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."

Those lumpy buildings squat on the terrain like lumps of dough, just as Noero described them. "This is suburban and quite sad," he says.

He drives a few blocks west to look at the buildings that Westminster Place fails to emulate -- the majestic houses that served families of another St. Louis era.

"They try to capture the effect of these old, grand houses," Noero says. "But what they don't realize is, the pattern of use has changed and people can no longer afford to live in those big houses. So they make four smaller houses look like these big houses, and it's a really awful place for people to live. There's no private yard space for kids to play in; no garden space is your own."

Disgust rises in Noero's voice, "It's really appalling. It's really miserable housing. This is not family housing for people in cities. They try to capture the effect of the big house on this piece of land, but in the process they end up with all this sterilized space they're not making any use of. I'm not even criticizing it from the point of view of aesthetics; it's just such a woeful waste of city space. I'd never move in here with a family. I'd never want to."

Noero articulates the strange disharmony Westminster Place effects on the city landscape. This is more than unimaginative design, a plan for housing that is replicated in cities across the country -- across the world, actually -- that inflicts a dull homogeneity on people's everyday lives. Westminster Place is the propagation of a lie: the facade of middle-class life, a faux suburbia. People move to the suburbs for space, a yard, quiet; they do not live four families to a building in a place that is no place, with only a name to reference it to more nobler aspirations.

A drive anywhere in the city reveals stark divisions of race and class, the gated neighborhoods of the prosperous abutted by the vulnerable zones of the urban poor. A drive east on Lafayette Avenue, for example, passes by stately homes with fresh paint jobs into a region of urban blight: the shell of City Hospital, the ongoing demolition of the Darst-Webbe housing project -- sites that will never make it onto any Chamber of Commerce tour. Between the old City Hospital and the I-55/I-44 cloverleaf is a nearly barren stretch of land: another vacant lot drivers ignore on their way to the comfortable suburbs of West County and Illinois. A few brick houses crumble into time. Some still serve as shelter for those who can't afford the renovated glory of the surrounding neighborhoods of Lafayette Park and Soulard.

In this desolate strip of land, Noero has found opportunity. It is here he is proposing an alternative to developments such as Westminster Place, to demonstrate to St. Louis a way toward building housing that combines efficiency and humanity, that nurtures community, that makes a city modern and new while retaining its character -- an attractive cosmopolitan place where families will live.

Little Bohemia
There's history here. Bohemian Hill is not a name many St. Louisans recognize. If there's any familiarity with this place, it's as "No-Man's Land." But before the interstates came to separate them, Soulard, Lafayette Square, LaSalle Park and the former Bohemian Hill were part of one large community. The first Czech church in America remains -- St. John Nepomuk Catholic Church on 11th Street -- a remnant of what was once a thriving Eastern European community, "Little Bohemia." An enlarged aerial photograph of the area, taken circa 1950s, shows a tightly clustered group of homes and shops, an urban neighborhood that somehow was erased.

The photograph is on view in the 12th Street studio Noero shares with his partner, Don Royse, and assistant, Amit Patel. It leans against a scale model of what could be the future of Bohemian Hill: 119 moderate-income homes built to reclaim the vitality of a cosmopolitan community.

Noero and Royse have designed three houses to serve as demonstration models, slated for construction this spring: three-story, three-bedroom, terrace-style homes that are distinctly contemporary but blend into the historic area as well. "People say you can't build in the city for less than $120,000," says Noero. The projected market value of these houses is $100,000. Once people see it can be done, Noero believes, it will be a catalyst for the realization of the entire project, and Bohemian Hill -- a name nearly forgotten -- will be revived.

"We're going to build them, aren't we, Don?" Noero prods his partner.
Royse pauses before he answers. Royse, who recently retired from the Wash. U. School of Architecture, served as director of city design for three years and was one of the people instrumental in making MetroLink a reality. He has an intimate knowledge of how things get done -- and don't get done -- in the city of St. Louis. So it takes him a moment before he nods affirmatively: "Yes. We are."

One of the things the Bohemian Hill project has in its favor is strong support among those who live nearby, support that was developed over a series of community meetings. Noero and Royse moved into the studio on 12th Street to become visible to the community they were working to change. They have spent a great deal of time talking, and listening, to their neighbors.

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