The South African Building That Came to Symbolize the Apocalypse

Ponte City, Africa’s tallest apartment block, is a mainstay of movies about the end of the world, but it was once an apartheid-era architectural triumph.

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The South African Building That Came to Symbolize the Apocalypse
Ponte Tower

Built at the center of a buzzy, international neighborhood, Ponte began life as a posh address for white residents in the 1970s. The building’s unusual architecture—its flats all face a gaping open core—lent it a distinct, if eerie, appeal from the outset. But as the fall of apartheid transformed the city center, the building was dragged along with it, morphing into an outsized symbol of the violence and decay that gripped parts of Johannesburg during South Africa’s messy transition to democracy in the 1990s.

By the time I arrived there, Ponte was shorthand in local media and the public imagination for a city transformed—or, depending on who you asked, destroyed—by the warp of history. Now, it seemed that Hollywood had figured out the logical end point of that metaphor. Over the past few years, the building has appeared in several international films (its credits include District 9, Chappie, and a Drake music video, among others), always as a place both desolate and dangerous. But Resident Evil, which opened in late January in the U.S., took it a step further. It picked Ponte up out of downtown Johannesburg, and dropped it down in the middle of a gutted metropolis at the end of human history. The symbolism was hard to miss.

In September 2015, a couple of days before Ponte transformed into Resident Evil’s zombie wasteland, a notice from the management appeared posted on walls around the building.

“DEAR TENANTS OF PONTE CITY,” it read. “THERE ARE PEOPLE SHOOTING A MOVIE IN THE BUILDING SO THERE WILL BE GUN SHOTS THAT YOU WILL HEAR, SO PLEASE JUST KEEP CALM DO NOT PANIC.”

This wasn’t much of a surprise. It was hardly the first time that downtown Johannesburg had caught the attention of filmmakers searching for a city whose landscape could quickly telegraph violence and disarray. This was the same city that The Hulk smashed to pieces in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the same “dystopic irradiated wasteland” that Judge Dredd and his crew chased bad guys through in the comic book cum 2012 action movie Dredd. (That film even centers on a 200-story slum tower with a gaping open center—a clear Ponte remake.) […]