Beneath the Surface

Johannesburg’s history is embedded in the facade of a revamped power station.

When a fashion show was held in Johannes­burg’s Turbine Hall last April, it was hard to believe that, not long ago, the old power station had been home to hundreds of squatters and the scene of several murders. The South African city was hit by a crime-and-grime wave in the 1990s after businesses left en masse for the northern suburbs when apartheid ended. But the newly renovated building—one of three comprising Turbine Square, now transformed into modern offices and an event space—is at the center of the downtown’s rebirth.

Since the mining giant AngloGold Ashanti decided to move its headquarters into the distinctive 1934 redbrick structures ten years ago, plenty of attention has been focused on the revamp. “Turbine Hall and the South Boiler House are superb industrial buildings, distinguished by their massive scale, fine proportions, and delicacy of details,” says Herbert Prins, chairman of the local branch of the Heritage Foundation. The complex also forms a backdrop to the Newtown cultural district and borders the commercial zone beyond.

Because the structures are more than 60 years old, changes had to be vetted by the city’s heritage council. The local firm TPSP Architects, however, was already inclined to preserve as much as possible. “The magic and mystery of the existing ruined complex was largely held by the patina of the surfaces,” says Guy Steene-kamp, a principal at TPSP.

Though the South Boiler House and Turbine Hall were adapted, permission was granted to demolish the North Boiler House in order to construct a new building that could accommodate three levels of underground parking. The architects rooted the design in Turbine Square’s past, keeping interior spaces voluminous. They opted for concrete, steel, and brick—materials typical of old power stations—and skylights that mimic the original coal hoppers. “The cross-bracing in steel is quite powerful,” Steenekamp says of the iconic elements that TPSP replicated in concrete in the new structure.

Turbine Hall and the South Boiler House were barely altered: even graffiti and nicks on exterior walls were left intact. A freestanding building was erected within the skin of Turbine Hall—framing the city through two sets of windows, new and old; and serving as a constant reminder of the power station’s history. “The view out of the building is still somewhat apoc­alyptic,” Steenekamp says. “To the north and west there is a distinctly Third World flavor.” But not for long: since 2002, private enterprise has spent more than $190 million downtown—creating lofts, affordable housing, and commercial space and upgrading public spaces.

AngloGold moved into Turbine Square to help renew confidence in Johannesburg. The uncommon presence of gardens in the public areas encourages people to walk through the building to reach such Newtown attractions as the new Sci-Bono Discovery Center and Museum Africa, making Turbine Square a gate-way. Steenekamp believes that the complex, with its blend of today and yesteryear, is also a symbol. “The surfaces tell a story,” he says. “To have sanitized them, like they did with the Tate Modern, would have been to exorcise the ghost within the walls.”

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