Ponte Tower. Fiction becoming real or the machine for making emptiness.

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“Capitalism institutes or restores all sorts of residual and artificial, imaginary, or symbolic territorialities, thereby attempting, as best it can, to recode, to rechannel persons who have been defined in terms of abstract quantities. Everything returns or recurs: States, nations, families. That is what makes the ideology of capitalism “a motley painting of everything that has ever been believed.” The real is not impossible; it is simply more and more artificial.”
— Deleuze and Guattari, L’Anti-Oedipe [1977].

We started our previous post with part of this quote from the book L’Anti-Oedipe and sometimes it seems that one topic immediately drives to another in a kind of serendipity which links all together several issues that we have been reading for a long time.

On the first issue of Beyond. Scenarios and Speculations there is a graphic novel by Wes Jones called Re:Doing Dubai, which proposes a post-critical overview of the real state market in Dubai. Jones designed [in the way of a cartoon] a cilindrical building in Dubai with two layers: the inner space for the rooms of the workers facing to the center of the tower, and on the external face there are high-end developments for tourist and rich people, with views to all over the city. We can read at some point of the graphic novel “Instead of a conventional state subsidized strategy, I invented a strategy for an integrated separation.It would be a system of cohabitation right in the heart of the city, with rich and poor living side by side —without realizing it!”… The promise of paradise?

On this story, when the real state agent points that they have to be careful that these buildings did not become vertical ghettos, the relationship with the Ponte Tower in Johannesburg is undeniable. Fiction becoming real.

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Re:Doing Dubai by Wes Jones. Larger PDF

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Re:Doing Dubai by Wes Jones. Larger PDF

The Ponte Tower is the tallest residential building in South Africa. Built in 1975-76 to a height of 173 m [567.6 ft], the tower is a cylindrical building with 54 storeys, designed by Mannie Feldman, working in a team together with Manfred Hermer and Rodney Grosskopf. At that moment, the building was envisioned as the perfect project for a luxury development and nobody complained for its similarities with a panopticon, but we can read that in the mid-1990s there were even proposals to turn the building into a highrise prison. Mikhael Subotzky, who is preparing a book about the building, recently wrote:

When it was built in 1976 —the year of the Soweto uprisings— the surrounding flatlands of Berea, Hillbrow and Yeoville were exclusively white, and home to young middle-class couples, students and Jewish grandmothers. Ponte City was separated by apartheid urban planning from the unforgettable events of that year. But as the city changed in anticipation and response to the arrival of democracy in 1994, many residents joined the exodus towards the supposed safety of the northern suburbs, the vacated areas becoming associated with crime, urban decay and, most of all, the influx of foreign nationals from neighbouring African countries.

Going back to the idea that “The real is not impossible; it is simply more and more artificial”, and after reading Wes Jones graphic novel and the Ponte Tower story, the sense that we are creating “the real” based on “the artificial” is present again. Investors and developers tried to create an ideal place for living, but it ended up being the kind of space described by Baudrillard on Simulacra and Simulation, “the neighborhood is nothing but a protective zone- remodeling, disinfection, a snobbish and hygenic design- but above all in a figurative sense: it is a machine for making emptiness.”

The panopticon in reverse?

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Ponte Tower’s interior. Film still from: Ponte Tower

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Ponte Tower. Looking down. Film still from: Ponte Tower

A couple of days ago, Léopold Lambert was asking himself if architects should accept to be commissioned —or even to research— to design a prison that they will intend to trigger an improvement in the conditions of incarceration of prisoners, or if our practice should simply refuse to conceive an architecture that is voluntarily cruel to the bodies that it hosts? This question has an ethical dilemma than can’t be discarded, but certainly one thing that is worth rethinking is that, under the capitalist prism, architects have been also building some hidden prisons. Capitalism is a driving force that holds back several implications related with cultural, social and ethical values. The idea of building stylish, luxury condos, matched with objectification of possession, ends up creating another kind of prisons: from never-ending mortgages to spaces for segregation, ghettos for poor people, prostitution, or inner landscapes of trash accumulating in its core.

The perversion of capitalism is manifested in several different layers on the Ponte Tower. The contradiction between daily life inside versus the presence of the Vodacom red and white logo crowning the building —some years ago there was a Coca Cola six-story-high neon sign on the building’s roof— recalls the urge of consumerism and thus, the power of money.

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Ponte Tower and the city. Source: jacquesdb

“We will live in this world, which for us has all the disquieting strangeness of the desert and of the simulacrum, with all the veracity of living phantoms, of wandering and simulating animals that capital, that the death of capital has made of us —because the desert of cities is equal to the desert of sand— the jungle of signs is equal to that of the forests —the vertigo of simulacra is equal to that of nature— only the vertiginous seduction of a dying system remains, in which work buries work, in which value buries value—leaving a virgin, sacred space without pathways, continuous as Bataille wished it, where only the wind lifts the sand, where only the wind watches over the sand.”
― Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

Pointing out some similarities of Ponte Tower with the vertical slum Torre David in Caracas we can’t avoid asking ourselves if there is a risk of aestheticization of poverty while pointing out such situations? Does the living conditions of people improve with elite prizes, expositions or publications? What happens there, when we close the glazed full-page-photo book or turn off our flat screen computers?. Walter Benjamin pointed that the aestheticization of politics degenerated the experience of authenticity and the shift into mass consumerism of aesthetics. With projects like the Ponte Tower, with the buildings felling into major disrepair, becoming notorious for the garbage that filled the core, and for the high incidence of violence inside, we urge that the role of the architect in current times should also include strategies to escape from these prisons.

While we learn to design beautiful projects, privileged housing buildings and all kind of new developments, we need to be aware that under Capitalist rules, every project is subject to become a prison, and its initial utopian dream is subjected to transformation by the economic forces driving our mind and our cities. Maybe we should start realizing that as long as dehumanizing shelter and perceiving housing and cities just as commodities, we should provide emergency exits, tunnels or other unexpected means to escape from or turn down this kind of prisons created by ourselves inside the system.

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Header image: Ponte Tower. Source: Designcollector

/// Here you can watch a documentary on the icon of Johannesburg Ponte Tower by Philip Bloom.


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