Thursday, 15 May 2014

An ode to the old (and destroyed) buildings of Sandton

I’ve written before about how I believe that buildings have souls, and it’s struck me a lot recently, driving as I do along the length of Rivonia Road every morning.

One of the first to go, that I noticed anyway, was the old Alexander Forbes (previously Price Waterhouse Coopers) building, opposite Sandton City. When it was built, I remember it looking all shiny and new, and giving that stretch of Rivonia Road a whole different personality.

At the moment, the Village Walk is being systematically destroyed, with massive demolition equipment ripping it apart, piece by piece. I was never particularly fond of the centre – it always struck me as awkwardly designed, with a weird ambience and a mostly peculiar smell – but it was a Sandton landmark. And more importantly, it was home to probably tens, if not hundreds, of businesses, who have no doubt either had to find a new home or close down.

There’s also the set of buildings opposite (kind of) the Gautrain Radisson Hotel. I’m not sure whether they were apartments or offices (maybe that’s part of the problem), but that complex, with its faux Tudor styling did provide a bit of personality to that stretch of Sandton. Every day when I drive past, the pile of rubble changes shape, the buildings all gone but for one, which is standing looking forlornly over the graveyard of its former companions. No doubt, its days are numbered.

There was a massive complex over the road from that, that was demolished last year sometime – townhouse-type buildings – and just one was left standing too, I have no idea why. There are blocks of offices that have been clearly earmarked for destruction – left to be overrun with plants (which will grow anywhere, given the chance – yay nature) or covered with even more advertising messages to be added to the gazillions that bombard us every day.

It’s funny, sometimes you only notice a building has gone when workers are building a new one. For me, this happened with all the new buildings over the road from Sandton City, on Alice Lane. I remember going to the Virgin Money launch on one of those sites, when it was being built – and that was less than eight years ago. It’s been removed, to make way for a new precinct.  But I can’t remember any of the other buildings that have been flattened on that block, to make way for new ones.

In writing a recent article for the Mail & Guardian, I interviewed a property management company, where the spokesperson said that so many buildings in Sandton are being demolished because property owners want the higher incomes that can be achieved with higher rise buildings. There’s also the fact that many of the older buildings were not energy efficient, or even particularly pleasant to be in. Working space design has changed, with a greater focus on open plan and less focus on ego offices.

This all makes sense.

But I’m sad for the buildings that are gone (and sadder for the last ones to go, that get to watch the destruction around them). They’re just buildings, I know. Bricks, metal and mortar. And some glass and plastic, probably. They’re not people, with feelings and memories.

But those buildings have been home to dreams, ambitions, soaring careers, falling fortunes, budding friendships, unresolvable feuds and the simple day to day drudgery of all the people who spent more time there than in their own homes, probably.

And it just feels sad to relegate them to the dump without honouring all the life, love, drama and beautiful ordinariness that they were home to, for so long. It’s these that give buildings their souls, I believe. Maybe it’s not so much mourning the buildings that are gone, but tipping our hats to all that happened in them – and the realisation that, in a world where so much is transient, intangible, fleeting, that not even buildings are permanent, no matter how iconic (or not) they may be.