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."

"We all live with horror in our everyday lives, and we find ways of filtering it out."

Noero's architecture comes out of close observation of what is present, and adapting the existing condition -- even if it is corrugated-metal shacks -- finding what is integral there and transforming it to something more humane. This is in direct contrast to, even conflict with, the simplistic solution of erasure -- be it with a bulldozer, an airbrush or a pen -- replacing the past with an illusion of progress.

Real progress means a commitment to long struggle, taking real risks. "You have to really stick your neck out," Noero emphasizes. For St. Louis this means investing resources in renovation rather than taking the easier, cheaper, path of demolition. It means overcoming the tendency toward conservatism. As Noero observed when he first came here, "There was a real naysaying attitude amongst a lot of people in the city, including a lot of architects: 'You can't do anything. You can't build unless you copy what is there. No one wants to live in the city, so why should we bother to build there?' It just went on and on and on. It's nice to see that their attitude is changing, but what does worry me is that if we're supposed to solve the problems of the city, it needs to be adventurous. It needs to be able to take risks. It seems to me the conservative character of the city is holding back the potential."

But consider the risks Noero's generation took in the struggle against apartheid. The issues that have created such paralysis in St. Louis shrink in comparison. It's partly why Noero's perspective is so refreshing as it is so urgently voiced.

"There's a five-year opening," Noero says in regard to the prospect for city revitalization, "and then we're going to lose it; we'll lose the momentum. Now is really the time to start looking at new ideas in the city.

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