Jo Noero: Building Small Worlds of Order
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After 43 years of enforced segregation, South African Apartheid has officially ended. In the midst of this national reconstruction, Jo Noero works as a South African architect committed both ideologically and pragmatically to the survival of this newly liberated nation.
While architectural practice may seem hardly relevant to the reformation of a nation, Noero has made his practice into a political mechanism for rebuilding the lives and hopes of many in South Africa's townships.
In January, Jo Noero discussed his work in "The Certainty of Context," the 1996 Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture at the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
Over the past few years, Noero has used his practice to promote a local construction industry in South Africa's black townships, which can employ local builders and readily available materials.
In designing for the townships, Noero insists that new buildings be buildings of quality. His architecture, "develops from a rejection of the notion that there are two worlds in South Africa—the First and Third Worlds—and most important a repudiation that one is superior to the other." To Noero, "This means a rejection of the belief that when we build for the poor we must employ so-called Third World technologies. In my view, this simply reinforces the cycle of technological poverty and dependence.
"In the townships we must build buildings of the same integrity that we build elsewhere. The capacity, imagination and creativity of township fold are no different from that of people living in urban centers. Building projects must be designed creatively to engage the enthusiasm and creativity of people and to enable not only fine buildings to emerge, but to stimulate the development of a tradition of fine building, rich in all the necessary skills to face the 21st century with confidence."
While rejecting a second-class technology for black South Africa, Noero celebrates the use of materials found in the townships. "Toyota has a yard down the way. When their packing cases no longer have any use, Toyota chucks them and the township dwellers pick them up. They use them very inventively. We have whole sections of Alexandra township called 'Little Tokyo.' So we sanded one down and treated it with a marine varnish. We try to show people that the material works well when used in its raw condition and could be even better if treated. People are now starting to follow that line."
Noero, a native South African, keeps his firm's offices in Johannesburg in a building the size of a garage. He maintains that his practice will remain at its essential elements, with only himself and three others working there.
The practice, established in 1983, has a specific focus on community architecture. Although it is small, his firm has executed over 150 buildings in the last ten years. The work of the practice has also formed the basis for a teaching program at the University of Witwatersrand.
Noero has created a space for his practice that is self-contained, exemplary of his approach to design. By helping to establish small worlds of order in a nation struggling to reform itself, this architect is furthering the re-establishment of a nation.
In 1994, the Institute of South African Architecture gave Noero its quadrennial Award of Excellence for his design of the Soweto Career Center, a multi-use facility first established in 1978 in response to the Soweto student uprisings. The center serves a variety of functions varying from teaching computer classes to holding wedding receptions. Other recent works include a building for the Planned Parenthood Association as well as 150 low income housing units in Alexandra Township and 100 more in Lenasia South.
Also in Alexandra Township, Noero built the House Nxumalo, a small clinic and residence for a community medical doctor. The design elements of the House Nxumalo focus on sun and light, using the advantages of a savannah climate to create comfortable inside spaces. In recognition of crowded shantytown living, high windows and reflective surfaces allow light and air to enter the dwelling while maintaining privacy.
Speaking of the House Nxumalo, Noero said, "Maybe what we have to do is start looking at the shack settlements and seeing what is happening there, not only as representing extreme poverty, but also as representing hope and representing the beginnings of some kind of authentic urban culture. So we decided to take the technology and materials that the shack dwellers were using to make a formal architectural piece which demonstrates to these people on the ground that the systems they were using were legitimate and could be made into something much more than they were at the time—that they were not things which should be abandoned once they had more money or once they wanted to build a new house."
Jo Noero approaches architectural design with the idea that people can be taught how to build their own spaces and structures while learning invaluable skills. Through the use of construction techniques which demand precision, he has created projects which ensure this kind of skill-development. Having people work on their own homes allows for a sense of ownership lacking in the apartheid system of the past.
Along with his investment in grass roots learning, Noero understands the realities of long-term economic planning. "Implicit in the understanding of real economy is the rejection of cheap or low cost buildings. A resourceful building is neither cheap nor expensive, it is resourceful."
This is an architecture which echoes the words of Nelson Mandela, "For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." By revealing the potential that exists in what township communities have already built, Noero creates opportunities for others to help themselves, enhancing their freedom.
Mandela, as leader of the new nation, has chosen to live within an architecture symbolic of his oppression. In his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he remarks, "I have always believed that a man should have a home within sight of the house where he was born. After being released from prison, I set about plans to build a country house for myself in Qunu. By the fall of 1993, the house was complete. It was based on the floor plan of the house I lived in at Victor Verster (a prison).
"People often commented on this, but the answer was simple: the Victor Verster house was the first spacious and comfortable home I ever stayed in, and I liked it very much. I was familiar with its dimensions, so in Qunu I would not have to wander in the night looking for the kitchen." Perhaps Mandela has chosen this particular architecture to remind himself and others that freedom and oppression are close neighbors—to be free one must recognize oppression.
As a nation, South Africa is keenly aware of how fragile and sacred freedom is. While other nations have left their struggles of independence to the rhetoric of history, freedom in South Africa is ripe and uncultivated, still a current issue. Noero is only one architect working to create small worlds of order for those facing the disorder of transition from an old and ingrained system of racism to a new nation. Yet it is exactly this kind of commitment to one purpose, in one discipline, that will be necessary to establish a new South Africa.
Tricia Kettler is a recent graduate of the Department of English and the public relations correspondent at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning.