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New kids on an old block | The bounty of Jo’burg | Vive le revamp!

Brainy and cheeky. Witty and inventive. Always smoking hot.

In Johannesburg the past becomes the present in architecture, design and degustation…

If Jo’burg had a mantra right now it would be “restore, recycle, revamp”. The City of Gold, settled in 1886, is a shapeshifter whose centre doesn’t always hold.

Epitomising the urban renewal push is Victoria Yards, in Lorentzville, a very cool enclave reimagined by developer Brian Green, of Group 44, a former war cameraman and journalist.

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Chimney chic at artists enclave, Victoria Yards, a former laundry

Its industrial aesthetic – all those fabulous chimneys, exposed bricks and scrap metal styling up – comes courtesy of its former life as first a serious laundry dating to 1913, servicing the mining and cotton nappy businesses, and then a chop shop, where hot cars were stripped of their parts.

Now reinvented as a playground for artists and artisans, designers, brewers and market gardeners, it’s a sanctuary of studios and shops selling traditional arts and crafts (Art of the Continent), wall, floor and ceiling lights made from an array of recycled objets (Cooke & Wench), glass art (Smelt Glass Studio), and bespoke jeans (Tshepo the JeanMaker).

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Traditional beading at Art of the Continent

Artist Roger Ballen has a studio for his dark arts; James Delaney’s purple ostrich sculpture grazes on a lawn used for concerts. Impi Brewing Co’s interior picks up the broader exposed brick and refashioned metals theme, with colourful milk crates forming a kooky bar support, while its skylight features the original 40,000-litre water tank, albeit canary yellow.

It’s all wonderfully symbiotic. Flourishing gardens of herbs and vegetables with marigold and lavender are cultivated for sale at a market on the first Sunday of the month; there are ponds with fish whose waste fertilises the gardens. There are nest boxes for bats who take care of the insects, and owls who keep any mice and rats under control.

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To market, to market: flowers, herbs and vegetables

Nando has its HQ over the road, so you know the area has legs and a customer base.

While the City of Johannesburg is working on the Johannesburg Strategic Infrastructure Platform which aims to increase residential densities in the more salubrious Sandton and Rosebank, some Jo’burgers pine for the glory days of Downtown.

One is the lanky Brian Kent McKechnie, a passionate advocate for urban regeneration via cultural heritage. An associate architect with Activate Architecture, he’s the go-to guy for insider knowledge and still leads the odd tour.

So we take a walk on the wild side with him Downtown, an area you might call “transitional”, with an informal economy, and footpaths lined with street vendors selling whatever they can to keep food on the table.

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Manners Mansion is being restored to its Art Deco glory days

Downtown has a surprising number of Art Deco buildings. Undergoing restoration are the latte-coloured terrazzo-fronted Manners Mansion and, opposite, Anstey’s, at 20 floors once the tallest building in Africa. With its studios on the lower levels and 150 square metre apartments higher up, Anstey’s attracts artists, hipsters and young professionals in the same way the Chelsea once did in New York. Word has it that artist William Kentridge recently tried to buy a space there.

Other beautiful buildings in the ‘hood that have undergone primping and preening as funds have allowed include Rissik Street Post Office (1897), the Johannesburg City Hall (1914, today the Gauteng Legislature), and the New York-style Barbican Building (1931).

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The New York-style Barbican Building, completed in 1931

The 50-storey Carlton Centre, build by US architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, has been, since its opening in 1973, the tallest building in Africa. There’s an observation deck on the top floor, from which to soak up the city’s architectural mash-up.

When browsing Main Street, stop by the Anglo American building (1945) and look for Herman Wald’s Impala Fountain, a bronze herd of antelope leaping gracefully out the front.

In Fox Street, circumnavigate the three-dimensional sculpture by Marco Cianfanelli of Nelson Mandela shadow boxing (after a 1953 photo by Bob Gosani).

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Marco Cianfanelli’s sculpture of the shadow-boxing Mandela

Mandela liked the egalitarian nature of boxing. He said, “In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant. When you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking of his colour or social status.”

It’s opposite Chancellor House where a green sign identifies the office of Mandela and Oliver Tambo, the first black law firm in the city. Boxing would prepare Mandela for battle in the courts.

Things don’t get more heritage than James Findlay Collectable Books and Antique Maps, a subterranean bookshop housed in the very colonial Rand Club (in its third incarnation, dating from 1904).

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Entrance to the members-only Rand Club

Findlay specialises in antique paper, collectable books, hand-coloured botanical prints, naval paraphernalia, Victorian parlour posters, and rare and unusual documents like share certificates (he owns 75, including an 1889 hand-rolled specimen decorated with 24-carat rolled gold).

There are artworks signed by Vladimir Tretchikoff, whose painting Chinese Girl, better known as The Green Lady, is one of the best-selling art prints of the 20th century.

Findlay is using new technology to recycle his old goods: on he auctions his treasured antiques every five weeks.

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James Findlay puts antiquities on the map

Heritage can make you hungry. We eat at Urbanologi (1 Fox Street), which in 2017 won an award for the best designed restaurant and bar in Africa and the Middle East.

A recycled space? You bet! It started life as a gold claim, became workshops and stores, and when the current owners took possession of the building kept its old steel structure (and an abandoned safe). It now shares the space with a brewery, Mad Giant.

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Rose gelato with lavender crumble at Urbanologi

This month executive chef Jack Coetzee launched Project 150, sourcing produce from farmers within a 150km radius. You’d go back for the tempura shitake mushrooms and the pretty creation that is rose gelato and lavender crumble atop little pylons of rhubarb.

Excess All Areas visited Johannesburg enroute to the new Tengile River Lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. To plan an andBeyond luxury safari, contact Sydney Africa specialists Jones & Turner Travel Associates, 1800 236 667; email:; or visit:









Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab.

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Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.