Block tactics: Jo’burg’s Maboneng hits its stride with the opening of a new hub

Block tactics: Jo’burg’s Maboneng hits its stride with the opening of a new hub

However hackneyed the phrase, ‘hipster central’ is still the most appropriate way to describe Maboneng, a once grimy, crime-ridden area to the east of Johannesburg’s Central Business District that is slowly emerging as a vibrant, urban neighbourhood.

The rumblings started seven years ago when local property whizz Jonathan Liebmann bought and stitched together five run-down warehouses to form Arts on Main (W*176), a creative hub and studio space for the city’s bright young things. Now, having snapped up a further 32 properties, Liebmann is single-handedly transforming the precinct, one derelict building at a time, creating – as he puts it – one of the world’s greatest neighbourhoods. It is now home to the Museum of African Design (MOAD), a string of new restaurants, bars and cafés, and some pretty lofty hospitality and residential offerings – one of which is the soon-to-open Hallmark House.

Earmarked to become the continent’s most desirable lifestyle destination, the 1970s industrial building is being overhauled by British architect David Adjaye to include luxury apartments, restaurants, a rooftop café and a boutique hotel. ‘Jo’burg is increasingly becoming an important city in the global art and design community,’ says Liebmann. ‘I see it becoming further entrenched in its role of being Africa’s primary economic and cultural hub.’

The newest kid on the block is The Cosmopolitan. A retail and lifestyle hub conceived by local artist and general go-getter Jonathan Freemantle and Liebmann’s younger brother Daniel, the venue is the result of the duo’s ambition to expand Hazard – their gallery in Arts on Main – and provide more space for their fledgling concept store, inspired by the likes of London’s Dover Street Market and Milan’s 10 Corso Como. ‘We always intended to bring in a concept store element, which launched in our upper level space late last year,’ explains Freemantle. ‘As a result, we were approached by a number of strong luxury brands looking for retail space in Maboneng. So we started looking for a building to house them.’

That building is a handsome Victorian pile located just opposite the art deco MOAD on the corner of Albrecht and Commissioner Streets. Designed in 1899 by British architect brothers Arthur and Walter Reid, the former hotel is a rare architectural relic for the city and the only building by the pair still standing. 

In a bid to return the faded grande dame to her former glory, Freemantle and Daniel Liebmann have spruced up the interiors to accommodate, on the ground floor, a fancy destination restaurant by Dario de Angeli, the experimental chef behind the city’s Cube Tasting Kitchen, as well as a revival of the hotel’s original Lions Bar and a cluster of artisanal food offerings. Upstairs, the layout of the guest rooms has been retained to form individual boutiques for a line-up of luxury – and mostly African – fashion, beauty and homeware brands, including fragrances by Cape Town-based perfumery House of Godzawa, porcelain offerings by designer Frauke Stegmann, and indulgent teas courtesy of Swaady Martin, one of the judges of Wallpaper’s Best Urban Hotel Awards 2015.

Of course, remaining true to Maboneng’s guiding principles, art is at the core of the project, with a sculpture garden taking pride of place in the courtyard and a second iteration of Hazard gallery providing a programme of rotating exhibitions and installations that will feature artists such as Michele Mathison, Marcus Neustetter and Rodan Kane Hart, among others. ‘There seems to be an overall uptick in cultural activities across South Africa,’ says the younger Liebmann. 

Indeed, it’s this new cultural vitality that convinced Freemantle – who lived and worked abroad for 18 years – to return to his home turf. ‘There’s a new kind of dynamism and healthy irreverence amongst Jo’burgers,’ he affirms. ‘It’s a thrilling time to be here and to be right in the centre of the inner-city renewal.’

As originally featured in the June Issue of Wallpaper* (W*207)

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