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."

"I come from a society where there's 39 percent structural unemployment. Sixty percent of the people who don't live in cities don't have access to decent sanitation, clean water." Noero rattles off these conditions as one who's known them intimately. "You come to St. Louis, and people talk about the housing problem and there are all of these wonderful abandoned buildings. Then you realize it's actually much more tragic than that -- the fact that these buildings are empty represents a city that's had the breath knocked out of it."

The fact of a dispirited city was cause for further disorientation.
"I was surprised at the extreme conservatism of people in the city. I came to America believing America was the place of great enterprise, of enthusiastic people who were on the move all the time. What shocked me about St. Louis was the naysayers -- this sort of 'Show-Me State' mentality, which I'd never associated with America. I'd associated it with say, southern German culture or some of the more conservative strains of Europe, but I'd never associated it with America."

When asked how much he believes the racial divide is a factor in the deterioration of the city, he speaks in terms rarely heard anymore in the post-Cold War world where the "free-enterprise system" has been the supposed victor.

"I come from a society where we don't see race as an issue," he explains. "We see race in classic Marxist/Leninist terms -- as part of the class struggle. What I find so interesting about America is that no one will discuss race in terms of class division. I think it's because America was so opposed to the communist ideology that they refused to see the categories Marxists would have used to describe how cities shape themselves and how communities get formed within the city. I see the race issue as really an issue of class division, a necessary condition of contemporary American capitalism. It's not going to disappear. The fact that it's given a color base has to do with the background of black people in this country. They've been discriminated against, so it's logical that, given the disadvantaged role the played in this society, they would end up being those people who would become part of the local proletariat."

Such talk would have put Noero on a blacklist in this country 40 years ago, but his approach to architecture embraces the most hallowed democratic ideals. His buildings are of the people, for the people and by the people. This is probably best exemplified in his design for the Law Courts building in Pretoria, commissioned by South Africa's Ministry of Justice. The former Law Courts building served the apartheid regime. It was designed to maintain segregation and to impress people with the autonomous power of the law. Noero's Law Courts building will have gathering places, a bus kiosk and taxi stand, even a public market. It is a design that will say, "This is the people's court."

Fashion Statement
Noero's principles of architecture -- that a building needs to conform to the context in which it is set in regard to both the physical and the social environments -- is far removed from much that has been touted as the great architectural achievements of the postwar period. Noero speaks with an elated zeal when he begins to tear down the false gods of modern architecture.

"Architecture has become irrelevant," he says. As he begins to describe what he calls the two types of American architects, he focuses on the supreme master of high-style architecture, Philip Johnson, the architect, perhaps most famously, of the AT&T building in New York City, with its stylish Chippendale-chair crown.

"He was a neo-Nazi," Noero says of Johnson. "He was a brownshirt. He went to Poland in the 1940s as a guest of the Nazis and came back and reported in the United States about how good the Germans were in dealing with the Polish people.

"The cynical self-interest of Philip Johnson is what pervades architecture today. You just do what the market tells you. Forget about people. Forget about cities. You want to be famous. You'll do anything to be famous. You'll do anything to shock. You'll do anything to be novel and new. The sense that architecture is a thing that resonates through people's lives and in the community of a city is lost entirely.

"So you have in America a cleavage between the do-gooders, who seem to be community architects, of whom it's presumed cannot make beautiful buildings -- that's why they're do-gooders -- and you have the muscle-bound superheroes who stride the world stage, designing these ridiculous buildings around the world in contexts that I think are bizarre. That's the state of architecture today, and that sense of architecture being this polite, well-mannered discipline that is generous and connected to communities and cities and enhances the quality of life of people -- it just doesn't exist.

"If I think of some of the discussions I've had with architects in the United States, they see architecture as having no moral dimension at all and architects as not having any ethical responsibility. The only ethical responsibility you have is to have great form. That's where the Philip Johnsons come from -- they're only interested in form. It collapses when you find there's no ethical dimension for the making of that form.

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