You don’t have to be an architect or engineer in South Africa to know that there is a major dichotomy in our country’s housing standards. The ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ each live in separate but shamefully interlinked worlds. Just driving from the Cape Town International airport into the city, you will see vast shantytowns lining the highway. In the lead-up to the World Cup last year, some of these were removed (questionably) in phases and replaced with fanciful, low-cost housing. A large, sensationalist billboard was erected with the words “N2 Gateway Project: From Shacklands to Dignity” summed it up. The project sparked controversy since the new houses proved too expensive for even one of the original tenants to afford. This project’s failure highlighted how ill-conceived it was in planning, execution and-importantly-design.
Architecture is something that affects us all, every day, without many of us even realising it. Teams of people spend months and even years designing the frameworks for public spaces, governments spend vast sums of money on community centers, museums and parks. But why should anyone care about architecture when there are roads to be built, schoolbooks to be bought? What sets buildings and public spaces apart is that they are designed with permanency in mind. They are conceived in one age, during one important slice of history, and are to endure all future ones! The architect has to understand and reflect the ‘now’ and the ‘to come’ of people’s lives, situations, passions and motivations. How challenging would it have been to design something as emotionally loaded as Apartheid Museum in South Africa for example?
A while back, I tagged along on my art-student sister’s class field trip to the Iziko Museum at the SA National Gallery Cape Town. They were running an exhibition titled THE EVERYDAY AND THE EXTRAORDINARY–Three decades of architectural design by Jo Noero (the internationally celebrated South African architect). Jo took us through the exhibition himself, that spanned his impressive 30-year career. The exhibition was divided into three sections, each representing a decade in South Africa’s recent past: the 1980’s-a period of uncertainty and upheaval; the 1990’s-a period of transition; and the first decade of the 21st century-a period of transformation.
Being in a stage in my life, where I was only just realising my passion for development and still debating internally over the role of engineers (and architects) in society and their responsibility to shaping a sustainable future for all, this event could not have come at a more strategic time. Prof. Noero’s work and passion shone in his eyes and his voice as he described the houses, churches and public spaces he had designed in townships during and post Apartheid. Buildings such as the Orlando Children’s Orphanage, Soweto Careers Centre and Duduza Resource Centre were beacons of hope for the impoverished communitites in which they stood. Archbishop Desmond Tutu commended Prof. Noero highly for his role in shaping these desolate urban spaces into livable areas, where people could feel proud to be around.
Jo Noero designed the Apartheid Museum in Port Elizabeth’s Red Township. The Museum which serves as more than a bridge into a world of tolerance from a dark, recent past. It doubles as a community center for the township’s residents, boasting a craft market, center for creative arts, a library and adult literacy center and conference center. The museum’s design is centered around the idea of “memory boxes” – tying in themes of remembrance and history. During apartheid and up until today, migrant workers on the infamous South African mines took with them artifacts to remind them of their countryside homes. These ‘memory boxes’ formed the basis of the building which is a giant memory box itself.
The design comprises of empty steel containers, lying on their sides to allow museum curators to display whatever memory of apartheid they wish at the time. This idea, deliberately unglamorous (as there was nothing glorious about Apartheid) touches on the absolutely personal nature of Apartheid-the way it effected individuals and not simply a nation. The ideas and themes of memory and forgetting is a monument for the people of South Africa-who still carry the scars and effects of the oppressive regime. It gives space to necessity of the transitory period our country has to strive through to achieve first tolerance, then acceptance before ever dreaming of true equality. It says, its okay to still be hurt, we have not forgotten, although we are now looking forward into a bright future. Noero says the museum “seeks to build new memories – ones that will not let us forget apartheid’s atrocities, and those that will allow us to begin to hope for an African renaissance.”
“To build a museum of the apartheid era in the midst of the township that acted as a crucible for the struggle is an extraordinary achievement,” said one of the judges that awarded the museum the prestigious Lubetkin Prize for outstanding architecture.
As an engineer, beginning a career where I too hope to in some way shape my country
and community, Jo Noero is an icon of hope and Ubuntu. Without knowing it, so many people have felt the effects of his work on their lives, I can go so far as to speculate that he has changed many of them. He is a real South African hero – one I am proud to say that I’ve had the honour of meeting.