Building an Icon: The Carlton Centre

WORDS Brian McKechnie PHOTOS Getty Images; Courtesy of Brian McKechnie

To kick off our new series on classic South African buildings that deserve to be celebrated, architect Brian McKechnie goes behind the scenes of Joburg’s once-glorious, now dilapidated and partially defunct Carlton Centre.

The basics

The Carlton office tower reaches a height of 223m above Main Street’s pavement. Designed by New York architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the sprawling Carlton Centre complex in downtown Johannesburg was a flagship development for Anglo American and SAB. Planning for the mammoth project began in the early 1960s, when a land parcel spanning five city blocks was secretly assembled.

Carlton Centre
Vertical circulation planning for the tallest building in the southern hemisphere.

The centre was designed to include a 50-storey international-style office tower, the 31-floor Western International Carlton Hotel – the largest in the southern hemisphere – an underground arcade housing 160 high- end boutique stores, and a 2 000 car parkade with an exhibition space. The scheme clustered around an open, New York-esque plaza, with a central oculus to the shopping levels below.

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Not many people know that…

Western’s “International” status meant that guests of all races could mix freely at the Carlton Hotel. The National Peace Accord, key in curbing violence during negotiations to end apartheid, was signed at the Carlton in September 1991. Nelson Mandela, who chose the hotel as his home away from home, delivered the ANC’s election victory speech to a dignitary-packed Carlton ballroom in April 1994, heralding the birth of a democratic South Africa.

At its zenith

Completed in 1974 and billed as the “biggest real estate deal in South Africa’s history”, the Carlton was the tallest building in the southern hemisphere, and remained the tallest in Africa for almost 50 years. Anchored by blue-chip corporates such as Anglo American and KPMG, Carlton Centre was easily South Africa’s most coveted business address. The Carlton Hotel’s guest list reads like a 20th-century “who’s who”, and includes Christiaan Barnard, Harry Oppenheimer, Mick Jagger, Hillary Clinton, Naomi Campbell, Michael Jackson, the Shah of Iran, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and even John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

The state of play today

By the time of the political turbulence in the 1990s, decentralisation and capital flight began to empty the once-bustling skyscraper and the city around it. Visitors to the centre’s speciality shops, restaurants and 50th-floor observation deck dwindled, and the hotel closed in December 1997. The complex was sold shortly afterwards, and started a new life as Transnet’s HQ. It’s estimated that Transnet staff occupy 50% of the office tower at present but have have recently issued a request for redevelopment proposals. Could this result in a Carlton reinvention?

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Why the building matters

The Carlton’s design draws influence from Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, a utopian metropolis of elegant towers hovering above open plazas and pedestrian parks; as well as from the grand civic place-making of Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. The development spliced a vignette of modernity straight into the heart of downtown Joburg, and the decidedly international edifice is a monument to a time when the City of Gold was, almost, world-class.

We love it because…

After 50 years, the skyscraper remains a landmark – and even in dereliction, the hotel’s inverted Y-form (a SOM trademark) still feels fresh, international and exotic in a restrained, mid-century Manhattan kind of way.

But above all, the Carlton Centre is a Johannesburg fable. I managed a chance pilgrimage to the mothballed hotel a few years back. Darkness shrouded the ghosts of socialites in the marble-clad lobby; enormous crystal chandeliers remained above the empty ballroom. And as I stood again in the famed hotel, the city noise subsided, and I know I heard that familiar greeting: “Welcome to the Carlton, sir.”

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