Art Deco in Johannesburg

Buildings competing for Numero Uno 

Like many born and bred Jozi-ites I have seen many iterations of this mad brash vibrant city, not least of all the Sandton sky-line.  Glinting glass phalluses compete for attention a la Donkey-of-Shrek fame in a persistent “Choose Me! Choose Me!”.  The bigger, the taller, the more expensive, the more innovative the style, the louder the voice.  

Image: Co-Arc International Architects published in Times Live. The caption reads: “Like a giant middle finger on the Sandton skyline, The Leonardo is 55-storeys tall“.

A recent Johannesburg Heritage Foundation virtual tour of Johannesburg’s Art Deco buildings with Clare Eisenstein and Brian Mckechnie, made me reach for the Bible of Joburg’s buildings: Clive Chipkin’s inimitable “Johannesburg Style Architecture and Style 1880s -1960s”.  As in the current Italianate craze, with names like Michelangelo, Leonardo, Monte Casino and faux “palazzo styles’,  so in the 1930s, Joburg emulated styles from overseas.  With the economic boom of the 1930s instead of turning to the sober classicism of Edwardian England, it was American pezazz that influenced many of Joburg’s new buildings.  

Art Deco and the age of modernity 

The roaring 20s and into the 30s was a time of travel, speed, and transport; ocean liners;  commercial air travel in its early infancy; aerodynamic designs; horizontal lines of speed; and soaring verticals. 

Modernity was epitomized in US automobile design in the 1930s. Flowing contours, smooth curves, horizontal lines of the fender, verticals of the central striations and grills, aerodynamic lines on the hood, are all elements that merge with a maritime aesthetic
The maritime aesthetic of sweeping horizontals, roof canopies, elegant curves and flagpoles was taken up in many Art Deco buildings







The Art Deco movement, originally known as the “Style Moderne” (a reaction to the florid excesses of Art Nouveau), was introduced at the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibit of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries). 

Repetitive geometric ornament, simple planarity and spires are all seen in the iconic 77 storey Chrysler building in New York – the tallest building in the world from 1930-1931.

Johannesburg – 3rd greatest city after New York and Miami (in terms of Art Deco architecture that is) 

At 11 storeys, Astor Mansions, an also-ran second cousin to the 77 storey Chrysler building, was the tallest building in Johannesburg for a brief spell until the completion of the Ansteys Building in 1935.  The name Astor mansions refers to the Waldorf Astoria; the round arch inset is reminiscent of the Chrysler building; while the spires and flagpoles draw from the language of ocean liners.

Astor Mansions in the foreground with ziggurat shaped Ansteys in the background. Source: MuseumAfrika
Chrysler Building New York. The cubic setbacks and repetitive geometry are seen in Anstey’s building below.
A postcard of Anstey’s Building. The curved horizontals in the lower levels recall the sleek curves of 1930’s automobiles and the stepped cubic forms and canopies speak of the ocean liner aesthetic (as does the ubiquitous 1930’s flagpole)

Normandie Court 

Porthole windows as part of the maritime aesthetic

Built in 1938, the 11 storey Normandie Court was named after the Normandie passenger liner.  The Normandie held the Blue Riband in 1935 and 1937. The Blue Riband was the unofficial accolade given to the passenger liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean in regular service with the record highest average speed.  It is not only the name that evokes the world of ocean liners.  The Star in April 1938 said the building was ‘like the prow of a gigantic liner’ with porthole windows, ship’s railings on the balconies, flat roof canopy and curved facades like a ship’s hull.  

Normandie Court

Schlesinger and the “style moderne” 

But for Clive Chipkin,  (p103) it was I.W. Schlesinger who became the ‘engine for Americanization and modernisation in Johannesburg in 1920s and 30s”.   I.W. Schlesinger  founded the African Consolidated Theatre [ACT] and under his direction 4 ACT buildings, with matching logos brightly lit at night, declared the branding and corporate identity of Schlesinger’s entertainment empire.  Chipkin writes (p104):  “He saw architecture as a branch of advertising (like Gordon Selfridge on Oxford St in 1908 or Pope Julius in Rome in 1500). So he promoted an alternative to the post Edwardian architecture of the Baker School, adopting instead the stylisms and technology of Art Deco New York. All the unwritten assumptions – the parochialism and elitism, the reticence – of Anglo-South Africa came to be challenged by the breashness and drive of American populism. And Schlesinger was its local emissary’. 

The four buildings in Commissioner street were  Broadcast House 1935-7; Empire 1936 (demolished in 1971); Colosseum 1933 closed 1985 and demolished; and His Majesty’s 1937-41. 

Broadcast House was the home of radio in South Africa. The Schlesinger organization combined the 3 existing radio stations in South Africa in 1927 and built Broadcast House 1935.  In 1936 the South African Broadcasting Corporation was formed by the state, and it purchased Broadcast House. The low reliefs a particular part of Art Deco vocabulary, are by Rene Shapshak.

Whose heritage gets preserved? 

Of course celebrating and preserving Joburg’s Art Deco heritage is not without its controversies. Municipal neglect is notorious, and widespread interest in a heritage built for and by whites at the height of colonialism is clearly problematic.  The #BewareofColourProject highlighted municipal neglect. 

Clegg House one of the buildings painted pink in protest at the neglect of the abandoned buildings  and the fact that being neglected and despite Johannesburg’s inner city housing crisis, they have been unoccupied for many years.
Mckechnie and Buitendach write: “Vertical window bands of a Manhattan-esque persuasion shoot up the Art Deco façades, catering to the 1930s obsession with height. No Deco building would be complete without a soaring flag mast and this grand dame of Commissioner Street has two. The unusual and beautifully articulated name, Shakespeare House, remains proudly resolute above the shuttered entrance.”

Just a few other examples of Johannesburg Art Deco in the inner city include: previous Anglo Head office 44 Main St ; New library Hotel ; SA Perm building; Manners Mansions; Howard House; London House. And there are many Art Deco buildings further afield: Rand Airport; Delta Environment Centre; Lion Match factory; the Lido Hotel. Springs is also renowned for its Art Deco buildings.  Art Deco buildings include suburban residential complexes such as Mentone Court, Killarney Mansions, Daventry Court and Gleneagles, all in Killarney,

Art Deco and design elements 

Gleneagles entrance with Art Deco font for the building name; gleaming brass doors; repetitive geometric lines; sandblasted glass; stepped ziggurat forms, speak the same kind of language as the Chrysler Building lobby
Chrysler Building Lobby.  Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in 1922 leading to a new phase of Egyptmania. Papyrus column capitals, ziggurat forms, contrasts of opulent materials, and geometric chevrons were all the rage.







Art Deco declined after World War II when the lavish use of ornament, colour and intricate embellishment gave way to a more minimalist approach and reduction in decorative detail. 

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3 thoughts on “Art Deco in Johannesburg

  1. great article Liz, and a big thank you for taking me
    on a Johannesburg mini Art Deco tour .
    much appreciated, best regards Anneliese

  2. Great article, Liz. Thank you. I hope that the remaining deco buildings will, at some stage, be recognised and refurbished … I remember clearly being devastated when the Colosseum was demolished.

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