to make it come together.

It’s about taking a fresh look at Joburg, this one with a view from above.

(The text version of the story follows at the bottom of the layouts  – in case your eyes fail you)

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For a city obsessed with what lies beneath the ground, the ‘place of gold’ has been turning its gaze skywards, redefining vertical life and embracing the rooftop revolution. Self-confessed Jozi addict Ufrieda Ho gives the view from the top two thumbs up.

These days if you venture above Joburg street level you’ll find rooftop bars and markets, wedding venues that are almost heavenly, yoga with a view and cinema nights under a canopy of stars. It’s not bad going for this city I call home that has no mountain to speak of, no ocean view, only a few skyscrapers that dot the horizon and a tallest building – the Carlton Centre – that at 50storeys ticks the box for Africa’s most lofty, but comes in at just over a quarter next to the world’s tallest building: Dubai’s Burj Khalifa at 829.8 metres.

I’m under Joburg’s spell it’s true, bewitched by what the city offers on street level from galleries in gardens like the Spaza Art Gallery, places to order good dim sum in downtown Chinatown, getting a fix of coffee brewed by Ethiopians in Little Addis, or just shooting the breeze with transients, transplants and true blood Jozi-ites alike.

But things are looking up literally for Jozi. It’s come with the transformation of the buildings from abandonment and neglect to city Cinderellas. It’s given those like me, who play and stay in the city, 360 degrees of falling in love with Joburg again.

Ade Ashaye is a convert too. The Brit born to Nigerian parents splits his time between Lagos and Joburg working for a payments technology company. When Ashaye is in Joburg, the place he calls home is the penthouse apartment of 87 Commissioner.

87 Commissioner is the re-imagined old Barclays Bank building that was designed by one of South Africa’s premier architects in the 1940s, Gordon Leith. The sandstone beauty boasts art deco features, imposing colonnades and a triple-volume entrance hall.

Ashaye bought his first apartment in the downtown building in 2007 but by 2011 he’d upgraded, buying the split level penthouse apartment on the ninth and tenth floors and the rooftop terrace.

‘It’s a great space; I had lived in Sandton and in Morningside before, but it can be a bit of a bubble.

‘I grew up in North London where it’s never quiet and downtown Joburg has that same energy and the old buildings here have character. At the same time my lifestyle hasn’t changed – there’s everything I need here in the inner city now and many more in my circle of friends are choosing to live downtown,” says Ashaye.

It helps that his Joburg home includes a fire-pit on the roof. It’s perfect for braaiing, perfect for warming cold nights and by day, the perfect spot to appreciate one of his favourite things about Joburg: the razor-sharp blue of a winter Highveld sky, he says.

It wasn’t always like this; downtown Joburg by the late 1990s was a write-off. The exodus of big business added to the sense of doom and decay. The terribly swanky Carlton Hotel closed its doors after 25 years in 1998 and by 2000 the Johannesburg Stock Exchange relocated to Sandton. The process of reclaiming hijacked and abandoned buildings in the early part of the naughties were hit and miss and stop-start at best.

But by the late 2000s new developers were ready to get their feet wet. Lessons had been learnt, city management had caught up to the potential of urban regeneration and Africa’s first-ever football World Cup was a goal opportunity not to be missed. Up came boutique hotels like Faircity Mapungubwe hotel apartments and the Reef Hotel. Chief among their charms were the promise of a CBD experience and rooftop venues for a new kind of partying, chilling or just for watching inner-city sunsets.

But arguably the venue view with the “most-est” is at the western fringe of the inner-city in Braamfontein. It’s 22-storeys up and it’s a view that belongs to Randlords.

‘People’s reactions to the view are always the same – they’re wowed by what they see,’ says Tatiana Prihodova, marketing manager for Randlords.

She says there’s something about a building being at the city’s core but also separated from the chaos and commotion by being 22 storeys up. Prihodova is right. Everything’s a little quieter, slower from up here. Even the sun’s autumn rays seem to reach me lazily before extending below to the plaits of railway tracks running under the arching spectacle of the Nelson Mandela Bridge that dominate Randlord’s view.

‘We have used the cityscape to our advantage and we offer a true 360° view of Joburg,’ says Prihodova. It makes the exclusive venue that got its start in late 2010 a favourite for corporate functions, public events, weddings, birthdays and photo and TV shoots. A visit here though is not complete without a sneak peek (if you’re a girl) of the guys’ loos. The glassed urinals look all the way down to street level, making these “must-wee” toilets.

Along with the exclusive venues of Braamfontein is the hipster market of Neighbourgoods. The rooftop terrace throbs with people on Saturdays sipping artisanal beer or quaffing champagne with shucked oysters. In the same block there’s also The Beach, up on the roof of 68 Juta Street. In summer expect white sand, beach umbrellas and ice-cold drinks all a hundred miles from any lapping waves.

If Braamfontein flies the flag of the rooftop revolution from the west of the city, it’s Maboneng that reaches equal heights in the east. Like Braamfontein, Maboneng, which is in Jeppestown, rose from the ashes of urban decay with the calculated mad genius of private developers who’ve dared invest in broken parts of the inner-city.

Maboneng is framed by the M2 motorway on the one end and the suburban sprawl of Johannesburg East on the other end; vertically though the boundaries are elastic.

Here there are yoga classes on the deck of the rooftop eco-urban café The Living Room. Even the gardens here are vertical – as plants grow up against the walls and inverted pot plants dangle from the roof.  On Sunday afternoons it’s salsa at the Canteen dancing get patrons sashaying their hips and losing their inhibitions. Across the road is Poolside – think pool party on a rooftop as DJs work the mixing decks and bartenders mix the cocktails. The precinct is also home to the independent cinema, The Bioscope. While the cinema has operated on street level for about the past six years, last year it launched open-air cinema nights, which have included cinema on rooftop venues.

Russell Grant, co-owner of The Bioscope, says: ‘Even back in 2009 when we started we had the idea of outdoor screenings and the idea of rooftop screenings is about utilising previously neglected industrial spaces in the city.’ The outdoor movie nights are often themed. It’s means getting creative about locations. A screening of college vacation flick Spring Break found its perfect location on the rooftop of The Beach in Braamfontein.

‘We try to mix it up and not to do the same thing every time but being outdoors and being on a rooftop is always about celebrating our unique Jozi skyline – whatever angle you look at it from, it’s a view that never gets old,’ says Grant.

The view he’s talking about from the vantage point of the East includes the cylindrical statement of Ponte Tower, the Hillbrow Tower, Brixton’s Sentech Tower and the Ellis Park stadium dome.

Beyond this skyline lies the north, but in-between are excellent reasons to pause to take in the treasures of suburbs that creep up alongside the ridges of the city. Observatory ridge at 1808 metres is Johannesburg highest point. It’s boasts a Herbert Baker built meteorological observatory that turns 110 this year. Hopefully after years of being closed it will reopen for public night tours by the end of the year.

All things heritage are the domain of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation that regularly conducts tours that take in historic hilltop mansions. These lofty panoramas from Parktown Ridge mansions like Northwards and Villa Arcadia once enchanted the mining elite of Johannesburg’s heady gold rush days.

In Houghton there’s the Munro Drive viewpoint and boutique hotels that disappear like hidden treasures into the lush suburbs. One of these is The Residence. Entrance to the secluded penthouse stretches out from an oversized private deck with a view of the minarets of the Houghton Masjid, Rosebank in the distance and Jacaranda blooms that add a lilac blush to the vista.

Yes, there’s something about being in a Jacuzzi, sipping bubbly with the night view an exquisite blur of treetops and stars. I fell asleep tracing the path of the Southern Cross, courtesy of the bedroom ceiling that has a built-in skylight with a retractable cover.

The Residence is the opposite of flash and swag, but what the five-star establishment shows in restraint it makes up with an unexpected view and an offering of a discreet rooftop bar and rooftop spa located east of the penthouse.

General manager Sanet van der Westhuizen says they’ve hosted dignitaries, diplomats and ordinary folk ‘who want the exclusivity but also want it to feel like they’re in a home away from home – just a little bit more special. We are a hidden gem; many people don’t even know we’re here or that we have this view,’ she says.

Neighbouring Houghton is Norwood where the main drag of Grant Avenue has since the end of last year welcomed The Factory on Grant that includes a rooftop chill spot for this burgeoning art hub.

Developer Craig McLeary says they were restricted by only being able to be three storeys high when they set out to rescue the building he describes as one of the worst on the street before it was reclaimed. ‘I happened to climb up onto the roof of the neighbouring building while we were building and realised we could use the roof space,’ says McLeary.

What they have now is a rooftop for sundowners, for unwinding and relaxing. The view here is of the sun fading behind the eastern horizon – a perfect way to mark off the end of the day. The vibe at The Factory, McLeary says, is deliberately laid back, not party or high volume. “We’ve had jazz afternoons on the rooftop before but they wrap up before the neighbours start to complain,” he says.

It’s true; Joburg is a place of contrast, contradiction even. And up north in Sandton things are unapologetically flash. This is the place that puts the ‘up’ in upmarket and with apartment living becoming all the rage in about the last five to eight years, apartments here have sold for record sums. The penthouse in Morningside’s The Regent fetched a whopping R60 million in 2013 according to Business Day newspaper. When the Legacy Group’s The Leonardo comes onto the market, it will be Sandton’s tallest building at 42 storeys. It will also fetch top dollar with price tags of R180 million per apartment, according to Financial Mail reports from 2014.

The Legacy group also own the Da Vinci and Michelangelo Towers in Sandton. Inside the 11th floor Da Vinci penthouses, guest relations manager Talita Bos shows off swish apartments that make it clear what extra zeros can buy.

When I step through the doors I watch where my handbag swings and I have to physically return my dropped bottom jaw to its normal position and try to stop saying ‘wow’ every step I take.  There are indoor private elevators, TVs wider than my car, butler quarters, display kitchens to show off your teppanyaki and hotpot skills and, of course floor to ceiling windows and decks that make everything about the views.

“Apartment living has really taken off. The lock up and go environment appeals to a lot of people, so does the investment potential of these units and the convenience of being in the heart of Sandton,” says Bos.

But it’s the penthouse in the Michelangelo Towers – the Cupola, that is Sandton’s crowning glory. All the obligatory touches are here – lifts to transport guests between the split levels, two kitchen areas, boardroom with its own entrance, gym, decks, with private pool and all you might expect for R55 000 a night.

I don’t get to ring for a butler in white gloves (truly!) or call a top-level meeting and ask guests to use the private entrance to my boardroom. But it’s pretty cool to know that up here you are queen of the castle, literally on top of the world.

But what really steals the show is of course, the view. I can’t get enough of the circumferential horizon the Cupola delivers. It’s what would have greeted the likes of Sepp Blatter, Prince Harry and Floyd Mayweather when they chose the Michelangelo as their choice of Jozi accommodation.

It’s a view that stretches out in every direction, as far my eyes can make out. These forever vistas are wide open, like the story of urban Jozi life – a narrative full of promise, being told one rising storey at a time. – UFRIEDA HO

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