Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Johannesburg Trying to Follow Miami with Its Art Deco Revival

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Johannesburg Trying to Follow Miami with Its Art Deco Revival

Article excerpt

Art Deco and South Africa are words not normally uttered in the same sentence.

But they should be.

Preservationists here claim that the Johannesburg area has the third-largest number of Art Deco buildings of any city in the world. While both the city and the buildings have suffered neglect, a flurry of new proposals promises to polish the scrolled brass on Johannesburg's Art Deco palaces - its Chrysler Building- and Rockefeller Center-inspired monoliths.

A nonprofit is now planning walking tours to highlight the city's hitherto unappreciated architectural heritage, and new preservation groups and Art Deco societies in the area are hoping to raise awareness of these buildings and save threatened specimens from the wrecking ball.

This comes at a time when Johannesburg is sorely in need of boosters. The Johannesburg Stock exchange moved from the city center to a suburban office complex last month. With that one move, Johannesburg lost more than 100,000 workers. Other large employers are planning to follow.

"Johannesburg has reached its lowest point," says Katherine Cox, a senior planner with the Central Johannesburg Partnership, an urban revitalization nonprofit. "Now we're getting plans in place to bounce back."

The Art Deco buildings of Johannesburg, its suburbs, and the nearby city of Springs are monuments to one of the greatest boom times in South African history - the 1930s. It was during this decade that the price of gold skyrocketed, and lifted this country - and this city founded by gold-miners - out of the Great Depression. The construction boom that ensued saw skyscrapers rivaling those in New York spring from South Africa's dry veld grassland.

"Art Deco in Johannesburg, writes Frederico Fresch in De Arte magazine, "served to create for this dusty - if rapidly expanding - town in one of the farthest reaches of the empire ... a sense of wealth and glamour." The South African architecture expert says the "would-be sophistication" was meant to "counteract the incipient provincialism associated with a colonial city."

Driving through Johannesburg's city center, architect Herbert Prins points out the grandes dames remaining, windows smashed, entrances shuttered, and paint peeling. …

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