Leading architecture firm GASS Architecture Studios has revealed their design for the R1.2bn redevelopment of the Jewel City precinct in Johannesburg’s CBD by Divercity Urban Property Fund Pty (Ltd).
This massive urban redevelopment project on the outskirts of the Maboneng Precinct in Joburg’s eastern CBD will breathe new life into the previously walled-off former centre of the diamond and precious metals trade in Johannesburg. The complex consists of six city blocks of industrial buildings, some dating back to the 1930s. The entire area was closed off to the public in the mid-90s and has remained an isolated and forgotten node for decades.
Jewel City involves the reinvention of this pre-existing industrial complex as an open, vibrant mixed-use precinct that will introduce a socially and economically more sustainable dimension and new diversity to early inner-city rejuvenation projects such as the Maboneng Precinct.
The developers see Jewel City as a catalytic project that will enhance the eastern CBD’s urban potential, introducing crucial facilities that include new affordable residential space, a school, healthcare and retail facilities such as pharmacies and a supermarket, a gym and other recreational facilities that help to sustain an inclusive, prosperous and wholesome urban social, economic and cultural life in the inner city. Jewel City has been envisioned as an opportunity to undo apartheid-era spatial divides and transform the inner city in a way that also addresses much needed access to resources and economic opportunities in the face of a dire need for housing.
Blocks One, Two and Three of the complex are situated between Fox Street and Commissioner Street, and Blocks Four, Five and Six are situated south of Fox Street. The architectural brief involved repurposing the existing industrial buildings, which includes the conversion of Block One into apartments, Block Two into a commercial building and Block Four into a retail block. Block Five will be a commercial conversion. Block Three will receive minor refurbishments and will form part of a second phase along with the redevelopment of Block Four. Block Six is an empty city block that will house a new 13-storey residential building and a new public square.
The existing buildings will not be substantially altered externally, although their facades will be refurbished, repaired and decorated with local artwork. Particularly in the residential conversion (Block One), the central shafts have been enlarged and additional openings have been punched into the central cores of the building to improve the quality of light and ventilation inside. The residential units will include a wide range of apartments, from micro-studios to family-size two-bedroom flats, encouraging not just economic diversity, but also social diversity. The new residential building will adopt a similar approach in its unit mix over 11 storeys overlooking the Johannesburg skyline.
The industrial heritage of the buildings will be honoured not just through the lightness of the architectural interventions to the façades and by exposing the expressive minimalism of their industrial materiality – off-shutter concrete, brickwork and steel – but also through the naming of each building, which includes refence to their former incarnations as a centre of the diamond and gold trade, but reframed as more inclusive and representative of South Africa’s broader history.
The Jewel City complex will be reintegrated with the existing urban fabric, but will be orientated inwards to create and sustain a new pedestrianised section of Fox Street as its central axis. This urban intervention will help to support a safe, friendly and open pedestrian-focused public environment and urban infrastructure characterised by shared public space. All the buildings along the central axis on either side of Fox Street will include retail pockets to encourage activity along the spine from east to west.
Other interventions will be woven into the architectural fabric, which will introduce a layer of heritage through artworks, signage and interpretive panels. The involvement of local artists and artisans will be a priority, symbolically introducing the idea of the city’s new era of prosperity being anchored in its people rather than reliance on mineral wealth, while substantiating that theory with an economic injection into the local art economy.
GASS Architecture Studios has placed major emphasis on the precinct’s public realm. While they have made pragmatic provision for vehicle access at key points around the peripheries of the precinct, where there will be safe parking and drop-off areas for deliveries and services off the busy main arteries, the precinct will be largely pedestrianised along its central axis. The quality of the shared public space will be enhanced with single-level sidewalks, subtly broadening the walkable space on a level plane. The introduction of lighting, trees and vegetation, seating and easy wayfinding prompts will further humanise the streetscape. The asphalt and cobbled areas have been designed so that they can be utilised as a canvas from time to time to introduce new themes or to celebrate a season, once again involving local artists.
Block Six, the second of the residential buildings, will feature a large public square and urban park, flanked with trees and cafes as well as a safe children’s play area that spills out on to the square, animated by fountains and public art. The zero-level fountain will be easy to deactivate so that this central piazza can be used for events, including concerts, conferences, exhibitions and markets.
The quality of the public space and the broader architectural character of the precinct is designed not only to catalyse and support a greater diversity of people within the precinct, but also to invite and encourage further investment into the CBD. The peripheral areas and sidewalks along the busy Commissioner and Main Streets will be repaired and upgraded, and additional lighting will be introduced to create a cleaner, safer space around the precinct. More broadly, the development opens up the potential for other key nodes of urban development such as Maboneng, the planned Absa Precinct and further developments along Fox Street to merge and form an integrated walkable city.
Sustained by a belief in the transformative potential of urban design and architecture to catalyse economic and social energy, dignity and prosperity, GASS Architecture Studios has re-envisioned this all-but-defunct industrial complex into a series of thoughtful interventions that breathe new life into Johannesburg’s CBD, while remining respectful of its heritage.