Radoma Court
Yeoville, South Africa, 1938
DATE: 15/5/2014
DOCOMOMO South Africa calls for help because Radoma Court in Yeoville is in danger, since the building is drastically altered without permission.

DOCOMOMO International Chair, Ana Tostões, addressed letters to the Mayor Parks Tau (City Manager of Johannesburg) and to Mr Trevor Fowler (City of Johannesburg Municipal Manager), concerning the damage being done to Radoma Court in Yeoville. 

Radoma Court Damages Press Release
by Hannah le Roux
School of Architecture and Planning, University of the Witwatersrand

In the last few days the architecture community has become aware of the illegal addition of a floor to the landmark modernist apartment building, Radoma Court, in Yeoville, Johannesburg. This addition has entailed the demolition of the solarium and covered porch leading to a roof garden that was one of the features of this highly avant-garde building, constructed in 1937-38. 

The City of Johannesburg issued a stop order to the builders, but as of today, builders were still on site and moving materials. In addition, as the building is automatically protected from changes without Heritage approvals, the Provincial agency has also issued an order to cease work that has also had no effect. The reality is that illegal building and alteration is rife in Johannesburg, and such orders are routinely ignored. 

Nevertheless, the extremely high cultural significance of Radoma Court means that it deserves to be especially well protected, and ideally, restored. It was one of the handful of Johannesburg buildings from the 1930’s that came out of “le Groupe Transvaal”, to which le Corbusier dedicated the second volume of his Oeuvre Complet. Inspired by the aesthetics of international modernism, remarkably young architects were involved in the design of buildings that achieved recognition in famous journals such as the Architectural Review, l’Architecture d’Aujourdhui as well as the South African Architectural Record. 

Radoma Court deserves this recognition as an extraordinary design. Built over four floors, it consists of 27 light-filled studio and one bedroomed apartments, with customised kitchen, bathroom and built in fittings to support a truly modern lifestyle. Apart from the solarium, the building included a stairwell wall of glass bricks, porthole windows, a rubbish shute and a lift. The aesthetic of the details, including oak floorboards, mesh balustrading, light fittings, building signs, mobile cupboards and windows, was as modern in style as western ones, but were artisanally produced, so shifting local production towards cleaner lines and industrial materials. 

The building’s design was concerned with the creation of generous social space, while giving a good return to its owner through it clever and compact planning. The deep recessed balconies on the west makes the building climatically comfortable while supporting a relationship with the street, while the courtyard and gallery arrangement, and dynamic staircase, provides connection between the residents.

Radoma Court came out of the offices of Harold le Roith, a recent graduate from Wits who was to produce many important residential buildings and synagogues in Johannesburg. The young designer who signed many of the drawings, Kurt Jonas, was himself a remarkable character who was to have a great impact on South African social housing policy. Jonas, who was in his 20’s, had initially trained as a lawyer in Germany, in Frankfurt at the height of the “neue frankfurt” boom of modernist housing and design. He returned to South Africa in 1933 in the wake of rising anti-Semitism, and choosing architecture instead as a transnational career. But unsatisfied with the limits of his new professional path, he became the leading left wing intellectual on the Wits campus, teaching his peers about Marx. 

Jonas wrote:

“the architect…cannot pursue his art in the seclusion of a studio, but must help to prepare the ground for it on the battleground of social forces”  [ Kurt Jonas (1938) Foreward to special edition of Town Planning, South African Architectural Record, vol 23 no 8. p 269 ]

One of his admirers was Rusty Bernstein, the architect who was to become the co-ordinator of the Freedom Charter, the manifesto of the Congress movement that took up the struggle against apartheid in the post-war period. Bernstein said: “he pointed me in the right direction”. The idea of housing rights is embedded in the Charter and now the South African Constitution, thanks to Jonas.

Jonas died tragically young in 1942, in Palestine. Radoma Court is the single monument to this remarkable man, who bridged between Europe and South Africa, trying to use his skill in design to define ways of life that are simultaneously communal and private, elegant and restrained, healthy and aesthetic and above all, innovative and yet legal. The alteration in progress is a scandal in the light of what Radoma Court represents. South Africa’s struggle and post-apartheid moment are indebted to serious and principled thinkers like Jonas. Over and above the symbolic force of the building, it was a great design, and for over sixty years, until its current abuse, stood for the best that Johannesburg has produced.