Ponte City: Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse

A remarkable photographic project which documents five years in the lives of the inhabitants of Ponte City, an iconic Johannesburg landmark and the tallest residential skyscraper in Africa, will have its only UK showing at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this winter.

Named Ponte City, the exhibition will feature the work of South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky and British artist Patrick Waterhouse, who collaborated to document the building in Johannesburg, South Africa from 2007 to 2012.

Rising 54 storeys high, Ponte City has dominated the Johannesburg skyline since 1975. It originally offered luxurious living to the wealthy white elite, but with the end of apartheid in the 1990s the building became a refuge for black newcomers from the townships and rural areas, and then immigrants from elsewhere in Africa. Ponte City entered into a period of decline; by the turn of the century it had come to symbolise urban decay and was perceived as the epicentre of crime, prostitution and drug dealing in Johannesburg.

There were even plans to turn the building into a high-rise prison, until promoters bought Ponte City in 2007 and started a large scale refurbishment project for which they evicted half of the residents and gutted the empty apartments. It was during this time that Subotzky and Waterhouse began working at Ponte City, with the aim of putting together a visual “before and after” of the building. The collapse of the real estate market in 2008 put a brutal end to the renovation plans however, and the building was left in a semi-destructed state with tenants, those who had not yet been evicted or were simply squatting, still occupying flats in the block.

Subotzky and Waterhouse continued their project to record the rise and fall of what had served as a symbol of prosperity; they interviewed the remaining tenants and recorded the half-occupied building through a series of photographs, capturing the stark contrast between the original plans and the now half-derelict structure.

Striking photographs show the cylindrical building’s central atrium, originally intended to allow light to enter its 500 flats from both sides, now turned into a rubbish dump by the contractors. Debris from the short-lived renovation work reaches the fifth storey and fills the space where architects had planned to build an indoor ski slope, blocking access to the bottom floors that originally offered self-sufficient living with services such as a chemist, a shopping centre and an art gallery.

Christopher Baker, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, commented: “This remarkable exhibition features images of great drama and poignancy which depict a single, monumental building and its inhabitants in order to ingeniously document recent events in South Africa. It illustrates our ambition to showcase the finest and most challenging of international photography in Edinburgh.”

Ponte City: Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse is part of IPS (Institute for Photography in Scotland) Season of Photography: a series of lively exhibitions and events taking place across Scotland from April to September 2015.