Building an Icon: Johannesburg Gas Works

WORDS Judith Muindisi and Monika Läuferta le Roux PHOTOS Sally Gaul, Peter Finsen

In this instalment of our popular series that celebrates landmark local buildings, heritage specialists Judith Muindisi and Monika Läuferta le Roux explore the tumbledown beauty of the Johannesburg Gas Works.

The Basics

Like so many derelict industrial sites, the Johannesburg Gas Works buildings have outlived the purpose for which they were constructed. The Gas Works was conceived and designed to meet the ever-growing energy demands of Johannesburg. The site plan of 1927 shows the original plant consisting of 20 buildings, but not all were constructed at that time because of the Great Depression, which hit in 1929. Retorts 1 and 2 are regarded as the most important historical buildings in the complex. These housed the machinery that processed coal into a gas form, which would later be purified, cooled, stored and distributed to consumers. In addition to the technical and functional use of the retorts, the very design of the buildings, and their execution – like the design and execution of so many industrial buildings of that era – show the excellence of craftsmanship of the time.

Almost a hundred years on, the retorts are now majestic and cathedral-like. Broken windows, rusted steel, cobwebs and plants growing from cracks give them a haunted look that is otherworldly, and nearly impossible to forget once experienced. The exterior showcases the prominent use of red brick, symmetrical projections and notable Art Deco elements. The extension of the campus in 1935-1936, as well as in the 1950s, saw a continuation of the architectural style which, today, gives the site its character.

At Its Zenith

The Gas Works site reached its peak in the 1940s and ’50s. During that time, it became quite fashionable for households to upgrade their coal and wood stoves and connect to the city’s gas supply. When gas production began in 1928, statistics estimated that there were 1 265 consumers of gas in Johannesburg. By 1949, there were as many as 15 000. While domestic use far outnumbered industrial use, 300 industries were also dependent on gas for the bulk of their power. To accommodate the expansion, several new buildings were erected, including a second retort. The importance of the site at that time cannot be overstated – it was seen as a reliable and affordable source of energy (an ironically topical subject today) needed for Joburg’s expansion.

Not Many People Know That…

The Gas Works’ importance was not lost on the African National Congress (ANC) – in the early 1980s, in a bid to sabotage strategic operations and bring the apartheid government to its knees, the Gas Works was within the ANC’s sights. On 13 November 1983, The New York Times carried an article of an alleged “treasonous” plot to bomb the Johannesburg Gas Works as an act of resistance against the government.

Two students (and active members of the ANC), Carl Niehaus and his fiancée Johanna Lourens, were brought before the Rand Supreme Court that month to answer to the charges. Carl confessed, and was found guilty of obtaining plans and photographs of the Johannesburg Gas Works, for the purpose of bombing the complex and sabotaging operations. The photographs, as well as hand- drawn plans of the Gas Works, were to be taken by courier to neighbouring Botswana for final planning approval, but Carl was arrested before this could happen. He escaped the death sentence, but was sentenced to 15 years in jail. His fiancée was sentenced to four years in jail for not reporting his activities. Carl served half of his sentence; he was released in 1991 along with other political prisoners. He remained a senior ANC member, serving in government from 1994 until his expulsion from the ruling party in 2022.

Why The Building Matters

Looking at it, it’s clear that the Gas Works has architectural and aesthetic significance. This is rare in Joburg – so many old buildings have been replaced by shiny new ones. It is also one of the few sites in the city that has an almost complete historical account thanks to the foresight of the late former engineer Peter Finsen, who preserved brochures and took hundreds of photographs of the site. Peter also made sure at least one set of the old machinery that made gas was preserved in Retort 1 when the operations ceased in the early 1990s.

What is most important, though, are the hundreds of stories, told and untold, held in the memory of Joburg residents, about what the Gas Works means to them. Countless people have tales of sneaking a peek at its magnificence from the adjacent Liebermann Pottery, or even of telling the time of day by looking at the site’s retractable gas tanks. Those stories are what make it dear to people’s hearts – and worth fighting for.

The State of Play Today

The delight of knowing this site still stands today in its spectral glory is often tempered by wanting to bring something new to the conversation on its sustainable development. The buildings are hauntingly beautiful in their current state, and in a way, we wish they would remain so forever. But loving the site comes with the burden of knowing that in its static, ethereal beauty lies vulnerability to development proposals, changing plans, vandalism, and the many other evils that lurk in the shadows of heritage conservation in South Africa.

We can take comfort from the knowledge that nothing is on the cards at the moment, and that it’s still a working industrial site owned by Egoli Gas, producing natural gas for thousands of Johannesburg consumers on a different section of the site. Egoli Gas has shown an interest in the original structure’s preservation, but several development proposals over the years have been turned down because of their unsuitability.

And so the Gas Works still stands – but for how long? We continue to draw from it as much as we can, and hope for it too – perhaps for it to be seen as a timeless art piece, too precious not to be part of this city’s fabric.

Judith Muindisi and Monika Läuferts le Roux are founders of Tsica Heritage Consultants, and authors of the 2015 book The Johannesburg Gas Works (Fourthwall), which includes essays by Clive Chipkin and Alexander Opper.

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