Red Location in South Africa

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As Red Location is a microcosm of a township, Port Elizabeth is a microcosm of the continuing inequalities embedded in the social, economic and spatial fabric of South Africa put into place by the fastidiously racist apartheid regime. Secured by a series of laws rapidly put into place when the Nationalists took power in 1948, the thrust of this flurry of legislation was to secure the political, economic and spatial dominance of the tiny white minority while rendering powerless and invisible the vast non-white majority of the country. Racial segregation at all levels of life was essential to this effort. It required the careful racial classification of each person, the breaking apart of mixed race communities, elaborate schemes of mass relocation, draconian pass laws and carefully wrought planning to ensure a segregated future. Architects and planners were put to work designing white utopian cities of the future and laying out distant suburban street patterns with optimal minimum dwellings for the non-white bedroom communities that would serve them and the industrial production of the nation. Jo Noero was born and came of age in this apartheid South Africa.

Like all white South Africans, Noero benefited from apartheid. Unlike most white South Africans at the time, however, he realized early in his life that the apartheid government was profoundly unjust, even evil. Noero says there “was the sense of normalcy…And yet, at the time, the sense of impending terror in the country was undeniable.” He became politically active quite young and his study of architecture was undertaken with a clear understanding that the field is not neutral; that those who design the physical and spatial future are inextricably involved in the dynamics of power. He was adamant that his work as an architect would not in any way support the apartheid regime. Such a stance was not an easy thing to maintain in the full face of the authorities—it required extreme ethical clarity, daily doses of courage, and an abiding optimism about the future. There were no half measures, no middle ground, very few shades of gray. The strength of mind, forcefulness of opinion and unwavering character developed during this era endures in Noero and in anti-apartheid activists like him across the nation.

In the early 1980s Noero, along with some of his colleagues, signed a pledge to refuse architectural work from the current government. While dramatically limiting his access to commissions, this stance set him on the course he continues to follow today: an investigation of the potential of architecture to enrich the lives of those with the least access to conventional forms of societal and economic power. During this time, Noero designed township community buildings, modest houses, a scattering of commercial buildings and entered competitions. He was also appointed as architect for the Anglican Archdiocese in Natal Province by Desmond Tutu, who later became the Anglican Archbishop of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. This post meant that Noero had the honor of designing churches, chapels, administrative buildings and school projects for the diocese—and for this abiding moral authority of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Working in the townships in this era, Noero began developing the architectural, spatial and material palette he still taps into today. He admired the creative and resourceful uses of recycled and mundane materials procured by township residents for their self-built homes. Noero speaks passionately about wanting to demonstrate that these modest materials—including corrugated tin, concrete block and cement board—could be used in beautiful ways: that they could be elevated to become the materials not only of making do, but of choice. Inexpensive and readily available, often with pre-fabricated systems of attachment and waterproofing, these materials are locally produced, and readily available. Their adoption also helps to ensure that maintenance and repair to Noero’s township buildings were straightforward activities able to be accomplished by local residents—a crucial aspect of the sustainability of the projects.

The use of this material palette could easily have led to a “poverty chic” aesthetic—one that mimics without transforming. However, Noero’s formal inventiveness, serious intentions, careful husbanding of every resource (spatial and material) and creative detailing pull the buildings into a entirely new realm. They are lively and surprising, colorful and beautifully made. They have strong forms that reflect the strength of Noero’s convictions forged during the Struggle.

Given the impoverished energy circumstances in the townships, Noero’s building have always been “sustainable”. They use architectural and material strategies that provide natural ventilation, shading in the summer, and solar gain in the winter. Ceilings often soar so that daylight can pour down from above. And they seek to leverage program spaces to do more than they were assigned to do---often to add to spaces for community gathering, entrepreneurial activity, and public uses. For instance, in one high school in the Cape Flats, Noero’s firm designed two-faced industrial arts and home economics classrooms to line the township street edge. They are opened from the secure inside of the campus during the school day, then, when the students are gone, become adult training and micro business locations in the evenings and on weekend. Roll-up windows, counter height sills and built-in benches on the street side of the classrooms offer the opportunity for selling items made by local adults to the community. Even when the windows are closed, the benches and paved sidewalk invite sitting in the sun, socializing and playing.

Noero’s post-apartheid buildings continue these explorations. However, as the townships slowly become towns, as the buildings in these places become larger and house cultural programs, his material palette is expanding to include steel, concrete, plate glass and wood. These are appropriate to serious cultural buildings, regardless of location. The works at Red Location—a museum to the anti-apartheid Struggle, an art gallery/center, and a library (with a theater complex in development)—was won in a competition where Noero’s team envisioned a lively public intersection formed by the buildings. The award-winning museum is an exquisitely detailed work using the township palette and spatial references to the factories across the nearby railroad tracks in combination with robust poured-in-place concrete. Completed in 2005, it soars far beyond its humble spatial and material roots to make an iconic building that straddles the dire past and the unforeseeable future.

Noero’s use of architecture to develop edges that invite public use is a key leveraging of the township projects. Photos of the townships always show lots of open space—un-groomed empty lots where children play soccer, criss-crossed by paths tracing the shortest route to transport, plastic bags tangled in the weeds. But these are not public spaces, these are expanses of no-man’s land. They are unsightly, unseen and dangerous places in low-density suburban-like sprawl. Indeed, during apartheid non-white people in South Africa had no real public space in the townships and were prohibited from lingering in any developed public spaces in the white cities. Even now, the very notion that an outdoor space might be designed to invite people to gather informally (and safely), to interact, to be used as a collective resource, is still surprising.

Since the end of apartheid formal public space in the some townships has been slowly appearing, but with no cultural tradition of using piazzas and parks, these often fall into disrepair unless diligently maintained. Much more successful are smaller public spaces like the ones Noero makes with the street edge of his projects. The investment to make such places is low—requiring only benches and perhaps an overhead covering for shade or rain protection. At Red Location, the Museum provides a shaded verandah with places to sit along one street, and the Library hosts a poetically long bench along a smooth blue-purple wall. These occupiable edges create an additional public amenity: they bring down the scale of these new building types at the street and within the almost entirely one story townships. The intersection and streets are clean concrete surfaces where children can play out of the dirt and under the tolerant gaze of the museum security guards. These places of being outdoors, away from home but in community, maintained by the buildings they are outside walls to, provide critical ingredients to a civic life.

While apartheid ended in 1994, from the window of an airplane it is easy to see how deeply the system is still written into South Africa. Even the smallest towns appear as two towns. One consists of a grid of tree-lined streets and comfortable houses surrounded by lawns. Its shriveled twin, always some distance away, but connected by a well-traveled road, has a much tighter grid of dirt roads lined with tiny houses or shacks. Here trees are a rarity and lawns non-existent. This pattern appears no matter the size of the population: here, the white town and, over there, the black or colored “township”. The implications of this separation are compounded in large cities: huge distances continue to separate the black and colored townships and the “white” city. While no longer prohibited from living inside these cities, most working class blacks and “coloreds” cannot afford the move, and many do not want to leave their communities. So they remain in the township locations that continue to grow as the government builds new housing and as new residents add to sprawling shack neighborhoods. This is a world where car ownership is rare and the transportation so essential to modern life remains inconvenient, expensive, and overcrowded.

Cape Town is the embodiment of this South Africa split between developed and developing worlds: it is a world-class city with numerous poor townships clustering around it. Hangberg, tiny in comparison with many of the other townships, was founded in 1956 when the apartheid government forceably moved all the colored people who had been living in Hout Bay onto just 2% of the habitable land edging the steep-sided bay. Here they were close to the fisheries jobs that needed cheap and readily available labor. Apartheid officials ignored the lack of transportation and the kilometers of empty dusty road between the township and the nearest commercial amenities. And the fact that the township has a million dollar view escaped their attention.

After apartheid ended, Hangberg grew in size and slowly became a mixed race community. The shack settlement expanded and was eventually sanctioned by an overburdened government unable to provide decent permanent housing for the residents. And the land adjacent to the historical edge of Hangberg, in the little valley that runs up from Hout Bay Harbour was subdivided into a neighborhood called The Heights, and sold to middle class buyers willing to pay for the view, even if they had to drive along the edge of Hangberg to get to and from home.

But Hangberg is still at the end of the road, where the poor and impoverished citizens are keenly aware of the extreme beauty of their place, but where they struggle every day with limited infrastructure and cut off from commercial and civic life. Most rely on carpooling, hitch-hiking, overloaded informal taxi vans known as kombis, and dilapidated public buses to get to work or to go shopping for essentials. Electrical lines are tapped by a tangle of illegal wires tacked on telephone poles, skipping across house eaves and running along improvised fences. The famously fierce Cape Peninsula storms often cause this fragile electrical arrangement to fail. This is clearly not a place—economically, socially, and historically-- where conventional centrally-controlled, commercially-based solutions to energy make any kind of sense at all. Noero, as he always has, seeks to discover through his project for this exhbition, ways that energy infrastructure can empower the citizens and the community and help them to wrest their energy future from the vagaries of capital markets and corporate greed.

And so Noero and his team have conducted careful scientific research into what kind of energy systems already exist, or have the potential to emerge from the landscape, the informal organization and the human energy of Hangberg. And they have asked themselves what more the residents need in terms of “energy”, in terms of replenishment of the hope and courage their lives require. The result is Productive Public, what Noero calls a “new public realm embedded with productive infrastructures” that provides not only energy solutions but also responds to the need for networked public spaces in the community.

To be clear, this is an abstract utopian project. While Noero and his team have had some conversations with residents of Hangberg, the project is not a “real” one. “We wanted to see what would happen if we separated this research out from local politics and community dynamics”, says Noero, who has spent countless hours of his practice life involved in just such conversations. “What we have found,” he continues “is that it is completely feasible for Hangberg to be an autonomous settlement free from the city grid, using only the energy that is available to them locally. But, and here is the utopian part, it requires a cooperative spirit and people have to work together. Look, we only rely on these externalized energy sources because we operate in atomized ways and don’t care at all about each other. But the current situation is actually like a noose around our neck that is getting tighter and tighter and tighter.”

In recent years there have been examples of architects using impoverished communities as fodder for advancing particular research agendas or careers, for displaying to the world a version of poverty pornography in the guise of architectural exploration (think Rem Koolhaus in Lagos, Nigeria). This is not the case with Noero’s proposal for Hangberg: not only has Noero spent the majority of his thirty years of practice working in the townships of South Africa, but ten years ago, he built his family a modest house in The Heights. He is a resident of Hout Bay Harbour, and as he did during the apartheid era, Noero daily witnesses the dispiriting inequities that continue to plague Hangberg, and, indeed, South Africa.

The future of energy for the kilowatt-guzzling global middle class is indeed grim. As the world continues to develop and this middle class expands into the billions, we will quite rapidly meet the end of the petroleum era. In this future, energy costs will spiral to dizzying heights and, as a result, we will live in energy-reduced circumstances that require profound shifts in our behaviors. Many find this a terrifying idea. But what if, Jo Noero asks, this is not the end of life as we know it, but rather an invitation to a decentralized, locally-sourced, community-based energy future for us all? What if we never again have to buy petrol of our cars, or pay an electric bill, or write a check for refilling the propane tank? What if, what if????


For more about the practice of Jo Noero, see his firm’s website

For more about the community of Hangberg, see the excellent analysis of the recent developments by W.V.P. Fieuw at

IMAGES: Bold indicates images attached (credits to Lisa Findley (3 and 5)), other images provided by Noero Architects.

1) Early Noero project showing development of materials palette—Katlehong Resource Center? Or Soweto Careers Center?

2) Street side of high school with two-way classrooms

3) Caption: The shady verandah of Red Location Museum, where the materials commonly used in township houses are elevated in this iconic and beautifully detailed building.

4) Seating edge of new Library

5) Caption: From the window of an airplane, even small country towns in South Africa can be seen as two towns. The arrow-shaped black township vividly shows that it was designed by an architect or planner in a suburban patter.

6-??) Images of Hangberg and Hout Bay