Beyond the red location

There have been less than a handful of exhibitions at the South African National Gallery featuring architects; among the select few are Revel Fox, Gawie Fagan and last year Pancho Guedes.

Acknowledgement in South Africa for this least celebrated yet indispensable art form would seem to lag behind the burgeoning urban ambitions elsewhere in the world. The promotion, let alone the furthering of architecture, is more or less unrecognised by the structures within the department of arts and culture, falling rather under hazy notions of heritage and disappearing beneath the scaffolds of the department of public works.

Happily, the front room of the national gallery is now host to an intriguing, dense, beautifully displayed, multi-media exhibition entitled The Everyday and the Extraordinary, featuring three decades of architectural design spanning the remarkable career of Johannesburg-born, Durban-schooled, internationally fêted and Cape Town-based architect Jo Noero.

The exhibition is dedicated to Bishop David Nkwe, who “opened up the world to me [Noero] as a white South African”. In the 1980s Noero built a house in Pimville for Nkwe and his wife, Maggie. It was possibly the first time an architect, as opposed to a government draughtsman, had designed a house for a black man in South Africa.

In 1981 Desmond Tutu appointed Noero the diocesan architect and throughout that decade Noero worked for black NGOs, building schools, community centres and completing more than 20 rural churches. This was “work I felt comfortable doing”, he says.

Dexterously illustrated with scale models (one of which has been invited for exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), photographs, framed original drawings and text, the displays are arranged in panels, chronologically, charting our cultural, social and political journey reflected in his architecture.

“Politics shapes everything in our lives and I’ve always been very conscious of that,” says Noero.

The pedagogue in Noero serves the exhibit well. In professional partnership with Heinrich Wolff since 1998, Noero is professor of architecture at the University of Cape Town. He has always taught and practised — a symbiotic relationship Noero says is crucial to the art.

Indeed the body of his work, too, has focused on educational resource buildings. The star of the exhibition is the transformation of the Red Location Precinct in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. It comprises the Museum of Struggle, awarded the prestigious Lubetkin Award in 2006 for the best building in the world outside the European Union. The Royal Institute of British Architects made the award for his use of “architectural skill of the highest order to produce an unforgettable experience that is both viscerally and intellectually moving”.

The project continues with an art gallery, archive, a performing arts centre and, most innovatively, a backpackers’ lodge attached.

Noero is busy with new buildings and additions to St Cyprian’s School in Cape Town. He has transformed the library, creating ergonomic learning hubs in Siberian larch, with acoustic curtains. A mezzanine level is suspended from the huge timber rafters, but nothing else touches the old Herbert Baker building.

From Noero’s interactions with the teachers it is clear they are thrilled. The environments he creates are human in scale — functional without being institutional — and at this exclusive private school feel free of the oppressive values of our materially aspirational culture. The cylindrical computer laboratory clad in a snakeskin of glass mosaic tiles almost disappears in the sunlight. Kids want to spend time inside it.

The downpipes are still visible in a courtyard now enclosed by a glass roof; the red arrows and builder’s markings on the wooden beams haven’t been sanded away and Noero will not allow the teachers to paint over the bare concrete vault. Noero waves away the complaint with: “It is not about denying decoration, but being part of the architectural expression.”

He is a man with strong views, yet he doesn’t come across as opinionated. As Noero sees it, architecture and its value to us is determined by the defining differences between it and fine art. “It has a material purpose, yet it is still art.” Functionalism then is “the element on which any theory [of architecture] ultimately must rest”.

Noero is to my mind not a modernist revivalist, but an architect who has concluded that it is appropriate in the new South Africa to recontinue the great modernist project while rejecting much of the attention-seeking, post-modernist work of the past two decades — the faux classical, incommensurately proportioned shopping malls, the ersatz Tuscan gated communities, the developer-hatched rookeries for the middle classes and the private houses of the super rich with their skateboard park-shaped roofs.

“I am totally unconvinced by many of the buildings now being featured in the architectural press … where a pastiche façadism is applied unquestioningly to conventional and unrelated built forms,” he says.

“We need to move away from an appreciation of form for form’s sake.” Architecture “has a moral and social dimension from which it cannot, like the pure arts, detach itself”. It is “apparent that people are becoming increasingly alienated from the living environments … something is fractured between architecture and society.” Among Noero’s guiding concepts is publicness.

Our architecture, he says, “has lost its regional identity … and our landscape with its mesmerising effect is almost absent”. The intent in such terminology as “low-cost housing” irks him. “A resourceful building is neither cheap nor expensive, it is resourceful!”

Throughout his career Noero has been negotiating this territory between architecture as art and architecture as utility; as he puts it, a building must “be both culturally satisfying and useful”.

In the post-modern age cities such as Cape Town have “lost their confidence culturally and architecturally”. Instead we emulate “the global currency shopping centre”, “the expensive lofts” of Manhattan or “the One & Only Hotel type stuff”. Noero actually once described Sol Kerzner as “the dark unconscious of the South African psyche”.

We seem unable to “cope with our diversity — instability, insecurity, uncertainty is pervasive”.

Yet he loves working in Cape Town. The problem is “how to get the city structured in such a way that it starts empowering people”, how to unify this mountain and sea-locked international tourist city destination “with the poor who are shunted off somewhere, hidden away in pockets”.

We should “banish to the realms of the absurd the notion that architects only serve their clients and simply seek within the terms defined by the client to do the best they can”.

Noero proposes that the architectural profession reclaim “the moral high ground in developing an ethical framework, as do the legal and medical professions, by formalising a code of conduct by which an architect’s actions can be judged”.

Such a code “would provide a means of ethical judgment of work executed for the apartheid government” and “an opportunity for the practitioners of architecture to claim for themselves the ethical framework necessary for authentic architectural action”.

Noero is an optimistic and positive energy to be around. “Culture grows from the bottom up,” he says, as we drive to a site inspection, “we need a lot longer than 15 years for identity to get confidence. The tentative steps taken now, I think will eventually coalesce.”

Three Decades of Architectural Design by Jo Noero is on at Iziko South African National Gallery, until November 30

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