Subotzky and Waterhouse’s “Ponte City”

Bronwyn Law-Viljoen investigates the iconic yet segregatory nature of the building that Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015 winners Subotzky and Waterhouse dissect in their publication Ponte City (Steidl, 2014).


Installation view, Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse, Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015 at The Photographers’ Gallery. Image: Kate Elliott

Faced with the totality of the city … faced with a configuration of places imposed by urban planning, faced with the social unevenness inside urban space, the dweller always succeeds in creating places of withdrawal, itineraries for his or her use and pleasure … individual marks that the dweller alone inscribes on urban space.

Pierre Mayol [1]

Architecture strengthens the experience of the vertical dimensions of the earth. At the same time as making us aware of the depth of the earth, it makes us dream of levitation and flight.

Juhani Pallasmaa [2]

Gestures are the true archives of the city.

Michel de Certeau and Luce Giard [3]

The Johannesburg skyline, as it is often represented on posters or souvenir tee-shirts, is a broken-toothed horizon out of which thrust several distinct highrises. Two of these stand out from the rest: the needle-thin Hillbrow tower and, not far from it, in graphic counterpoint, the circular apartment block known as Ponte City. In these silhouetted representations, however, such lurid sights as the red band of electrified advertising at the very top of Ponte, lit up like the burning end of a cigarette, are missing. Absent also are any clues as to the nature of human life that this skyline encompasses or dwarfs. What, one might ask, is the quality of lived experience inside, beneath, around the buildings of this horizon? What happens, for instance, inside a fifty-four-storey circular residential tower like Ponte? What histories does it embody, or seek to transcend? What body politic does it represent or overlook?

In his essay, The Eyes of the Skin, the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa argues that architecture—good architecture—understands and expresses its profound relationship to the human body. He says that, certainly, buildings grow out of constructions of the social but that habitable, humane buildings also grow out of and mimic visceral responses—at the level of organs, skin, limbs—to the environments that hold them. The cylinder of Ponte, thrusting up from one of Johannesburg’s several geological ridges, suggests solidity and permanence, but also flight, vision, the far-seeing eye, perhaps even power, dominance, and a defiance of gravity. But to understand properly its place in the urban fabric we must know what it suggests about life lived at the level of the bodily, about who goes in, who goes out, how the penthouse dweller ascends to her roost, how neighbours encounter each other, how light reaches bedrooms, where furniture can be placed, what doors must be passed, what vistas are looked at from windows, who descends to the basement, where children play, how intruders are kept out, how cleaners are let in, where laundry is done, how garbage is disposed of and by whom. We must know, in other words, the relationship of the ideal to the prosaic—the ordinary movements of bodies in time and space—in order to have some sense of what this building signifies.

Architecturally, Ponte, grounded on a base of solid rock, looks outwards, panoramically, in a three-sixty-degree arc, its windows blinking at night as it takes in every economic and demographic zone of the city. But it is also structurally enclosed: panoptical but supporting nothing in its middle except a vertiginous hollow core that plummets down into the bedrock. The apartments rise around this empty centre in a repetitive symmetry of radiating segments in the circular structure. It has siblings elsewhere in the world—the twin cylinders of the slightly older Marina City in Chicago are perhaps the most famous—so it is not unique. What may be unusual about Ponte, however, is its rise and fall and rise again in the context of a city embedded in colonialism and apartheid but transforming rapidly in the face of new narratives of inclusion, migration and boom (and concomitant exclusion, xenophobia and recession). Also distinctive is the extent to which Ponte embodies a human desire to look out and up, to dream of flight, as Pallasmaa suggests, at the same time as it denies, even threatens, the bodily.

But whether hubristic, visionary or downright hostile as an architectural structure, Ponte is inhabited. Necessity, tenacity and the hungry demands of a city always in search of real estate, keep Ponte in the game.


Installation view, Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse, Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015 at The Photographers’ Gallery. Image: Kate Elliott

In many ways, Ponte is Johannesburg, though it is only a third of the city’s age. In a metropole that has come to be scrutinised by economists, planners, architects and historians because it exemplifies, in a myriad ways, the twenty-first century urban experience, Ponte serves as a kind of metropolitan synecdoche. It rose up out of a fractured urban space with a promise of glamour and the high life for young (white) urbanites but fell far short of fulfilling its seventies ideal. Its failure to live up to the vision of its first developer has been interpreted as capitalist hubris, as a failure to read the signs of a rapidly changing city, or more mundanely, as a fatal misreading of that first principle of real-estate: location, location, location. Whatever the reasons, Ponte has pulled itself together several times over, becoming different things to different people in the four decades of its existence. Now, though it recalls the capitalist-segregationist dream-nightmare of the apartheid regime, it also conveys a very different urban mythology, which is tied to migrancy, to scrapping it out in an aggressive metropole, to risk-taking, but also to the everyday, the mundane bits and fragments that make up the city-dweller’s life.

All of this makes Ponte both an excellent and a treacherous photographic subject—treacherous, that is, for the photographer who wants to understand his or her own practice of image-making in relation to a complex social matrix. Ponte is visually impressive: hollow, towering, grey and laconic against a vast city sky, a colourful mosaic of curtained windows up close. And it is peopled, and thus full of enticing stories, conflicting versions of urban life and messy human relationships. How then, in the scope of a single body of work, might one avoid the pitfalls of a photographic shorthand in which Ponte, by virtue of its sheer brute size and iconic stature, simply stands for something? Or, on the other hand, the no less problematic voyeurism of looking at the private lives of those who become subjects simply because they happen to live in the building one is interested in?

When they began to imagine the shape and extent of their project Ponte City, way back in 2008, no doubt Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse quickly understood what they were undertaking. They were, like many other photographers, tempted by the bravura modernism of the tower itself, but also drawn to the layering of human and historical narratives inside and around it. Both of these would present exhilarating technical, logistic, aesthetic and ethical challenges. They would have seen, very early on, that the many parts could not be summed up in a photograph—or even many photographs—of the whole tower, no matter how dramatic that photograph or how iconic the building in the photograph. Indeed its iconic stature would have to be carefully deconstructed, if not entirely discarded, and any documentary impulse would need to be interrogated as it was being acted upon.

Over the course of the project and well in advance of the publication of the book, Subotzky and Waterhouse did indeed show parts of the whole. In one studio exhibition they displayed three large lightboxes showing riveting ‘composites’ of doors, windows and television screens. The floor-to-ceiling pieces of this installation conveyed the massiveness of Ponte but also the discrete sensibilities of the hundreds of tenants of the building, their idiosyncratic markers of domesticity. In other, larger, exhibitions, the drama of the hollow core and the soaring height of the building took precedence over smaller stories of home and dwelling.

05_Press Image l DBPP15 l Subotzky & Waterhouse l Doors

Doors, Ponte City, 2008-2010  ©Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse

But though they exhibited various pieces of the puzzle, perhaps under pressure from the market or their agents to show work in progress, but also as a way of figuring out what, precisely, they were up to, Waterhouse and Subotzky worked painstakingly towards the book as the most complete way to present Ponte, to think through the meaning of this important Johannesburg building. What they grappled with, along with their editor Ivan Vladislavić, their publisher and the various writers drawn into the conversation, was how best to give the project the necessary coherence of an artwork at the same time as convey the multifariousness of an inhabited building and the stop-start trajectory of that building’s history. How could a single book-object cohere as a work of literary and visual art while also suggesting the piecemeal, the untidy, the real life—concrete and organic—of a single building?


Image courtesy Steidl, 2014.

I have used the term ‘book-object’ to describe Ponte City because, housed in a plain, stapled cardboard box, this is really eighteen books: a large photobook with a minimalist blue-and-black cloth cover, and, nesting beneath it in a rectangular cavity, seventeen saddle-stitched booklets. These form a kind of visual-textual puzzle: the cover of each is a section of one of the photographs in the bigger book, and each reflects on or interprets Ponte differently. If you follow the editorial signposts, you’ll flip through the photobook, and as you get to the pages with the ‘missing pieces,’ reach for the right booklet and read downward into the subterranean layers beneath Ponte, or upward through its hollow core. You’ll gaze voyeuristically into the apartments, or rifle through press clippings, tracing Ponte’s history from its construction in 1975, to its middle-class hipsterism, to its status as urban eyesore, to the post-apartheid ambitions developers had for it. You’ll read the ‘smaller’ histories—gleaned from the ephemera gathered by the photographers from vacated apartments into a bitty, pop archive—about migration, bureaucracy, hope, failure and the banal texture of daily life. These are presented textually and visually as quasi-fictions, fictions, and documentary fragments, lying between the full-bleed images—some by the photographers, some found—in the photobook.

For this reader, two important qualities of the visual work that makes up Ponte City point both to a way of working—though I imagine that this was complicated in the extreme—and to a working-out of the various physical and philosophical challenges of the project. These qualities are also explored, directly or obliquely, by the writers of the texts in the booklets.

02_Press Image l DBPP15 l Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse l Looking up the Core

Untitled #1, Ponte City Johannesburg, from the series Ponte City, 2008 © Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse

The first of these qualities is repetition. This strikes one immediately upon seeing the composite images of television screens, windows and doors already mentioned. In order to shoot in this way, to capture every front door and every tv, the sheer dogged repeating of a set of necessary tasks, actions and conversations would have been required. Talk, set up, shoot, walk. Talk, set up, shoot, walk. Edit, edit, edit. And so on. Imperceptibly, this unavoidable working process would begin to mimic the patterns of daily living in the apartment block, the mundane acts required to sustain a reasonably ordered and secure life of working, preparing meals, sleeping, commuting. Each repetition, however—of a photographic task, of a daily ‘ritual’—would contain within it the possibility of difference because no sequence of actions, however closely they were repeated, could be identical to another; no daily task could be a verbatim reenactment of itself. Repetition, then, would unexpectedly become one way of negotiating the ethical questions of this project. The number of repetitions required would allow the ostensible ‘authors’ to revisit, daily, perhaps even hourly, the question of the singularity of their subjects. Each request to shoot, each granting of permission by the subject, each set up, no matter how similar to the preceding set up, would introduce minute variations. Similarly, the viewer, seeing this representation of repetition, begins to look not at what makes each door, each screen, the same, but what makes them, if only marginally and mundanely, different from each other. Once one notices these differences, looking for others becomes a minor compulsion.

The second quality is less concrete—less obvious—than the first, and I am hard pressed to name it precisely, but it has to do with the relationship of surface to depth. This is not a simple, binary relationship but rather something like the ‘rhizomatic’ network described by the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari in their monumental work A Thousand Plateaus. So, for example, a photograph of the towering edifice of Ponte is preceded and followed by other kinds of images—taken and found—that belie the solidity, the concreteness, the ‘soaringness’ that we are naturally seduced by in some of the images. In this constant reference to the ‘rhizomatic’—the little ‘roots’ of lives represented by lost documents, lace curtains, abandoned furniture and clothing, family photographs, marks on walls, light bulbs, worn carpets—we are drawn away from the monumental structure of Ponte, and the implied and imposed grand narratives of history it embodies, to dwell on particularity. The viewer-reader begins to consider the particular not apart from the grandiose and the ideological, but within it, beneath it, as a network of relations that is always in tension with the big-picture view of the world.

It would seem to me, then, that this project became a way not so much to represent a building as to point to and explore the networks of actions and relationships that are a function of any urban environ. Ponte is an instance of this, a partially cordoned off—therefore manageable—instantiation of a city microcosm. Waterhouse, Subotzky and their collaborators have illustrated, through this extraordinarily layered book project, that an iconic building represents a zeitgeist, but that its hyperbole is tempered by the idiosyncratic gestures of those who occupy it. Like the authors of Ponte City, we must pay attention to both.

 – Bronwyn Law-Viljoen



[1] Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and Senses. John Wiley and Sons, 2005, p. 67.

 [2]+ [3] Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard and Pierre Mayol, The Practice of Everyday Life, Living and Cooking, Volume Two. University of Minnesota Press, 1998, pp. 10 and 141

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