Aiton Court

Brendan Hart and Yasmin Mayat

Photo of Johannesburg, South Africa by Simon Hurry on Unsplash.

This essay is part of a virtual conference series “The Roles of Law, Religion and Housing Through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)” sponsored by Canopy Forum and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. This series features scholars, experts, and practitioners who examine global challenges of homelessness, housing policy and housing vulnerability. You can browse all essays and view video presentations from the series here.

Aiton Court (1937) is an early international style modernist apartment block located in Hillbrow, in the inner-city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Architecturally celebrated and internationally published in its day, the building has a high level of architectural significance. Socially, it became significant during apartheid as one of the first buildings to (illegally) desegregate, later becoming a base for political activists. In the 1980s, a small mosque opened in two of its ground floor apartments.

After a long period of neglect (paralleling the decay of the surrounding area), the building was “hijacked”. Then in 2012, it was purchased for commercial renovation aimed at low-cost rental housing. Due to the building’s heritage value, the new owners approached Mayat Hart Architects to oversee its repair and restoration. This presented a challenge, as the project had to be commercially viable, conducted within a tight budget, and remain sensitive to its architectural and social significance.

The resulting renovation sits somewhere between traditional restoration and repair. The work aimed to recognize the building’s architectural value, while still allowing it to be functionally relevant. The team argued for retention of the mosque, since it was an important social anchor for the building’s community, alongside the restoration of its public spaces and courtyard. Now home to a thriving community, it is an example of a hybrid approach to the problems of inner-city housing – namely, architectural conservation and the making of community – in the often-fractured Johannesburg inner-city.

The Social History of Hillbrow, Johannesburg

Hillbrow is an inner-city suburb of Johannesburg, notorious for crime and poverty. In the 1890s the area was established as suburban, contrasting with its current identity as having one of the world’s highest population densities (69,000 people per square kilometer) and what is likely the largest concentration of modernist, high rise apartment buildings in South Africa, dating largely from the 1930s to the 1960s. Viewed from the outside as a haven for crime and poverty, Hillbrow has become home to a cosmopolitan pan-African community and is often seen as an entry point into the city and country for new immigrants.

Hillbrow has always been seen as liberal and cosmopolitan. Its modernist building stock was speculatively developed to house European immigrants fleeing the instability of inter and post war Europe, as well as young, white, city dwellers.  The area became the heart of the city’s café society and nightlife.      

The South African apartheid state (1948-1994) introduced several policies legislating racial segregation. The 1950 Group Areas Act dictated how and where people of different races lived, curtailing property rights of non-white South Africans. Johannesburg effectively became a “whites only” city. Non-white residents were restricted to living in inadequate and peripheral dormitory townships, their access to the city controlled and administered by a system of passes.  

By the 1970s, the inability of the state to supply sufficient housing for non-white residents in segregated townships, led to severe housing shortages. When coupled with the high cost of transport needed to travel the long distances to the city for work, several upper middle class Indian and mixed race families began to move to what were then classified as “whites only group areas”.

The main reason for breaking the apartheid state’s laws of segregation was economic rather than ideological, with the housing shortage in non-white areas offset by an oversupply of housing in white group areas.

Hillbrow, after a period of uninhibited speculative development by private property owners during the economic boom of the 1960s, had a substantial oversupply of apartments.    

Accommodation in the Indian Group area of Fordsburg was limited, and a move to Hillbrow meant reduced transport and living costs, which made the risks associated with breaking the law economically justifiable. Illegal tenants, and later owners, made use of a white “nominee” as a means of circumventing the law. The lease of the apartment or ownership of the property was placed under the name of the nominee. Nominees were occasionally paid, but acting as a nominee was often an act of resistance. Landlords were usually complacent that apartments in their under-occupied buildings were being rented out at inflated prices. The defiance and success of these early residents encouraged black African tenants to follow suit by the 1980s.

The descriptive term “greying” (the mixing of black and white) was used to describe this process of illegal desegregation. In Johannesburg, greying started in the inner-city suburb of Hillbrow. 

In response to complaints, the government tried to act against illegal residents, but legal action was met with strong resistance from numerous fronts. ActStop, an organization set up to fight or delay evictions, made it costly and inconvenient for the government. Eventually a 1982 Supreme Court ruling against the state made eviction without the supply of alternative housing illegal, encouraging more people to move to white group areas. The abolishment of race-based housing practices became formalized in 1991 with the repeal of the Group Areas Act which led to further expansion of the cosmopolitan, multiracial community that already had a strong foothold in the area.

“Greying” was one of several processes affecting the modernist landscape of Hillbrow.  Unscrupulous landlords charged unaffordable rents to illegal tenants. This led to sub-letting and overcrowding, which placed strain on existing building services, and was often coupled with the failing of maintenance and general neglect of buildings.  The result was a cycle of capital flight, tenant flight and greater neglect of Hillbrow. By the 1990s the decay had become endemic, with entire buildings being “hijacked” and portions of greater Hillbrow turning into an urban slum.  

Modernism in South Africa

Johannesburg, particularly the School of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, was the epicenter for the emergence of modernist architectural thinking in South Africa. The school, through lecturer Rex Martienssen, had in the early 1930s become exposed to the architecture of the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM). Martienssen developed a relationship with Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who named the group of young avant-garde architects the Groupe Transvaal, dedicating the second volume of his Oeuvre Complete to them.  The style of architecture evolved over time, responding to local conditions and materiality. Martienssen’s own house, dating from 1939, signaled a shift in the emergence of the local modernist vernacular. The new style, characterized by its use of articulated concrete framing and expressive face brick work, was widely adopted by architects and speculative developers. Its extensive use for the modernist high rise apartment buildings of Hillbrow led it to being named “Hillbrow Modern”, with architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner describing it in the Architectural Review of 1953 as “a little Brazil within the commonwealth”. 

Despite the surrounding social change, Hillbrow’s characteristic high rise modernist building stock has remained functionally relevant and relatively unchanged, even through its time as a site of unexpected political resistance. 

Aiton Court, designed and built between 1937 and 1938, is an early example of the Transvaal Group’s modernist approach. The building was designed by the pioneering young architects Angus Stewart and Bernard Cooke, both graduates of the School of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand. It is typical of early international style modernism and Le Corbusier’s principles, predating and influencing much of the later “Hillbrow Modern” apartment blocks that developed around it. Small in scale, it fits in a former fifty by one-hundred-foot suburban stand, made up of two parallel north facing blocks – a four story block on the northern street edge and an eight-story block on the south.  The height difference and courtyard between the blocks allowed the sun into the lower floors of the rear building, even in winter months, but this design relied on the adjacent buildings remaining relatively low, which changed over time as higher rise buildings were erected around it.

The front block was raised on piloti and rests on a podium that is raised above street level, creating a subtle threshold between the public street and private courtyard. The entrance provided access to the fountain courtyard, and the apartments are accessed via a glazed staircase and lift tower which links the two blocks. The studio apartments, with enclosed kitchens and bathrooms, were designed for maximum space efficiency. The upper floors of the south block contained rooms with shared ablutions. The roof of the lower northern block housed a shared a Corbusien solarium, while that of the higher southern block housed closed-off rooms to accommodate black domestic staff. Finished in a white painted plaster, with a rich palette of colors used to articulate the repetitive modulation of its façade, the building was internationally well received and widely published.

Social Evolution of Aiton Court

Aiton Court was a speculative development – its high density, light structure, and repetitive elements making it economical to build – attracting a culturally rich and diverse community of tenants including artists and architects. After the Second World War, Hillbrow experienced a building boom, with early apartment buildings such as Aiton Court being dwarfed by taller and taller new buildings. Older buildings, often individually or family owned, could not compete financially with the larger corporately developed and agent-managed buildings, and maintenance became increasingly difficult.

Under new ownership in the 1970s and 1980s, the building was used to house sex workers. It was one of the first buildings in Hillbrow to (illegally) accept colored, Indian, and African tenants.  It was during this time that the Rawat family moved in, as tenants were taking advantage of the building’s relaxed policies on race. They were eventually able to buy Aiton Court in the mid 1980s, cleaning it up and making it a more desirable place to live.  Under their ownership the building became a site of resistance. Some apartments were given to hiding political operatives from the police, while the fountain courtyard was used by those very political operatives as well as to raise funds for ActStop’s legal costs.. In addition to this, two of the courtyard-facing apartments were converted to a small mosque, with well-attended Friday prayers spilling out into the adjacent courtyard. Well managed until the 1990s, the building fell into decline after the death of the owner. Unable to maintain the building, it was sold off circa 2000. Its continuing decline left the building in a crumbling state of disrepair, culminating with its hijacking by tenants in 2012, shortly after its purchase by Trafalgar Property Management.       

Conservation and Restoration  

Mayat Hart Architects saw the repair and restoration of this valuable heritage building as a unique opportunity for teaching, learning, and exploring means of conservation appropriate to the difficult Johannesburg inner-city context. Students from the School of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand documented the building, including how residents used, occupied, and adapted it. Apart from the two apartments opened and converted to create space for the mosque, adaptations were less than permanent, limited to temporary partitioning and furniture placement.

For the property owner, the heritage of the building was not a priority, and the budget was restricted (around $1,000 USD per apartment). The architects had to weigh conservation needs and the interests of the community against commercial realities. What developed was a model of how inner-city regeneration can be balanced with heritage responsibilities and commercial needs – a form of austerity conservation.

With the limited budget, repair, restoration, and reuse of the original fabric was favored over replacement. After urgent structural repair and the replacement of severely deteriorated services, the reinstatement of the building’s public realm was prioritized. Archival research and on-site investigation revealed the original color scheme, and the internal courtyard with its water feature was restored to its 1930s layout, now doubling as a gathering space for the prayer facility. Other layers of adaptation were stripped only when it was clear that they did not add value to the functioning of the building.

The building thus exists in two worlds: the historic and the adapted present. The restoration is as much an accumulation and layering of history as it is a snapshot of the building’s original design. It is a living embodiment of the heritage, as well as functional value of the building.

During its history, the building was at its best when it served the community. The mosque, which had been a part of the building for over forty years, was the heart of its community and thus integral to its functioning. The owner had to be convinced that the mosque would add value to the property, and would attract a better type of tenant, making the building more desirable.

Conclusion: Value-based Adaptation and Reuse

The process of repair and restoration exposed the inherent value of the design of the building, which demonstrates the universality of early modernist design and its adaptability and flexibility over time. With its resilient architecture and inherent efficient and rational modernist design principles, the building allowed for continuous change while still serving its varied occupants. Since it was designed as a commercial venture, its rebirth under commercial investors seems appropriate. Despite the owners’ pure commercial intentions, it ended up serving architectural and social value. Upon returning to the site in 2023, it was wonderful to see that the mosque had not only retained its function, but a third courtyard-facing apartment was converted into a thriving madrassa (Islamic school).

Aiton Court is a singular example, but its mix of values-based social and built restoration, supported by commercially viable investment, can be seen as a potential model.  In a city with numerous social issues, the conservation and protection of architectural heritage or the cultural values of marginal communities, are often not seen as a priority. Social and commercial imperatives can however meet, and with support,  flourish. ♦

Yasmin Mayat and Brendan Hart both completed their professional architectural degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and their Master of Philosophy in Conservation of the Built Environment at the University of Cape Town. They are founding principals of Mayat Hart Architects and Heritage Consultants, an award-winning architectural and heritage practice that combines architecture, research, conservation and advocacy with considered projects that aim to respond to the rich and complex architectural and social history of the South Africa.  Both teach at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Recommended Citation

Hart, Brendan & Mayat, Yasmin. “Aiton Court.” Canopy Forum, March 20, 2024.