As one travels towards Johannesburg, the landscape gradually transforms and the dusty haze along the horizon morphs into an elegant collection of lithe mid-century skyscrapers. The skyline comes into focus and the eye is drawn to the Standard Bank, Marble Towers, Carlton Centre and Southern Life buildings. Even the most diehard Joburg pessimist can’t deny the allure of the red neon billboard atop Ponte City, an image indelibly branded into the local collective subconscious.

Joburg’s claim to being a "world-class African city" is all too familiar. Perhaps city officials believe that repeating the slogan across scores of incorrect rates accounts, danger-tape cordoning plagues of potholes or onto glowing billboards while the streetlights don’t shine will magically grant our world-class ambitions.

The fact is that a city with no opera, no functional civic squares or famous parks, no properly maintained art gallery or grand pedestrian boulevard is millennia away from the lofty slogan.

The "world-class African city" is yesterday’s fake news. The real Johannesburg is gritty and aspirational, a city with chutzpah, a world-class upstart.

At 132 years old, we’re only just entering adolescence in world-city terms. Yes, we’re at that awkward life stage, complete with unpredictable mood swings, schizophrenic fashion sense and pimples. A difficult time of transition, but also the dawn of self-awareness and the realisation of uncharted possibility.

Barbican Building. Picture: KATHERINE MUICK-MEREE
Barbican Building. Picture: KATHERINE MUICK-MEREE

Joburg’s world-class dementia is nothing new. From the very beginning this city was determined to punch above its weight. The first colonial Reserve Bank outside London was erected at the corner of Fox and Simmonds streets, barely 30 years after pioneering prospectors pitched their canvas tents on the dusty Highveld (decades before such banks were established in India, Canada or Australia). Today this grand neoclassical structure, panelled in luxurious Italian marble and crowned with a Pantheon-like oculus, bears testament to Johannesburg’s importance as an economic powerhouse at the beginning of the 20th century.

The city founders’ self-assured neoclassical reticence was short-lived. By the 1930s Johannesburg was gripped by an all-American obsession — the quest for impossible, sky-scraping, neck-breaking, undeniably domineering height. The city boomed — Africa’s very own Little New York.

The Barbican Building, fondly known as Johannesburg’s first skyscraper, is at the corner of President and Rissik streets. The building reaches 11 floors above the pavement. Six Art Deco-inspired upper levels, complete with ornate columns and three protruding corner turrets, perch above a five-storey base of decidedly more Edwardian persuasion. When it was completed in 1929, gawkers travelled from the outmost reaches of the colony to marvel at the Barbican and its skyscraping magnificence.

Another early skyscraper, Astor Mansions, brought modernisation and Americanisation to downtown Johannesburg — its distinctive roof spires mimic the stainless-steel pinnacles atop New York’s Chrysler Building. Even the name "Astor Mansions", emblazoned above the 11th floor, aspired to the glamour of the Big Apple’s Waldorf Astoria, and to the appeal of all things American. Tucked away on the corner of Jeppe and Von Brandis streets, Astor is a reminder of an optimistic 1930s city.

The 20-storey Ansteys Building, designed for the Norman Anstey and Co department store in 1936, easily snatched the title of tallest modern structure in Africa. The ziggurat-shaped skyscraper, in the heart of the old downtown retail district, remains one of SA’s most recognised Art Deco monuments. To 1930s Joburgers, Ansteys must have seemed impossibly tall — an aspirational skyscraping form soaring above the bustling city, visible right across town. The building tapers dramatically as it shoots skywards, terminating in a mast designed for docking airships.

Carlton Centre, Johannesburg. Picture: MUNTU VILAKAZI
Carlton Centre, Johannesburg. Picture: MUNTU VILAKAZI

The shock of war in 1939, along with the necessity of global recovery through the 1950s, dulled the roaring expansion of preceding decades, grinding Johannesburg’s sky-scraping aspirations to a reality-driven halt. Not until the late 1960s did sufficient confidence once again switch the focus to the expansive blue Highveld skies above.

The stratospheric 1970s

Johannesburg’s golden aspirations soared with the arrival of a truly global edifice in 1973 — the Carlton Centre. It was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, architects of the Sears Tower in Chicago, at one time the world’s tallest building. The Carlton Centre, 45 years after completion, remains the tallest building in Africa. A grand plaza, reminiscent of the one at the Rockefeller Centre in New York City, connected the brutally elegant concrete office high-rise with the five-star Westin International Carlton Hotel. Crowned by a 50th-floor observation deck, the Carlton still dominates the downtown skyline. Today the offices are occupied by Transnet, while the ghosts of movie stars, captains of industry and leaders of the free world lurk beneath the darkened chandeliers in the locked-down hotel.

Instability in the 1980s, coupled with decentralisation and transition of the 1990s, soothed the city’s skyward obsession. Elegance, modernisation and innovation — keys to Johannesburg’s earlier architectural expression — seemed forgotten by expansion at the close of the 20th century. Development adopted a sort of Tuscan-refugee zeitgeist. Generic low-density development, cloaked in pre-Renaissance pastiche, increasingly infected the city’s northern peripheries.

After a decade in the political wilderness, 2018 and the Ramaphosa reign represent a long-overdue "new dawn" for SA. At a height of 150m above Maude Street, Sandton, The Leonardo heralds a dawn of a different kind. The misplaced Italianate name may linger like a stubborn hangover from 1995, but the slender pared-down superstructure of The Leonardo glistens with contemporary, optimistic promise. It will house swanky apartments and offices and restaurants.

Glimpsed from Randburg, Modderfontein, Alexandra, even Midrand, the high-rise grows by the day and seems set to capture the hearts and imaginations of a contemporary, aspirational, 21st-century African city. Compared to the superstructures of the Middle East (the Burj Khalifa tops the list at a terrifying 828m) and Asia, it is, of course, an architectural midget, but that doesn’t stop Joburgers feeling kind of proud of its slim, tall grace.

There is a dark cloud: Sandton is already burdened by vacancy rates approaching 40%, and International trends in architecture and development increasingly herald adaptive reuse rather than the creation of new structures. Responding to future paradigms and addressing key issues like sustainability, responsible and equitable use of resources, as well as curbing climate change, will be fundamental to the creation of "world-class African cities" in the 21st century.

But for now, Johannesburg’s gaze is once again fixed firmly skyward.