Not so long ago, together with photographer Brett Rubin i braved the defunct Park Station building in Johannesburg’s CBD to experience a post colonial monument to yesteryear’s grand dreams of travel. Rumour now is that it could soon be reinstated as a destination again through a cultural renewal project spearheaded by British architect David Adjaye, which prompted me to publish our urban archeological investigation into the not so recent past.
With a foundation stone in 1928 the Johannesburg Park Station Railways Terminal was destined to usher the country’s well healed Europeans into an era of western aspirational passenger travel. It now stands as an ambiguous reminder of a despised past and a denied future; an uncompromising socio-political statue containing the memory of a vanished urban culture.
Descending the main marble staircase into the extensiveness of space below, it is immediately evident that the architect succeeded in providing the establishment with a atmosphere of prosperity and potential. Gordon Leith’s vision may have been compromised by political factors but what the building lacked in the social integration of non-europeans, it made up for in practicality and glamour. The sunken, main vaulted courtyard with it’s dramatic arches are lined by a façade of rooms of which the separate male and female waiting rooms form part. it also contains a elegant restaurant, the Blue Room, along with a Moorish bar and Dutch styled tea room. Nostalgia certainly plays a large role when experiencing the ex-railway station building; a great deal of imaginative time travel is needed to counter the eerie feeling left by a deserted public courtyard that spreads out like a classical arena. astoundingly some details such as the brass capped pillars have remained intact and due to the lack of activity over the last fifty years a layer of undisturbed pale golden dust remains on nearly everything, a situation made inevitable by the fact that Johannesburg is essentially a mining town with many mining heaps sprawling about near the city centre. Only certain parts of the building has electricity and we started our sojourn in the main concourse that was illuminated by natural light and large hollywood style lanterns that welcomed you into the modern age of the South African Railways.
In a ploy to accommodate the city’s exponential growth at the time, as well as promoting it as a world class metropolis, the architecture had to reflect the prosperity and wealth of this gem at the southern tip of Africa. Gordon Leith, as a follower in the tradition of Sir Herbert Baker, was reputedly the right person specifically from a politically motivated point of view. His treatment of the concourse with its vendor lined lower colonnade testifies to his classical departure. The concourse lacks nothing in terms of quality and detailing and spanned an array of establishments in the form of shopfronts opening into the main atrium like space. One such is the tea room whose walls are lined with hand painted tiles; these were both a nod to the country’s Dutch heritage as well as a propagandist brochure of historical and noteworthy people and places. The document it became may be like a outdated history textbook, but it’s lasting effect will lie in the acknowledgement of the important sentiments of the time, many of which have since disappeared from the cultural landscape entirely. Equally arresting is the geometric and colourful tiles in the bar area which is interspersed in alcoves between heavy wood panelling; the atmosphere of the low beamed ceiling and multiple rooms is quite claustrophobic and one can easily imagine it bustling with the well clad white males of the city as they relate their commercial conquests and plan their profits looking out over the bustling concourse.
The sophistication injected by this monolithic structure on the fashionably dazzling Eloff Street was a welcome addition to a city that was grooming itself at the time to be a nexus for industry and business in the post depression thirties. It was to become the bastion of communicating the mining wealth of the Witwatersrand and its connections to the rest of the country, especially the coastal ports. The loggia was lined with the large panels created by the notable South African artist J H Pierneef, who was also a schoolfriend of the architect. These panels depicted scenes from the country in patriotic splendour and probably added greatly to the promotion of the romance of travel. They have been rescued from the building and are now housed in a museum dedicated to the history of transportation in the town of Graaff-Reinett in the Eastern Cape Province. One can only imagine the singular sense of pride and patriotism these panels would have injected into the hearts of the privileged passengers. The station building itself also housed a model and other relics of transportation history that has also been relocated there since.
The building, however, was not only a pastiche of charm but a careful execution of modernisation placing it at the pinnacle of passenger transport in Africa. The presumed conflict of porters and passengers was cleverly resolved with a loggia on ground level , punctuated by windows and fretted stonework arches which look down on the theatrical concourse that housed the administrative departments and handling of baggage to the platforms below. This loggia is visually supported by the marble columns that line the entrances to the public amenities below. It must be said that the street facade of the building does much to understate the grandiose space inside. heavily criticised for this, the building seems to assert itself with surprising grace and proportion when once inside. The additional conflict with non-european passengers was surreptitiously averted by creating an entirely separate utilitarian reception and concourse, with relatively basic amenities and even less in terms of atmosphere. Apparently these passengers needed little reminder of the country’s wealth and prosperous future.
The Blue Room located on the central axis of the atrium was to be the destination for events and celebrations on a grander scale. Painfully obvious in it’s neoclassical design; it’s coffered ceilings held up by marble pillars was to become the temple of aspiration for the average commuter. Its sumptuous interior was served by uniformed waiters with an air of remoteness that echoes the misplaced refinement of it in post-colonial context. The city, as the birthplace of mining firms like Oppenheimer’s Anglo-American has been characterised by greed and opportunism of the most virulent kind and one would suppose that there was much talk about the potential arising from this new monument to transportation. With the influx of foreign capital after South Africa came off the gold standard in 1932 and the central business district taking on the air of a world class metropolis, more and more visitors poured into the city. Their main entrance to it was the be the sacred hall of the Johannesburg Railway’s Park Station.
New monument or not, transportation is at the heart of the mining industry and the luxury of long distance passenger rail in a post-apartheid South-Africa had to be one of the first casualties in the transformation process of a country trying to correct its economic disparities. The passenger railway system that is still alive but barely breathing now uses an unremarkable new terminal building about which little can be said except that it has been used very convincingly as the location for a recent post apocalyptic action film. Since its closure the old building has played host to many fashion shoots, commercials and even some locally produced films; the most action it saw was probably during the 90’s techno rave era when it was used exhaustively as a club venue as the abundant graffiti testifies to. Nowadays it has become popular amongst the marketing fraternity as an alternative venue for corporate and more well heeled company launches.
Digging even deeper into the belly of the stranded monolith it is surprising to find how little it has been vandalised and in fact appears like a deserted enclave from some previous civilisation. Naturally the building, as with many other public spaces, take on a completely different atmosphere when they are empty of that which they were designed for and the platforms with it’s posters dating back to the fifties allude to some lost lifestyle and long forgotten holiday destination; its petrified pleasure persuasions now only playing host to vagrants and vermin.
Although many plans have been tabled for the building’s restoration, re-invention and refurbishment, the sheer size of it and it’s location has prevented any commercially feasible venture to take root. Due to the Railway Administration’s hesitancy the building has gratefully been kept well preserved and regardless of the Station Building’s deserted state, as is true of many a ruin, it is still firmly rooted in the psyche of the city and remains a poignant reminder of the segregated affluence and departed glamour from its disparate past.
It remains to be seen what transformative magic Adjaye Associates will bestow on this project, but if it succeeds in breathing life into these old bones, i look forward to it.
Photos Brett Rubin