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."

"It's a long, complicated process," Noero says of the community meetings. Patel, a recent graduate of the Wash. U. School of Architecture, describes it in more colorful terms: "It's a messy process. Everyone's very protective of what they want to do. I've learned that to be an architect you have to have a lot of patience."

Patience may be the primary virtue necessary to practice socially responsible architecture. If the premise of architecture is to serve people, rather than to impose exquisite modern forms upon them, it means that architects need to listen to the needs of a given community. Design, then, is partly governed by those needs, not by the dictates of pure form.

Through the community meetings held at St. John Nepomuk, Noero found that "the starting premise was that this area needs new housing. It would be preferable if it was family housing, owned by the family. We needed to build a model of housing that was both historically sensitive to the area but which offered a little bit more than what the current housing stock does -- for example, an efficient layout without too much given over to circulation, with the idea of a private outdoor space, garage access and so forth. That's what we started off with."

Royse says that one of the many conflicts that arose was "the relationship between the family and the good life and their car. As we were doing the plan, we tried very hard to make the automobile a nonintrusive part of their lives. There were some people on one side who would have been happy to ban the car, but we tried to give as many people as possible a garage that was close to their unit and adequate parking for everyone. It's not easy to do and keep the scale of an area like Soulard. It was something that was rather difficult, but we think we've come to some balance."

A concern for the achievement of balance, like modesto, is a common theme that arises as the two men talk. It's a principle that sets them apart from the impetus toward making buildings as fine-art objects, which has been the driving aesthetic in architecture in the postwar period. As architects who actually believe that architecture can better people's lives, they sometimes have found themselves delegated to the "granola" camp -- a derisive term used to describe those who are concerned with social issues, supposedly at the expense of fine design.

"The thing that's frustrating to me," says Royse, "was that it became an either/or argument. There tended to be discussions that were either based on good design or focused on social concerns. It doesn't have to be either/or."

In praise of Noero's work, Royse focuses on this theme. "It's a concern for excellent design but with an eye to how it is contributing to the social well-being of people who are living in those buildings."

"There is a fight at the moment for the soul of architecture in this country," Noero adds, "between those who hold it as a purely autonomous discipline where it's form for form's sake only and another bunch who take up an equally absurd position that beauty is not important; you just have to serve society. Then there's that middle ground, which is really what the promise of modern architecture was: socially purposeful and beautiful."

The Bohemian Hill project is an example of that middle ground. The utilization of space is impressive -- and essential, with the availability of a mere 1,300 square feet for each floor. The three demonstration houses fit snugly together. Side spaces that usually stand vacant beside houses in urban settings have been erased. Yet each family has its own private courtyard that is concealed from the street and from the neighbors. One of the tricks to providing so much space is a side entryway. In a multilevel home, Noero explains, half the space of the living room is lost because it serves as a route to the staircase. Noero doesn't mind admitting that this isn't a new idea. "It's really a version of the shotgun house," he acknowledges.

Adaptability is another new/old concept that is a fundamental goal in the design of these houses. "The problem of a lot of modern housing is that it's unifocal," says Noero. "It's designed like a suit of clothes, and when you can't fit into the suit any longer you have to sell it and buy something else. When the kids grow up you sell the house and move to a smaller house. It's like getting a new model of automobile." In Soulard, Noero met people who had been residents of the area for 30 years. They've remained, Noero argues, partly because the design of those older homes provided for generations of change. "There are a lot of these old houses that are capable of fantastic adaptation. So people live in them over generations because they can shrink or expand, depending upon the family's needs. In the suburbs you can't do that." In these three-story houses one floor may become an office or a storefront, Noero observes, or an apartment space.

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