A once-dilapidated industrial complex, Victoria Yards is situated in Lorentzville on the eastern edge of Jo’burg’s CBD. It’s a sprawling 30 000m2 development of old warehouses and historical buildings, stretching across the Jukskei River, which runs through the property. Originally conceived as an urban city farm-school, it’s become a magnet for like-minded artistic souls like Blessing Ngobeni, Craig Smith and Dario Manjate, who are seeking to reinvent city living.

Horticulturist Daniel Roxburgh is assisting Victoria Yards with the farm. He’s working with Prof Michael Rudolph, the Director and founder of Siyakhana, which runs an accredited training farm school. ‘This is where it gets lovely,’ says Green. ‘Michael can use Daniel’s services, as he’s a trained horticulturist. Michael isn’t, but he holds multiple degrees and is passionate about the farm and training people.’ Just one more way in which the community’s educational eco-system is at work.

The buildings, which house studios and workshop spaces for fine artists, metalworkers, glass-blowers, silkscreen printers and furniture-makers, have been given the lightest touch. Old plaster and graffiti remain and there’s a strong sense of identity and place as the exposed brickwork reveals a multitude of texturally rich, historic layers.
‘The eco-system’s definitely showing signs of working,’ says Brian Green, property developer and the creative visionary, alongside his partners. ‘One tenant will need a chair designed and they’ll go to Norris Mwape. Another will need a gate made and they’ll ask Justin Wells. So it’s working quite beautifully and people love working in this environment.’
Metalworker Justin Wells echoes this. ‘It’s important where you spend every day of your life. I’d rather spend it in a garden than in industrial grime,’ he says. Here, there are walkways lined with thriving edible gardens – lemon verbena, cabbages, fig and apricot trees, mealies and more – and ascending meadows leading to an enormous building that will be morphing into a restaurant and an event space. Doubleshot will soon be offering a much-needed caffeine fix and there are plans for a smaller daytime eatery.

The development’s rapidly evolving to meet the community’s needs and to ensure it’s a commercially viable project. ‘Victoria Yards, remarkably, has stayed close to what I originally envisaged,’ says Green. ‘My first idea was to green it up. I love gardens and I always seem to end up creating them in developments. Gardens are big drivers for the success of a place – greenery softens the rawness.’

The idea behind the urban agriculture project, explains Green, is to associate Victoria Yards with all the farms in the area, such as Siyakhaya, in order to establish a vegetable market and facilitate agricultural education. An artisan school is also in the works and a fair to showcase artisans and their craft will be held with MAKESA later this year.

‘It’s all about rethinking how cities can work and actually making things happen,’ says Green.

Blessing Ngobeni, artist

What are you enjoying most about the space?

It’s an open, collaborative community to which each of us brings our unique skills and talents. It’s a space artists have really needed.

And your studio?

I like the fact that it’s on the ground floor. I don’t have to carry all my work or take a lift any longer and I can park my car (a pistachio-coloured Beetle that looks as if it belongs in a design gallery) right inside my studio, next to my artworks.

Any collaborations on the go with Victoria Yards creatives?

I recently completed an artwork with Benon Lutaaya and I’m interested in doing a ‘when a collagist meets a photographer’ collaboration with Justice Mukheli.

What have you been working on lately?

I’ve just done an exhibition in Cape Town called Enemy of Foe and I’ll be doing another one in October this year at the Everard Read Gallery, London. Right now
I’m working on a steel sculpture for the Joburg Art Fair in September.

At Smelt Glass Studio, glass-blower Thabiso Mokaba turns the blow pipe in the furnace to keep it in constant motion. The cycle of blowing, heating and turning, then shaping, can be repeated many times until the desired shape is achieved.

David Krynauw, furniture-maker

How did you get involved in Victoria Yards?

Brian asked me if I wanted to be a part of it when it was still hush-hush. It was a no-brainer. It was close to one of my biggest clients, Nando’s, had amazing spaces and was a place into which I could put some energy and help transform.

How was the development a good fit for your business?

Training and upskilling are vital components in the growth of my business. I have 60 people working with me now. Last year we grew by 27 people, so we’ve almost doubled. I wanted to create an opportunity for everyone to flourish.

Do you feel you have a responsibility towards the local community?

Yes. We’re located in a highly impoverished area. The mission for me is to employ a lot more people and make a social impact; to use the gift of the business to provide solutions like housing.

Left: Ali Ntieche’s company, The Art of the Continent, sources arts and crafts from all over Africa. Right: Copper, crates and African art give The Impi Brewing Co its unique look. Offering delicious, create-your-own pizza and ice-cold craft beer, it recently brought the brewery on site.

Text: Fiona Davern; Photographs: Elsa Young