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."

South Africa/St. Louis
Noero comes from a place with a history of incomparable wrongs and is part of the human legacy, the ongoing struggle to right those wrongs. "I come from a world where you're taught that architects have an ethical responsibility," Noero says. He is of the generation that brought down the cruel institution of apartheid. In the late '60s and early '70s, while at the University of Natal in Durban -- one of the country's political hotbeds -- he became directly engaged in the social upheavals of the time. He studied medicine briefly, dropped out, then returned to study architecture from 1973-78. After he met his wife, Gillian, they moved to England for studies at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne but continued their anti-apartheid activities from London.

When Noero returned to teach at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, he declined to pursue government contracts for his private practice. That would have meant designing buildings made to sustain the segregation of society. The insanity of apartheid created an insanity of architecture -- each government building required four entrances for four prescribed races: white, black, colored and mixed. Buildings were designed as austere symbols of the regime, built to evidence power and divide peoples.

Noero's career as a practicing architect might never have emerged were it not for a fortuitous introduction to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Noero speaks warmly of his friend "Desmond." As serious and determined as Noero is, when his face brightens with laughter it is wide as a clown's -- white hair contrasted by black, bushy eyebrows, combined with an impish grin. This is how his face broadens when he speaks of his friend.

"He has a wonderful ability of putting his finger right on the very issue," says Noero. He retells a story Tutu once used to illustrate to a white audience the depth of black anger and frustration in South Africa. "Can you imagine that black woman who brings you your coffee in bed every morning?" Noero begins. "Behind her smiling face lies a great deal of anger. And how do you know she hasn't put poison into your coffee? If every maid put poison in the coffee tomorrow morning, there would be no more white people in South Africa."

Noero laughs giddily at the reminiscence. "That one single comment sensitized white people who had black servants who were invisible presences. They just weren't there. You'd hear of people having the most embarrassing and candid arguments and discussions in the presence of a servant that they would never have in front of everyone else, with the assumption that the servant wasn't there. With Tutu's comment those servants became people, and it changed fundamental relationships in South Africa. He did it deliberately. He found the right metaphor. He found the right way to be able to say it."

Noero became principal architect for the Anglican Diocese of the Province of Transvaal, designing 15 churches and an addition to Tutu's private residence in Soweto.

By the 1980s and early '90s, during the time of international sanctions, the focus of the world turned to the struggle in South Africa. Noero was a part of that time of active change. "It was a lived experience of change. Every minute of your life you were confronted by this, and it became part of the way you lived your life. It was amazing."

After the release of Nelson Mandela and his subsequent election as president, Noero became as much a part of the restructuring of post-apartheid South Africa as he did the struggle to dismantle the system. With the full support of the new government, Noero designed buildings for which he began to receive his greatest international recognition.

One of those buildings was the Soweto Career Center. In an area where ramshackle housing was put together out of recycled corrugated metal, rather than dismiss those structures as unsightly memories that needed to be erased, Noero found integrity in the material. It was by no means ideal housing, but it revealed a high degree of ingenuity. The Career Center is made of corrugated steel not only to honor the past but to add to the modern structure a sense of familiarity.

Noero utilized members of the community as part of the labor force that constructed the Career Center, providing job skills to an underserved population and facilitating a sense of community ownership.

It can be a little unsettling to realize how readily Noero's strategies for rebuilding a nation devastated by apartheid could be adapted to St. Louis. The Bohemian Hill project will also employ a workforce from a neglected part of society, the students involved in Youth Build, offering them opportunities far beyond the limited horizons of service jobs. Before Noero designed homes for 114 families in the township of Alexandra, he spent 18 months studying the site and talking to people about their needs -- not unlike the community-meeting process in Soulard.

To argue that post-apartheid South Africa and St. Louis are the same would be simplistic, however. The differences are acute, and some of those differences have caused Noero feelings of disorientation. For example, the phrase "housing problem" has very different meanings in separate contexts.

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