Archive for June, 2013

New Orders

June 24, 2013

Ponte City & The Shifting Meanings of The Built Environment

In a piece posted in the new and sleek Turn On Art, I look at two works at the current ICP Triennial that explore the  human instinct to impose meaning on the built environment. In those works,  the artists played with perceptions of the city of Jerusalem — a place especially vulnerable to personal projections and shifting political realities.

Another series at the Triennial, titled “Ponte City,” does something similar. In three glowing light boxes measuring  152.4 x 50.2 inches each, “Ponte City” presents several reconfigurations of this iconic apartment building in Johannesburg. Built in 1976, in a society that worked quite hard to engineer its way toward a certain order (ICP recently held an exhaustive exhibit about photography during and after apartheid, which I wrote about here), this colossal construction of a 54-story luxury apartment building in the middle of Johannesburg could hardly withstand the aspirational projections of its architects. Like King Hussein’s unfinished palace in East Jerusalem, the grandiose plans of those in power quickly fell prey to political forces – facts on the ground competing.

SUBOTZKY_Windows - Ponte City 1

Originally built for a central Johannesburg community that was white and well off, Ponte City saw its intended residents flee to the suburbs with the end of apartheid in 1994. In 2007, developers tried to recast their aspirations once again, this time attempting to lure middle class black professionals. But the project faltered, and after going bankrupt a year later, Ponte City was left to deteriorate, in many places still unfinished, unpainted, and partially occupied.

Between 2008 and 2010, South African Magnum photographer Mikhael Subotzky, known for his gritty prison projects (such as Beaufort West about Beaufort West Prison 2006-2008, and The Four Corners 2004, about the inmates of Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison where Nelson Mandella was incarcerated), and English artist Patrick Warehouse, set about to photograph every window, internal door, and television in Ponte City. The resulting three panels echo the scale of the building, and are thematically organized by television/window/door. They are a sort of excavation of an ongoing  reality —  uncovering the results of the past rather than the past itself, exposing how the building has resisted any one meaning from taking root.

Political and economic booms and busts have littered the landscape with monuments to often delusional aspirations. Along with visual testimonials such as those at ICP, several fictional and nonfictional works have provided especially poignant, and often quite tragic, investigations of what these developers leave behind once their funding has dried up. Tana French, the Irish writer known for her page-turning mysteries, has actually provided one of the best of these in Broken Harbor, a murder-mystery set in one of Ireland’s many ghost estates that sprang up during the boom and now serve only as haunting reminders of so much folly. And in his piece on Venezuela, Jon Lee Anderson writes about the failed city of Caracas by way of the Tower of David, the world’s tallest slum, originally intended as Venezuela’s answer to Wall St.

It is possible to raze bad ideas sometimes.  But it is near impossible to foretell a building’s future, its place in society and whom it will ultimately serve.  You can only will so much reality by building it.

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