Book review: Up Up – Stories of Johannesburg’s Highrises

Book review: Up Up – Stories of Johannesburg’s Highrises

I’m sure those with a passion for books are familiar with the phrase “tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are”. The underlying wisdom of that quote can be applied to many subjects. For example, I like to think that when cities show me their skyline, I can tell what kind of place it is.

Today’s review discusses a book about Johannesburg. The skyscrapers of South Africa’s largest city tell the story of a place that was confidently booming in the 1960s and the 1970s, spiralling down during the 1980s as gold mining had passed its peak, and hitting bottom in the 1990s after apartheid was abolished. Companies and affluent residents moved north of the city as crime moved in. Today, Sandton is considered the premier business center in the Johannesburg area, and the financial district of South Africa, leaving downtown Johannesburg a victim or urban decay.

photo: Mpho Mokgadi

That’s of course, the short story. To discuss Up Up, a second phrase is introduced, which is a little joke which only works in English, asking what the tallest building is in the city. This is, of course, the library because it contains the most number of stories. Which brings us to the book’s subtitle, ‘Stories of Johannesburg’s Highrises’.

Up Up is a selection of 27 stories presented as interviews, essays or photo collections, each accompanied by documentation of a building, primarily modernist towers. The buildings are related to the story in various ways, such as through its architect, main tenant or usage. The stories have been written by people with a professional interest in how the city works, such as architects, artists, and journalists, but also a taxi driver, an activist, and a clothing vendor are heard. The result is a variety of personal and contemporary perspectives of the city center.

Reading about the skyscrapers of Johannesburg, you’ll read a lot about towers standing idle, being converted into affordable housing or being sold as advertisement space. On the surface, this could give you the impression that things are not going that well in a city that, judging by the project documentation, once looked like it had the air and confidence that would make the likes of Don Draper feel at home. Next to issues of safety and security, there appear to be many problems with public services and tensions related to immigration.

photo: Mpho Mokgadi

This is where the stories come in. Two quotes, one in the beginning, and one near the end set the underlying tone for me. The first one comes from Mr. Dali Tambo, the son of anti-apartheid activists, saying:

Joburg is going to be a very exciting place, with many different cultures. It is still in transformation but it is happening, and it is going to be beautiful.

It’s easy to dismiss this as a pipe dream but when you think of it, besides sharing a rectangular grid plan, both New York and Johannesburg have witnessed times in which their well-to-do moved up north and during which the city was seen as a violent, dirty place. The message being that given time and effort, it is indeed possible to make that transition.

This feeling of opportunity is being reflected by architect Fabian Jaggi when commenting on the sale of towers to serve as ad banners:

Where affluent bankers once sealed the fate of many South Africans, young people from a new generation will live, preparing to launch into their personal futures. Perhaps then the enormous billboards might take on a new meaning in the transforming city.

I’m definitely sensing a higher note hidden within the stories, one that is based on the creativity of the people to make a living for themselves, and re-invent downtown as a place that offers opportunities in the process. This reminded me of the book Torre David, in which the people living in an unfinished Caracas skyscraper are being considered as place makers instead of squatters. To me “Up Up” is about what every skyscraper city should offer, which is space and opportunity for everyone. You might get something else out of the stories, but for all, offering inspiration, insights, and ideas is what stories do. And the stories in Up Up do that very well.


As it’s always a good sign when a book dedicates a full page to who and what was involved into the makings of the book, down to the information on typeface and paper type, Up Up gets extra points for production and design. The look and feel suggest that every bit of the design process has been carefully considered. The gold-on-black cover, the b/w architecture photos, the text supporting color photos, the crisp drawings and the alternating page width for stories and documentation sections will receive the blessing of every bibliophile.

Up Up is unique in the skyscraper library for combining the topics of “skyscrapers” and “the people”, and for being one of the very few books dealing with skyscrapers in the African context. For those reasons alone I very much recommend it, but you’ll definitely get more out of it. Up Up makes me interested to read more about Johannesburg and I will keep track of how the city will be progressing in the future. 

Two thumbs up for Up UP!

Up Up
Stories of Johannesburg’s Highrises
editing: Fabian Jaggi, Katrin Murbach, Nicola Ruffo, Nele Dechmann
photography: Mpho Mokgadi
graphic design: Gregor Huber & Ivan Sterzinger
publisher: Hatje Cantz
2016 | softcover | 336 pages | ISBN-13: 978-3-7757-4093-7
more: publisher’s info page

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