Main Street Lifeby Nedine Moonsamy / 29.10.2013
On the corner of Fox and Kruger in the Johannesburg CBD stands Main Street Life. It was the first apartment complex in the Maboneng Precinct which also houses Arts on Main and an increasing number of apartment complexes, retails stores, galleries and artist studios. In its entirety, the building project has received numerous awards and has attracted easy attention for its innovativeness and progressiveness. Yet, what about its ability to take us back in time, to evoke nostalgia instead?
When the building was first launched, as a complement to Arts on Main, the vision was guided by bohemian artist communities that blossomed in cities such as New York and Paris around the 1920’s. Similarly, the language of modernism was suitably employed during the early marketing phases. It flaunted cheap rent in the faces of those willing to try something ‘new’ and ‘different’: the idea was to free all from conservative middle-class moral standards and allow for frenetic artistic collaboration and communities. Yet with Main Street Life, there is, of course, the unintended irony that the concept was f(o)unded entirely by investors rather than artists themselves – almost a century later than the avant-garde.
Hence, it works self-consciously with a particular ‘style’. It bears a partial inscription of the Eurocentric architectural nostalgia that we see in more garish forms across Johannesburg. The building also houses The Bioscope which evokes nostalgia for old-school cinema but offers only digital screenings to viewers. Quaint vintage bicycles line the streets, awaiting rental, despite the fact that the odds of being flattened by a taxi in the CBD are high.
But if we are to believe Canadian cultural theorist, Linda Hutcheon, an ironic – and sometimes tacky – rendition of nostalgia for modernism is the celebrated tone of postmodern aesthetic. In The Poetics of Postmodernism, Hutcheon complements postmodernism for its liberal, if not promiscuous, approach. She implies that postmodernism has set its relationship status with modernism to ‘it’s complicated’. It is an ill-defined, messy and tense affair that postmodernism cannot bring to an end – what is it without modernism by its side? It is clear that postmodernism is not looking for stability, just a good time and a laugh (filled with irony) at modernism’s expense. But in the case of Main Street Life one wonders if modernism is having the last and loudest laugh of all.
In Hutcheon’s view, modern architecture was pretentious and elitist as aspiration rather than comfort became the primary design principle. She draws an analogy of the modern architect as a scientist who treats the tenant like an object in a living experiment. Yet, this sounds like an exacting description of the evolution of Main Street Life. For some three years ago, the building buzzed with the romance of artistic debauchery – flying on the clouds of substances both legal and illegal, many artists dreamed of (and often never accomplished) political revolutions and artistic coups. However, the dissident quickly became unattractive to investors. It became clear that the ‘scientists’ did not anticipate the volatile nature of their experiment: what ensued was the execution of a contingency plan that chose the cold comforts of capitalism instead. The experiment, they decided, had failed. Slowly but surely, rents were raised high enough to get the offending crowds to leave. Hence, the building has grown like a precocious child that gave up on its artistic dreams and went to business school instead. Perhaps the true artists are the developers themselves, for what exists is an ultra-marketable concept where a form of highly sanitized bohemianism does indeed sell. Nowadays, some residents who have lived there long enough speak of the ‘good old days’ – they imbibe in a nostalgia of their own.
Yet Hutcheon would accuse me of being a grump. She suggests that such purist thinking is passé. Postmodernism no longer casts capitalism as the villain in all of its aesthetic pursuits. With postmodernity, capitalism, the arts and architecture form a sustainable and happy ménage a trios and Hutcheon argues that we should appreciate, rather, the creative tension that the inescapable dynamic creates. But are we to be so easily persuaded by her North American optimism this far South of the equator?
To some extent, we witness a rather typical South African inferiority complex in the construction of Main Street Life. It is a cultural hangover from modernism where feelings of aesthetic marginality have always influenced our architectural choices. Always arriving at the party ‘late’, we perform imitation rather than adaptive innovation. It must be said that a cosmopolitan existence in Berlin is not the same as in Johannesburg where it takes on forms of artificiality that dictates rather than describes contemporary living for Jo’burgers. This point is made apparent by the frequenting patterns of local businesses: apart from Sunday, when visitors from the affluent northern suburbs pour in for the weekly market, there is a discernable lack of customers. This implies that those who live in Main Street Life don’t live there and nothing on offer is to the taste of the more local population (who are made to feel distinctly unwelcome beyond certain guarded points). Hence, the question of who, exactly, we renovate the city for remains.
Often, when walking the streets of the precinct, it evokes the imagined world of Toby for me, the protagonist in Nadine Gordimer’s novel, A World of Strangers. His version of the city is one of guardedness, easy mobility and bohemian flair. The stylization of the precinct deliberately plays on the nostalgia of when the city was once safe, walkable and habitable. But for me – and many other black citizens – these memories of the city come from books. This is to say, they are enforced experiences of nostalgia that do not directly stem from a cultural past. If anything, our parents and grandparents can vouch for experiences of exclusion from this city and having invented alternate versions instead. The precinct exemplifies, on some level, a ‘white’ nostalgia being made commonplace experience for all. It is a nostalgia of which it is unconscious. And without the much-needed ironic distance, it reads as a desire for cultural hegemony, a ‘taking back the city’ approach – as if there is a city to reclaim. Not surprisingly, Arts on Main has already become subject to black satire, in the span of an hour I picked up descriptions such as ‘Whites on Main’ and ‘Farts on Main’ in conversation. Funny though it is, it becomes disturbing when we note how satire was so often used during apartheid to speak to the disenfranchisement and displacement that black people felt, and presumably continue to feel in public spaces.
Undoubtedly, Main Street Life is caught in its own trappings of affluent aspirations and creative poverty. It reiterates an unwillingness to take our own cultural challenges seriously. Indeed, some businesses in the area have adopted an ‘adapt or die’ strategy and have begun to include a widening variety of items and events, and also at significantly lower prices – but it happens in the unfortunate vein of reluctance and a bottom-line.
To be fair to Gordimer’s protagonist, Toby eventually flees the ‘white’ city in search of more interesting Johannesburg … will we be left to do the same?
* Images © Nedine Moonsamy