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More Poor Doors

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A friend recently emailed to say that something I posted reminded him of Ponte Tower in Johannesburg and asked if I knew it. I didn’t. He included a link to Philip Bloom’s documentary. Ponte Tower is a circular, 52-storey apartment tower with a lightwell in the middle.


The lightwell is very photogenic.

Googling around, I found mention of “servants’ rooms” facing the lightwell whilst those of the owners faced the view. Surely not I thought, even in 1975 South Africa? For such a configuration  to be possible architecturally, there’d need to be shared corridors or a lift and stairwell servicing every two double-sided apartments Moscow style. (Ref. The Big Brush)

Sure enough, a plan showed something totally different.

Ponte Plan. Source: Planning & Building Developments, 17, November/December 1975, p. 19

[The plan, along with a fascinating account of Ponte Tower as a manifestation of geology can be found on Guy Debord’s blog Geoarchitecture.]


This building isn’t air conditioned. All living rooms are cross ventilated and all bathrooms and kitchens naturally ventilated even if they don’t benefit much in the way of light. It’s a good solution when ventilation is more important than light. Moreover, it matters little if the corridor is open or semi-closed.

  • 1975: Completed. When built, Ponte City was seen as an extremely desirable address due to its views over all of Johannesburg and its surroundings.
  • 1980-: During the late 1980s, gang activity had caused the crime rate to soar in the tower and surrounding neighbourhood.
  • 1990s: After the 1994 end of apartheid, many gangs moved into the building and it became extremely unsafe.
  • 2001: Trafalgar Properties took over management of the building and began making numerous improvements.
  • 2007: Ownership changed once more and a project to revitalise the building began (by evicting everyone).
  • 2008: Credit crisis stopped the revitalisation and the building was handed back to the original developer Kempston who, it seems, has succeeded with a scaled down yet more realistic plan to make the building into safe and comfortable housing for people to live in.

The riches-to-rags story of Ponte Tower thus had a final solution that didn’t involve dynamite.

The bit about servants facing the light well is a narrative that, like a virus, attaches itself to an image to generate an image of a building in peoples’ minds. This one began from a story told in comic form and that features a building with a central lightwell and an elite having apartments facing out, and servants having apartments facing the lightwell.


These images are from the dpr-barcelona blog. I quote.

There is a graphic novel by Wes Jones called Re:Doing Dubai, which proposes a post-critical overview of the real state market in Dubai. Jones designed [in the way of a cartoon] a cilindrical building in Dubai with two layers: the inner space for the rooms of the workers facing to the center of the tower, and on the external face there are high-end developments for tourist and rich people, with views to all over the city.

11th tells us the comic was first seen as an exhibit at the 11th Venice Biennale in 2008.

First of all, let’s give Dubai of 2008 a break for, in 2006 I, for one, designed an apartment project with a separate social housing entrance for a project in the UK. I’m not particularly proud of having done so.


The long corridor could be split into three, serviced by separate stairs, elevators and entrances. As shown below in green and pink below, the social housing was in the middle of the buildings (where view was worst). All entrances were, however, off of the same path and, although lobby entrances were separate, they weren’t hidden. (With this project, income differences weren’t all that great. All apartments had to be designed to the spatial standards of the social housing in order to receive a building subsidy from the government. The “free” market has no minimum spatial standards.)


All I’m saying is that that cartoon wasn’t A) fiction and B) wasn’t a future Dubai. It was a UK reality in 2007. The idea of Dubai tends to make people in other places to feel better about themselves. As an idea of an “other” place, it allows people to vent collective outrage at unsavoury social phenomena seemingly invisible at closer range. Anyway, it’s 2015 now. Let’s see how things have moved on. Dubai’s much the same.

poor door 2
poor door 3
poor door 1
One Tower Bridge

Worldwide property business is looking up at the moment. Here’s a spirited defence of poor doors, on Business Insider.

poor door 4

But let’s ignore that and go back to the comic for a closer look at this bit.


Here we have, in true archi-cømic style, an over-excited explanation of how brilliant and wonderful the solution is. For the outer ring people, there’s a virtuous eco-justification for social segregation. It’s all they want to know.


Meanwhile, the inner-ring people are made to feel grateful for what light and air they get. It’s all they need to know.


• • •

There is one good thing about this comic and that is at least the two half-narratives describe two truths that, together, describe why the building is the way it is. Moreover and more importantly, those two truths exist for the respective users. 

This is vastly more moral than the ornamental fictional narratives tailored to media demographic and that are already a feature of our present. Somewhere between 2008 and 2015 we slipped from reality-based fiction to fiction-based reality.




    • Thank you Guy, and please accept my apologies – the plan is now correctly cited. I also added an amendment pointing people towards your excellent post/article on Ponte Tower as geology. Thanks for letting me know. Graham.