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 have a view that architecture is something that is born out of a purpose -- and you can have a good purpose and a bad purpose. Otherwise what are we talking about -- we're talking about architects building better and more efficient gas chambers and that being the measure of success. The moral argument gets to be more complicated when buildings built for a good purpose get transformed to suit a bad purpose. For example, the National Stadium in Chile, which was built by Allende to celebrate the independence of Chile, was used by Pinochet as a slaughterhouse when he came into power. But you can't blame the architect for that. But if you design a slaughterhouse and it's a beautiful slaughterhouse, then you're ethically wrong.

"The problem with the Philip Johnsons of the world is that they don't care about those issues. The work loses its value, and it becomes something quite shallow, quite hollow. It's really sad that this has happened to architecture, because the modern movement held that architecture could be this really important thing in the world, this really great force that would improve the quality of life of people in cities.

"It's styling. It's fashionable styling."

Drawing from Memory
If many of the self-glorifying modern architects are concerned only with the now, Noero's designs look as much to the past to inform the future. The theme of memory is central to Noero's work -- indicative of a man who is a descendent of generations of Italian stonecutters. He is concerned with preserving memory even as a place is renewed; honoring the past without replicating it, resisting the temptation of turning a city into a museum piece. Such concerns again set him in strong contrast to the formalist dictates prescribed by such influential figures as Walter Gropius, who banished history from the architecture curriculum during his time at Harvard.

So it is significant that as Noero works toward the rebirth, and the rediscovery, of Bohemian Hill, he is also working on a project 10,000 miles away -- the Apartheid Museum in the Port Elizabeth township, a commission Noero was awarded through an international competition. As Noero has built for a new South Africa, he is also building so that the legacy of the past, from which this new country is emerging, is not forgotten.

The proposed site in Port Elizabeth is called "Red Location," referring to the tint of the corrugated metal that was recycled to fabricate housing there. Red Location is where Mandela and many of the original members of the ANC came from, making this site the symbol of the vanguard of the resistance movement, a center of political activity since the 1940s.

"It's such a relatively new history," Noero comments. "The history has still got to be written. Part of the reason that they're pushing ahead with this museum -- and I think they'll be building a couple more in the next five or 10 years -- is that a lot of the material that we have about the years of struggle in the last 15-20 years in South Africa has got to be saved and archived very quickly; otherwise it will just deteriorate. A lot of trade union material and literature, political pamphlets and such were reproduced very cheaply, and if they're not collected and stored they will just disintegrate. So we need to build these centers where we can start to collect the information and catalog the information and look after it."

One of the most striking elements of Noero's design is a group of square structures called "memory boxes" that will fit within the museum. Made of corrugated metal, they will stand in rows, indistinguishable from each other. It will be impossible to know what is inside until one enters. Each box will contain a mini-exhibition featuring various aspects of apartheid's disturbing history, with the exhibitions changing as the history continues to evolve. Noero compares visiting the memory boxes to visiting a graveyard -- reading names and dates, piecing history together.

"The architecture itself tries to evoke spatially some of the memories of that period," Noero explains. "The whole question of the memory boxes, the dark spaces and the sense of ambiguity and uncertainty and the concealment, is very much imbedded in what happened in apartheid. You know, I lived through it, and there would be visitors from overseas who would say, 'Everything looks so normal.' They'd walk down the streets of Johannesburg, and everyone would seem very civil. 'Where is this dreadful system?' But people had the same reading of Germany in the 1930s in Berlin.

"Maybe in 50 years time people will look at the North St. Louis developments and say, 'How did that happen?' I drive through those streets and I'm just devastated at how bombed-out it is and how characterized it is by race. This is the most powerful country in the world, the most democratic country in the world, and no one wants to do anything about it. People just look at it and say, 'It's there.' If you go to Chicago and Cabrini Green, it's the same kind of thing.

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