Innercity artwork

PHOTOS: David Ross | PRODUCTION: Klara van Wyngaarden | WORDS: Nia Magoulianiti-McGregor

The Main Street life mixed-use development in Johannesburg is pumping to a raucous beat of industrial jackhammers and joiners, thanks to the vision of Jonathan Liebmann.

Jonathan Liebmann, the owner of Arts on Main, a nearby development that signalled the first fluttering of a heartbeat for an area barely on life support, has almost finished creating his latest masterpiece comprising residential studios, retail shops, an independent cinema, a rooftop events venue and a boutique hotel. The focus is on inspiring creativity and innovation. But not exclusively. “It is possible to contribute to the city’s cultural regeneration and make money while doing it,” says Jonathan. Well, of course.

Already, the 1970s industrial building in question, formerly the Jack Lemkus Sports factory, is offering residents and customers of the hotel an integrated space to create, play, live and eat freshly baked cupcakes at the Cupcake Factory within Malva, a divinely decadent store on street level that also serves up good coffee and high fashion.

The 12 Decades Hotel, celebrating 12 decades of Johannesburg and giving various artists and designers (including photographer Mikhael Subotzky and Love Jozi’s Bradley Kirshenbaum) carte blanche to interpret a decade, is attracting just the sort of guests whose energy the building will bounce off: filmmakers, a group of Spanish flamenco musicians and 12 Brazilian surfers.

Authentic art hotel

“This is a technically authentic art hotel with every room a work of art, so we are offering a specialised, niche space for creative travellers,” says 20-something Jonathan. “If I were a hotel guest, I would demand to stay in a different room every night.”

Jonathan had been “prowling” around for old warehouses to accommodate his concept of “an alternative, open-plan lifestyle that offered flexibility and a place for individual style.” As soon as he found it, he called architect Enrico Daffonchio of Daffonchio and Associates, Jonathan’s collaborator on Arts on Main.

Enrico knew instinctively Jonathan was right about the building: “The structure was robust,” he says. “The volumes were so powerful, they caused an emotional reaction. The amount of concrete used was enormous.”

Both he and Jonathan agreed, as with Arts on Main, to retain as much of the original building as possible. “It’s part of the global trend of sustainable architecture: to conserve and reuse as much as possible. This saves on energy, materials, money, time and landfill space.” Still, Enrico says, an architect needs to be sensitive to the building’s intrinsic charm and character. “It’s a fine balance.”

So, the former Jack Lemkus building laid itself bare. Stripped to “reveal its essence”, the transformation could begin. The inspiration was Bauhaus and Modernism, with square, linear lines and its “less is more” philosophy. “The colours are blacks, whites, and greys,” says Enrico. “It speaks an industrial language.” Trees were planted in the courtyard to soften the effect. The original huge orange steel letters reinforced in front of the building, which spelled out the company name, will now be used as art installations – specifically the A, O, M, S and L for “Arts on Main Street Life”.

According to Enrico, “An industrial building offers the chance to live in volumes impossible to replicate in standard residential developments. A standard ceiling is 2,5m, while here we have nearly 4m,” says Enrico.

He wasn’t going to mess with the original industrial architectural screed flooring. “People kill to try achieve this look. These floors are not only strong but also filled with character. History is written on them.” The steel windows were also retained.

Homes for young creatives

Jonathan is targeting young creatives – artists, architects, fashion designers – and so each of the five floors of apartments is dedicated to one of these disciplines, with a central space to work, collaborate and exhibit. He says it is the creative communities that have rejuvenated dying districts world-wide.

The high design element is accessible. The five levels of 175 flats are selling from R290 000 and rentals start at R1 450 per person sharing. A multi-wave desk was designed by Enrico, an example of well-designed, multifunctional furniture that makes the best use of space. The lamps, shelves, lift and hotel reception – as well as room 1916-1926 – were designed by Dokter and Misses.

Jonathan and his wife, actress and owner of Malva, Lauren Wallett, live in one of the penthouses, a sunny space of white on white, with a bed on a platform that takes unashamed advantage of the naked city views. “My basic premise is not to provide accommodation but to solve a social requirement by looking at my own life and seeing what I need and want,” he says.

Entertainment included

The rest of the “experience” incorporates a multidisciplinary gallery at the entrance to the hotel, which will feature artworks from light installations to fashion shows. For drinks, a dip in the pool, or events that require a 360-degree view, the rooftop, complete with a Marcus Neustetter sculpture of a telescope, is available. Main Street Lifers also have use of a bike rental service, so residents can park and ride.

And then there is probably the only movie theatre in South Africa where you will be able to watch a South Korean monster film. The Bioscope, an independent cinema run by Russell Grant and Darryl Els, is, says Russell, “the kind of cultural offering a world-class city must have”.

Jonathan is still fighting the perception of crime in the area. “Besides Hillbrow and Joubert Park, crime is down 65%,” he says. The Johannesburg Development Agency has spent millions revamping the area with CCTV cameras as well as street lighting.

“This area embraces living in Africa instead of the more delusional suburban lifestyle,” says Enrico. “Residents can work where they live and play. It’s natural to want to do that.” V

• Main Street Life: 087 830 0440,
• Jonathan Liebmann: 082 921 6163
• Daffonchio and Associates: 011 447 8118,