From the Norm

South African architect Jo Noero designs buildings that put people first, helping revitalize a country devastated by apartheid. Now he's working in St. Louis to rebuild the inner city. His greatest obstacle: "You can't do that here."

Jo Noero is eager to take a drive around the city. Since moving to St. Louis from South Africa in 1997, Noero reckons he's driven down every street that makes up the mad labyrinth of the cityscape. It's one of the newfound freedoms he's enjoyed since coming to America to join the faculty of the Washington University School of Architecture, for which he now serves as director of graduate studies. "I've never felt more free in my life," he says with undeniable exuberance. "I've never felt more energized. There are things that you can do here that you really can't do anywhere else in the world."

One of those things is to hop into his compact blue Geo and drive during his free time. "I just love it. It's the greatest thrill in the world." He proves that he's discovered the more significant city landmarks, offering Crown Candy Kitchen as a destination for a late lunch.

A ham-and-cheese at Crown Candy, cruising the city in a Geo -- these are not the stereotypical accoutrements of a successful architect. One imagines symbols of prestige to adorn an enormous ego -- the tools of arrogance. "Architect" doesn't go with "affable." Yet Noero is the most respected architect in his home country, receiving numerous awards from the Institute of South African Architects for a wide range of projects: career centers, sports facilities, office buildings, 15 Anglican churches and an addition to Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Soweto home, housing for the poor, the middle-class and the wealthy. In 1993 he received the first major international recognition for his work, the prestigious Erskine Fellowship from the Swedish Academy of Arts and Architecture. Most recently Noero was awarded, through an international competition, the commission for the Apartheid Museum in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He's being written and talked about in what has become a globalized architectural world, with people such as British architecture critic Catherine Slessor, writing in Architectural Review: "Compared with the fashionable excesses of much current American and European architecture, the strong, socially minded work of Jo Noero brings us back to our senses."

The sensible, modest architect Noero drives east on Forest Park Avenue with the aggressive, freewheeling style of someone who learned to drive in a big city, his city being Johannesburg. Here in the less-than-bustling metropolis of St. Louis, the new Federal Courts Building comes into view, a structure that is already referred to, in some circles, as "the big penis." Noero isn't so dismissive: "I don't mind it. It's got quite a handsome proportion." He speaks with an English accent that lends a worldly charm to phrases such as "quite a handsome proportion."

"I don't like it close up," he adds. "It's got a nasty proportion on the street level and the colors are a little bit strange, but it's a brave new building on the city skyline of St. Louis. So bravo! Let's have more of them."

A distinctive part of Noero's character is the way he doesn't focus on the building itself but sees it in the context of possibility: part of a bold city skyline in the making.

Heading north on Grand, he expresses his admiration for the Continental Building, that sad, distinguished relic that lingers on the skyline like a memory that refuses to dissolve. Noero drives down Washington to Spring. Nearby is a site for which he drew housing plans at the request of the Grand Center development association. "The thing Grand Center needs is people living here," he says decisively. "Until that happens, it's just going to be a one-stop entertainment place with massive parking areas, and that's the end of it."

We pass by the ongoing construction of the building that will contain Emily Pulitzer's prestigious art collection. Having studied Tadao Ando's design plans, Noero believes it's going to be one of the finest buildings by Japan's most acclaimed architect. He praises its "modesty" -- another word that seems out of place in regard to modern architecture, but it's one Noero appreciates. "Modesto -- in good proportion," he qualifies in Italian, returning to the Latin root of the word.

From the Ando building -- and all the wealth and prestige it symbolizes -- to a few meager blocks of Olive with empty lots, brick homes and shops in various states of collapse, a few brave buildings standing firm against neglect: the St. Louis urban landscape the privileged can avoid. Noero had proposed clusters of single-family homes for the area -- homes with distinct, proud public facades, he explains, but with private spaces for each individual family where "people could do whatever the hell they wanted to." He mischievously connects this design concept of "public virtue, private vice" to the Lewinsky-Clinton affair.

Noero drives down the block of mostly abandoned brick structures and imagines the possibility of Grand Center as a thriving area of shops, restaurants, cultural activities, St. Louis University -- and families living here.

"The problem is that this is what you could get to replace it," Noero says as the housing development, Westminster Place, comes into view.

Westminster Place -- beginning at the corner of Olive and Vandeventer -- stands insolently amid the squalor. For Noero, this recent housing development is the primary example of a frightening trend in the city's re-creation. He derides Westminster Place as "these big lumpy buildings where four or five families live, then there's a little piece of ground in between and then another lumpy building -- and that land doesn't belong to anyone."

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