#MyJoburg with Hugh Fraser, architect and tour guide

06 May 2024

In our #MyJoburg series, we speak to people who add something unique to Joburg's creative mix and get the lowdown on what enthrals them about this city.

Hugh Fraser is an architect, tour guide, and wit of note, with a confirmed diagnosis of dromomania, the uncontrollable urge to walk or wander associated with frequent travelling or wanderlust. A passion for exploration fuels his insatiable wanderlust; he aims to conquer not just the 197  'official' countries but also to savour every moment in each city, landscape, cuisine, and culture he encounters. And amidst his global adventures, he remains rooted in his home town, Johannesburg, where he delights in sharing the city's history and stories with visitors as a tour guide for his tour company, 58 Seconds.

Architect and tour guide Hugh Fraser in St. Helena. Photo: Supplied.

What are some of your favourite memories of growing up in Joburg?
Although I grew up privileged in 1960s and 1970s Joburg, our family led a semi-rural life, exploring the high-altitude grasslands that have now disappeared from the city. Later as a student, the Hillbrow jol was fabulous during the '80s, non-consumerist and analogue, and great fun. As an architect, I renovated a house in Troyeville and now live in a pavilion I designed in Craighall Park.

What drew you to a career in architecture?
People come and go throughout eternity. The buildings left behind (although our current society designs for ephemerality) record the very best and worst of the occupants. For Johannesburg, it is the embodiment of a century-plus of simply riveting stories. Around the world, it is what draws me to cities, along with the built environment fabric.

"I've learnt so much about the DNA of Joburg, how and why it came about, and how it does (and often doesn't) work."

What did your 35-plus years of practising in this field teach you?
The more I know, the more I realise how little I know. I also realise I've been too timid. Luckily, Oscar Niemeyer [a famous Brazilian architect] died at 104. So I'm only at 59%.

The last tally we saw, you'd been to 107 countries. Is that still the count? And where to next?
I'm writing to you during the first Ashras of Ramadan in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Country 108! I'm impressed how architecture and urban design are now taking a new look at changing an Arabian country, better so than its neighbours. Once I see the rim of my financial hole (that's from the bottom), I'm setting my sights on the "stans": Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, etc.
The Edge of the World in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the latest country marked on Fraser's travel checklist. Photo: Supplied.

How has travelling changed your perception of Joburg?
Travelling generally educates one on every aspect of life, which is why it is so fantastic. You learn as much about yourself and your society as those you visit. I've learnt so much about the DNA of Joburg, how and why it came about, and how it does (and often doesn't) work.

How did you start out in the world of guided tours, and what inspires you?
I had been doing architectural tours of Johannesburg for about 10 years for the then-head of the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, Lesley Lokko [OBE, Ghanaian-Scottish architect, academic, and novelist]. She was bosom buddies with the top architects in the world, and it became my job to guide [Danish architect named in 206 by Time as one of the 100 Most Influential People] Bjarke Ingels, [renowned Chilean architect] Alejandro Aravena, and other superstars around the city. During Covid-19, that part of my life hit a 230mm clay brick wall, plastered on both sides (specifications are very important!). So I studied to become an official national tour guide and later worked with the fabulous Sarah Barret of Joburg 360 Tours.

"The power of any architecture can only be as strong as the society that supports it. Sadly, it's not important for our contemporary community, and it's reflected thus."

What stands out for you about the built environment in Joburg?
Around 22% of the world's historical gold ever mined was [mined] in Johannesburg. That is a lot of money. The built environment reflected that. Obviously, it was not equally spread, and it has declined, but it is a living memory of the history of 20th-century architecture. The power of any architecture can only be as strong as the society that supports it. Sadly, it's not important for our contemporary community, and it's reflected thus. We have not looked after our city and we don't respect it. I'm pretty cynical about the upcoming elections, but perhaps a revitalised Joburg City Council might take more care and establish a think tank that nurtures our entire city.

An accomplished architect, keen traveller, published author, tour guide extraordinaire, and Come Dine With Me SA winner. What else might people be surprised to know about you?
I could never be accused of being accomplished. Jack of all trades... is more like it. I can also do a great Dutch accent!

Home is…
Imbibing in my kitchen, test-driving a recipe from the New York Times Cooking section, and being with mates.
Inside Fraser's kitchen, where many a New York Times recipe has been made. Photo: Supplied.

Your favourite Joburg suburb, and why you choose it?
Any suburb that interacts with the street. From Melville, Braamfontein, to Orlando West. Sadly, the richer the suburb, the less the street activation.

What is a surprising thing people might learn about Joburg by having a conversation with you?
I've never had a guest who hasn't said, "Wow!". I had no idea Joburg has such a negative reputation, so perhaps it's from a low base, but this city explodes with stories. Joburgers are genuinely friendly. Except when they're robbing you. Even then…

What three things should a visitor not leave Joburg without seeing or experiencing?
Constitution Hill Precinct. The thread that winds through Soweto which often disappoints foreigners [as they lack context without a guide], but with accurate commentary, is dynamic. A meander through the City Centre, even in a car, to take in the colour of the fabric shops, the range of architecture, and the history. I used to have an SAAB convertible, which was perfect for that.

Street art by Daniel Chapman or Mook Lion at the Constitution Hill precinct. Photo: Supplied.

Your favourite Joburg author or favourite Joburg book?
I loved Ivan Vladislavić's Portrait with Keys, so I look forward to The Near North, which is in the queue. Jonny Steinberg's Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage is beyond absorbing.
The most memorable meal you have eaten in Joburg? 
The fine-dining establishments are generally out of my price bracket, so it would be something Indian like Dosa Hut or any of the restaurants in Fordsburg.

If you could buy one Joburg building which would it be?
I'm in an abusive relationship with Standard Bank, so I co-own my house, but beyond that, I think Villa Arcadia designed by Sir Herbert Baker in 1909 would be my favourite. Great style, and a great view.

What's the most interesting or beautiful building in the city?
My Australian friend Tracey Naughton owned a flat on the 15th floor of the [Art Deco] Anstey's Building. I think it's a beautifully positioned and appointed building to give a fly-on-the-wall account of the City Centre of Joburg. We would have Saturday afternoon abseiling parties, but then I remembered my alcohol-fueled accidents and declined. I think a lot of Joburg's personalities moved through the building.
Fraser's friend, Tracey Naughton, abseiling down the Anstey building. Photo: Supplied.

What's the worst building in Johannesburg and why?
The soulless streets of Sandton. They avoided activated edges, integrating what makes us human into the built structures. Equally, the decayed edges of the City Centre, which the council and landlords have allowed to disintegrate.

If you were the Joburg mayor for one day (average tenure) what would you change?
Fire all the MMCs and appoint skilled technicians in each of their fields to run the city. And then I woke up.

Favourite Joburg label, and why?
Johannesburg In Your Pocket. Obsequious trull that I am, but [editor] Laurice and her team are spectacular at promoting the city. I'm partial to The Pantry by Marble, too. Soon in Bedfordview, I hear!

What makes someone a Joburger?
Someone whose soul is more beautiful than a Cape Town beach.

"This city explodes with stories."

What do you love most about Joburg?
The people.

What do you least like about Joburg?
The filth and general attitude to littering. I drove to Kigali [Rwanda's capital] and back with [journalist] Bridget Hilton-Barber (see our episodes on YouTube). They have a national clean-up day every month. Maybe it helps to have an autocrat in charge.

One song on your Joburg soundtrack that either is about Joburg or makes you think about this city?
Johannesburg performed by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson when I'm at home. Lilizela Mlilizeli performed by Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens when I'm travelling.

Your number-one tip for a first-time visitor to Joburg?
WhatsApp me!

One Joburg personality whom you would honour with the freedom of the city if you could, and why? 
The street cleaners and wastepreneurs of Johannesburg and Tanya Zack for her book, Wake Up, This Is Joburg.

The perfect weekend in Joburg includes...
Food tours: all the East Asian foods, Italian, Mexican, Korean, Ethiopian, Japanese, and South Asian foods in Fordsburg. Joburg is extremely well represented in world cuisines. Clubbing at Carfax. A Sunday cycle up Northcliff or Suikerbosrand. Lunch at my friends' house on Westcliff Ridge. Then collapse.

Three words that describe this city
Dynamic, exasperating, unexpected.

Check out some of our previous #MyJoburg interviews for more insights into the city:

#MyJoburg with Nick Hamman, radio DJ
#MyJoburg with Lesley Kellerman, founder of Heart & Heritage
#MyJoburg with Mbongeni Buthelezi, artist

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For all the latest news of what to do around Joburg, keep up to date with our weekly events and exhibitions guides.

University of Johannesburg

​Cnr Kingsway and University Rd, Auckland Park​


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