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Museum in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, by Noero Wolff Architects

An apartheid museum that celebrates the ordinary is South Africa’s latest attempt to come to terms with its past

Originally published in September 2009

The intense social and cultural convulsions of post-apartheid South Africa have given rise to a new museum type that attempts to address and commemorate the nation’s troubled history. In the apartheid era, museums did not form part of the cultural life of the black majority, who were excluded from visiting such institutions, and so oral history became the most common means of recording and memorialising events. Now, as part of the often painful catharsis of social change, serious efforts are being made to document formally and publicly aspects of apartheid through the mechanism of the museum and introduce active museum going to a section of the populace hitherto culturally marginalised.

The Gold Reef Apartheid Museum on the outskirts of Johannesburg was the first of its kind, but it also formed part of a suburban casino and theme park. an incongruity that inevitably diminished its impact. However, smaller institutions that explore and connect with local history have tended to be more successful. Cape Town’s District Six Museum is dedicated to a lively part of the city, demolished to make way for white development in the 1970s. and Soweto now boasts the Hector Petersen Museum. Named after one of the 200 students shot during the Soweto Uprising, a 1976 protest against the quality of black education.

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Clearly, the apartheid museum is still evolving as a type and will need sensitive handling if it is not to degrade the complex and difficult history it commemorates. In this respect, the Museum of the People’s Struggle in Port Elizabeth by Noero Wolff Architects suggests a perceptive new paradigm. In location, form and content it differs radically from its predecessors and challenges conventional views of museum design. Rather than envisaging the past as a single narrative, it conceives it as set of memories consciously disconnected yet bound together by certain themes. Rather than being passive consumers, visitors are encouraged to become active participants. Rather than a remote suburban location, it lies smack in the middle of a shack settlement. All this feeds into an architecture underscored by a strong formal and material economy that aims to transcend its programme and uplift its surroundings.

In some ways, the story of the museum site is emblematic of South Africa’s wider history of racial movement and spatial colonization. On the edge of Port Elizabeth, an industrial town on the south-east coast, lies Red Location, the area’s first black township. The name derives from the settlement’s corrugated iron barrack buildings that over time rusted to a distinctive deep red. Originally, they were built for a concentration camp in nearby Uitenhage where Boer families were interned during the Boer War. In 1902, at the war’s end, the barracks were moved to Port Elizabeth to house British soldiers and when the soldiers left, local black families moved in. Red Location and the surrounding township of New Brighton became an important site of resistance to the apartheid regime and many prominent cultural and political leaders were either born or lived there, including Govan Mbeki, father of current South African president Thabo Mbeki. Today, the original barracks are in a cannibalized, barely inhabitable state, yet their almost archaeological presence is a potent reminder of the dynamics of political and social struggle.

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In 1998 a national design competition was held for a new town centre precinct that could act as a revitalizing economic and developmental catalyst for the township. The Museum of Struggle formed the core of the brief, but it also involved the preservation of the Red Location barracks and a range of new civic buildings and housing. Jo Noero, now in partnership with Heinrich Wolff, won the competition, with Mashbane Rose, architects for the Gold Reef Museum in Johannesburg taking second place. Noero Wolff have built extensively in the demanding context of South Africa’s townships (AR July 1994, March 1995) and their architecture is characterized by its quiet dignity and ‘fierce decency’ that consciously strives to improve the lives of its users.
Noero and Wolff’s museum draws its strong physical and thematic structure from the notion of the Memory Box, Inspired by the boxes in which migrant workers stored their most prizes possessions when away from home. Workers in urban centres could be separated from their rural families for up to eleven months of the year and the boxes were not just a treasured reminder of home and family, but also helped sustain a sense of identity in a world of harsh social and economic dislocation.

Twelve mute, monolithic, unmarked boxes clad in rusted corrugated steel are arranged in rows around the main exhibition space, like a phalanx of brooding Richard Serra sculptures. Each box is 6sq m in plan and almost 12m tall, the height of a four-storey building. Each is entirely self-contained, offering diverse readings of life in South Africa that are only revealed on entry. Together, the array of boxes constitute a shifting mosaic of memories that attempt to illuminate the complexities of human experience. Their contents can be changed as time goes on, so in a still shifting cultural climate, the museum is not tied to one particular curatorial line. There is no prescribed route, so visitors are free to explore at will and draw their own conclusions. The cavernous, top lit volume of the main exhibition space is also augmented by an auditorium, library, art gallery and offices.

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With its simple concrete block walls topped by a jagged profile of saw-tooth roof lights, the building seems more like a place of industry than culture. However, in a community where the factory represented social opportunity and the museum stood for social exclusion, this architectural camouflage seems somehow appropriate. Materials also reflect their surroundings, but are given resonant new readings. Standard steel windows are used in unconventional ways, the corrugated sheets wrapping the Memory Boxes are deliberately rusted (evoking the Red Location barracks), and concrete blocks, an utterly basic material commonly used in township houses, are employed with great rigour and precision as though they were facing bricks. Shots of industrial strength hues of yellow, green and red enliven a largely neutral palette.

Experientially, Noero and Wolff conjour a kind of architectural Arte Povera through poetic use of the cheap, the commonplace and the disregarded. And though the museum is very intensely focused inwards on its subject matter, it also aims to connect with and enrich its wider surroundings. Noero cites the example of the Smithsons’ Ordinariness and Light, in which architecture acts as an armature for and backdrop to everyday lives. Here, the long eastern side of the museum is transmuted into a habitable wall with seating, a children’s play area and parking spaces for taxis. The entrance at the south end is marked by a generous porch sheltered by a timber pergola which is also forms a public gathering space. And on the west side, the L-shaped footprint of the building defines a grassy park area with an outdoor cinema screen that can accommodate an audience of 2500 people.

These efforts at urban integration did not prevent some commentators from questioning the museum’s conspicuous monumentality, but though its scale is clearly at odds with the low rise, makeshift houses of its surroundings, paradoxically, as a tangible symbol both of historic struggle and a new urban sensibility, it has had the effect of boosting local civic pride. It was also built using a pool of local labour, thus improving and developing the skills base.

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In a country still tentatively grappling with daunting political, economic and social transitions, the Museum of Struggle might seem like a small drop in a restlessly heaving ocean. Yet it is a hugely important building for South Africa, and one that would have been unimaginable 15 years ago. It is perhaps misguided to assume that architecture (not so long ago the despised physical expression of state policy and power) can instantly salve deep-rooted hurts and injustices, but as a courageous attempt to confront and understand the past, it does offer the prospect of redemption and a coming to terms. Without this there can be little hope for a better future.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Despite its architectural presence and the analysis of it being a good work of 'architecture", the building fails to deliver to the community and its context. It remains a building closed off from the community. Much of this can be put down to management issues. However, it is interesting that they have not seen fit to take ownership of the building. On multiple visits I have failed to see any visible positive impact on the surrounding. This is indeed a pity as indeed to being a catalytic building it remains a capital 'A' for architectecture object building.

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