WAF Newsletter - Jo Noero - May 2020

Christchurch in Somerset West - Jo Noero

Jeremy Melvin, 18 May 2020

Few architects have wrestled longer and harder with the problems of South Africa, and the potential architecture has to address them, than Jo Noero, writes Jeremy Melvin.

Many of the challenges stem from Apartheid, itself an example of the mid 20th century modernist obsession with zoning as a basis for planning, though that country took it to an extreme rarely seen elsewhere. This sets the scene for South African architecture’s interest to the rest of the world: just as in politics and economics, it has to address inequity and democratic deficits, so its architecture wrestles with extreme versions of generic problems.

Since he set up his practice in Johannesburg in the early 1980s, Noero has delivered a new arts quarter in Red Location, the first urban settlement for indigenous people in the country, and shown how it could become the urban centre for the Mandela Bay/Port Elizabeth conurbation, the country’s fourth largest. Other work has included numerous churches and community buildings in Soweto, the result of his appointment by Bishop Desmond Tutu as architect to the Anglican diocese of Johannesburg.

After a few years teaching in the US, he is now based in Cape Town, where he has proposed house frames that could be delivered for $750, and is working on the House of Hope project in nearby Hout Bay, which will retell the story of the end of Apartheid and the importance of cultural activity in healing its wounds, founded by (and in honour of) the recently deceased Denis Goldberg, Noero’s cousin-in-law and the only white person to be tried alongside Nelson Mandela and the other ANC leaders at the Rivonia trial.

Another recent project is Christchurch in Somerset West, a largely white district across the flats from Cape Town. Though relatively small, it reveals much about Noero’s approach as an architect, as churches have been a consistent thread in his work. A cursory glance reveals his interest in pure, primary forms, unadorned shapes and basic materials.

Site plan, showing layout of the new and existing churches, and car park. © Paris Brummer

Circular in plan, the church is set within a rectilinear geometry that stems from the retained existing church, creating a cloister-like court between new and old. Its only adornment derives from necessity – for example rainwater pipes and a galvanised steel access ladder to the roof. The exterior consists mainly of white rendered concrete blocks, again an elemental feature and integral to the Cape Dutch architecture of the white settlers from the mid-17th century onwards. For the church itself the wall is solid, but the side wall facing the main approach from a car park and shopping mall is chequer-boarded with openings. Within it is a gated entrance recess leading to the courtyard.

Plan and sectional perspective of the church, showing the relationship between old and new building around the courtyard, and the drum rising from the rectilinear base. © Paris Brummer

The materials, if not their artful composition, are familiar to South Africans – as are the mall and car park as a setting. What Noero has done, then, is to take what could be described as a national vernacular – gates and concrete blocks – to give familiarity to the threshold that divides sacred from secular space, rather as a wide flight of steps might have done in the Italian Renaissance.

View of the approach, showing the clean, white new form and chequered wall (entrance illuminated), with the old church visible on the right under a green roof. © Paris Brummer

Typically for Noero, the effect is both practical and ennobling. It also exemplifies his analysis of the condition of public space in South Africa. ‘There is no “thick” urbanism such as you find in a traditional European city so you have to make do with what exists’, he says, adding ‘In South Africa public space is contested, which leaves us only with streets. Everything else has to be separated into different layers,’ thereby putting great emphasis on the thresholds between. This condition will remain until the promise of the Bill of Rights and the national constitution, to create a fair and just society, are realised.

Pessimists may think that this will never happen. But Noero has fought against such pessimism throughout his career. He strongly opposed the nihilism of the Planex group of mainly white professionals in the 1980s, who followed hard-core Marxist convention in arguing that there should be no engagement whatsoever with the Apartheid state, because any form of ameliorating intervention would only sap the revolutionary ardour of the oppressed masses. Against this, he cites Goldberg’s assertion after 20 years of solitary confinement that he studied engineering because the country needed ‘bridges and houses’. And though an agnostic (Italian father and English mother), he accepted Tutu’s appointment.

He ‘shouldn’t have been at the top of the list’, he confesses, but Tutu was looking for change and recognised a ‘fellow outsider’ in Noero. That led to 100 commissions in Soweto during the 1980s, almost all of them deliberately low-key to avoid attracting the ire of the police or the radicals, and on tiny budgets with commensurate fees which precluded any use of engineers or quantity surveyors. ‘We had to go back to the roots of the profession and relearn those skills’, explains Noero. And if something went wrong it wasn’t PII that picked up the problem: the community has a habit of taking matters into their own hands.

This phase of work also led to the Somerset West commission. Gavin Millard, the minister – a term he prefers to priest – in charge, was a student of architecture at Witwatersrand University in the 1980s, when Noero was teaching there under the legendary Pancho Guedes and alongside the nearly- legendary Peter Rich. Millard wrote an essay about St Paul’s Church in Soweto, one of Tutu’s commissions. He and Noero remained in contact so when Millard took Holy Orders and was appointed to Somerset West, he asked Noero to think about a new church. That was in 2007. Under Millard’s charismatic leadership the congregation has grown (church-going draws about 80 per cent of the South African population), the need for a new church to replace the dowdy, conventional existing building became ever more urgent.

Much of the growth in church-going in South Africa has been met by large scale evangelical organisations. They, as Noero explains, tend to build large industrial sheds and fill them with sophisticated sound systems to prove the old Marxist saw of religion being the opium of the people. Following Tutu, Millard and Noero wanted a different kind of church, one where the architecture itself contributes to its ministerial role.

Church interior, showing 'organ loft'. © Paris Brummer

Many of Noero’s interests come together in such a situation. Steeped in Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, he has looked long and hard at the great Italian Renaissance churches and architects, admiring their clean, elemental geometries and clarity of form that implies clarity of thought. ‘I have never sought out a building by Le Corbusier’, he confesses, ‘though I would go a long way to find one by Brunelleschi or [his baroque successor] Borromini’, also a supreme master of geometry though in his case more complex.

The church interior plays with different geometries, rectilinear and circular, with the cross inscribed in the roof light. © Paris Brummer

Noero also admits to a fascination for Aldo Rossi, and in particular his argument expressed in The Architecture of the City, that these pure forms persist because they prove themselves adaptable to change, both in the nature of their original function, as well as to alternative functions. So both the church itself and its precinct stem from deep in Noero’s conception of architecture and its history.

As a student at the University of Natal in Durban he was taught by Barrie Biermann, ‘who saw modern architecture through the lens of history’, and offered many inventive interpretations of it and its relationship to architecture in South Africa. Conditions in the country also offered some creative advantages, as its geographical and increasing political and cultural isolation freed architects from constant critical scrutiny and obligation to conform to fashionable critical convention. This was especially true of his work in Soweto where critical assessment, as alluded to above, was in an altogether different league.

So Noero can be quite bold in creating a Renaissance-inspired church precinct, with an almost Albertian plan, without provoking gasps of horror or complaints about historicism. It also proves Rossi’s proposition, as the circular church is as tuned to the worship of a contemporary low-church Anglican establishment as to its pre-Reformation Roman Catholic equivalent. Its sightlines to altar and pulpit are excellent, as are to some degree fortuitously, acoustics – leading to its frequent use for performance. Children are welcome, though they can be sent out to the suite of classrooms which form a ‘fishhook’ around the courtyard.

Interior with the largely young, mixed congregation.

The circular drum is inscribed in, and rises above, a square base, which forms a sort of ambulatory around the space occupied by congregation and altar. This gives a sense of relief from what can be experienced in some churches (I am thinking of William Butterfield), a relentless focus on the celebration of the sacraments. Noero is an architect rather than a theologian-manqué, decline to regard architecture, with its messy potentials and outcomes, as a servant of just one master or set of ideas. This helps to explain why he also admires Sigurd Lewerentz, both for the extraordinary church at Klippan on Sweden’s West Coast, with its satisfyingly contorted combination of architectural effect and Lutheran theology, and the early Resurrection Chapel in Stockholm’s Woodland Cemetery – ‘the most intelligent piece of post-Schinkel classicism in Europe’, he agrees.

The courtyard too gives a satisfying impression, deriving from its size and proportion. It is both a preparation for the church and a usable outdoor space for social events and church fetes. In addition it lends dignity to the existing church, which its architecture did not exude, by giving it presence within the precinct.

Central to Millard’s vision is the idea of the church as a hospital. That of course is an ancient idea most clearly expressed in mediaeval foundations offering succour and protection from the Black Death. But here, where HIV/Aids and TB will probably continue to dwarf Covid 19, the ailments he wants to treat are largely spiritual, products of the perversion of the Galbraithian idea of the ‘Affluent Society’ that infected White South Africans, and all the insecurities, guilt and uncertainty that comes from it.

With its delicately balanced allusions to its physical South African context and the culture of architecture, Noero has given Millard an appropriate tool. But in the tradition of all spiritual healing, the patient will need to want genuinely to recover for it to be effective.

Read other WAFN Articles.

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