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."

Contrary to the either/or argument, these houses are both utilitarian and attractive. A brick facade wraps around the whole structure, in keeping with the existing Soulard style. "It mimics the proportion but wraps around and takes you from the street and into the court," Noero describes, "with big bay windows that become the eyes on the street from the living room.

"In a city like St. Louis you have to be inventive," Noero argues, "and you have to be pretty progressive about how it is you can reinhabit the city. If you simply try to re-create it as it was in the 19th century, it's not going to happen. It seems the terrace house is a good solution for city housing in St. Louis."

The wrong approach, Noero reiterates, is developments such as Westminster Place: "You have developers who are really building suburban homes on tracts of land in the city. That's a really very dangerous move. Cities are interesting places to live because of the concentration and density of people. The higher the density and concentration of people, the greater the ability you have to support other facilities like corner shops, restaurants, cultural facilities. That simply has to do with income thresholds. You build up a certain threshold where it makes it possible for a community to have those other uses normally attached with a healthy urban environment.

"It means that what you have to do is build at a fairly high density. When you build a suburban-sprawl-type density in North St. Louis, you're not achieving anything. You're building the suburbs, which means you still have to have the strip-mall supermarket that everybody has to travel to by automobile because the income thresholds are so low you can't afford the corner shop. It seems to me the strategy is completely wrong for the city.

"It seems that St. Louis should be concentrating its efforts to increase the density of those centers in the city that are already functioning well instead of trying to spread this housing as a thin layer across the city, which is going to cripple the city in the future."

Arch Rival
Noero can speak with such certainty about St. Louis' future -- or its possible futures -- because he has made himself so knowledgeable of the city's past. This is part of Noero's process, learning the history of a place before he suggests plans toward the furtherance of that history.

Noero is engaged in the activity of urban renewal, and "renewal" is a paradoxical word. "Re-new" implies "to make new again," but that "again" suggests there needs to be a knowledge of what was. There are forces that would annihilate the memory of place. It's such forces that transformed Bohemian Hill into No-Man's Land, that will turn the Arena into an office park. Rather than maintain connections to its own history, the city commits acts of erasure. History is manipulated to support illusions of progress. Noero points to one of St. Louis' most beloved icons as a monument to false history and false hope.

"The single worst decision the city made was to build the Arch. The Arch has an ambition that overreaches the city. It dominates the city, just through its scale, that sterilizes all the land around it."

Where many see a symbol of progress, Noero sees a cold monument to a community destroyed. People lived there, and not in the squalor that the official history demands. "In order to build the Arch they had to destroy the riverfront," he says, "and that meant getting rid of the urban poor who were supposedly living in slum conditions, which was a lot of nonsense. It was an attempt by the city fathers to get rid of the poor who were living in the most strategically important part of the city, which is where the poor should be because it gives them access to work opportunities and so on -- to making the city pretty by making their poverty invisible. It was the single worst move that the city could have made.

"For me, when I see the Arch it seems to be such a pathetic and hopeless symbol. Whilst it's a strong cultural symbol, as an urban gesture and what it has done to the city, it has done more harm than good. You see it sitting there with that stupid parkland around it, which no one can actually use. I don't know any citizens of St. Louis who use it. It's a good thing to look at when you're driving past in your car at 50 miles per hour. You see it as a symbol of the city on the horizon from 30 miles away, but it does nothing to the city. It does absolutely nothing to the city.

"What it does do, in quite a pathetic way, is it talks about a city that has an overarching ambition to place itself as an important city, which it doesn't really enjoy nationally. It's a futile and pathetic effort on the part of the city that tried to claim a kind of greatness that had already slipped by, but in the process of achieving that it tore the heart out of the city. History will tell us that the single worst move that the city made was to build the Arch. It's a symbol of everything that is wrong with the city."

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