Using Public Art To Transform Cities

Artist Lesley Perkes is working on transforming Johannesburg through art that both inspires and also actually improves the urban landscape.

We tend to think of public art as mere adornment, something that’s nice to look at. But, for Lesley Perkes, it is more than that: it’s about firing people’s imagination, and laying down a marker to pessimists who say nothing ever changes, or can change.


A self-proclaimed “instigator,” Perkes wants to transform her home city of Johannesburg using art as a sort of catalyst. Her current project is the enormous Hillbrow Tower, a legacy of apartheid that sits unused and unloved in the middle of a poor area. “It pervades the whole city’s psyche, and it’s a symbol of the country’s psyche,” she says. “As it is, it is a symbol that is neglectful and uncaring.”

Perkes’s plan, for which she has already raised about $5 million, involves re-decorating the tower as well as investing in the roughly nine blocks around it. Designers, both amateur and professional, will submit ideas (Perkes likes the idea of putting the structure in a dress, though that is unlikely to happen). And, money will go to street performance and art projects, as well as drains, sidewalks, lighting, and street furniture.

Perkes describes the approach as “integrating imagination in all aspects of the development”, and as a departure from “development the same old way, driven by property developers whose property comes first”. A theme of her work is that “public space” really should be for the public, and not fenced off for someone’s benefit. After finishing with the tower’s outside, she wants to persuade the government to re-designate it as a venue for everybody to use. At the moment, it is still a “national key point”, a security fixture left over from the segregation years.

Perkes says she’s already seen what art can do for a neighborhood. As an example, she points to the “Troyeville Bedtime Story“: when Perkes and two friends got together to build a big concrete bed in a local park. Perkes was sick of the sight of rubble sitting on a corner and decided to do something with it (nobody else was going to). The friends laid out the bed, with an ornate headboard and pillows, and then were surprised by how people across the area wanted to be involved. Now, the bed is a popular landmark for all kinds of activities, including movie-making and photo-shoots, and local group meet-ups.

“When people get around it, they start feeling a bit free,” she says. “They can go there to rest, but also to have fun.” For more from Perkes, watch her TED talk above.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.