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Living space: Red Location, South Africa

Red Location’s evolving cultural precinct explores ideas about placemaking and the African urban realm

Culture, memory, history and public space are contested concepts at the best of times, but in post-apartheid South Africa these contests have become visceral parts of everyday life. The cultural precinct at Red Location, a township outside South Africa’s fifth largest city and the Detroit of Africa, Port Elizabeth, unpacks those concepts, reflecting its architect Jo Noero’s belief that ‘architecture should be a way of opening up minds’. Presenting opportunities to engage with culture, memory, history and public space in different ways, these buildings suggest how contest might move towards fulfilment.

Earlier this year, Noero Wolff Architects finished three new buildings − an archive, a digital library and an art gallery − to join the Museum of the People’s Struggle that opened in 2005 (AR May 2006) and won the Lubetkin Prize the following year.

With the linked library and archive, gallery and museum occupying three of its four corners, and the train station a short walk away, the intersection of the evocatively named Olof Palme and Singaphi Streets is taking on the attributes of a city centre cultural precinct. Later phases include a school of arts and crafts, a cinema and performance spaces, and 210 new houses, making an urban combination of culture and community that would surely turn Richard Rogers, Lewis Mumford and Ebenezer Howard green with envy.

However, all around in this modern settlement of 400,000 people are unmetalled roads, Lilliputian parodies of suburban villas, shacks, run-down schools, empty churches and the particularly unlovely hostels and beer halls that the apartheid state felt suitable for the majority of its population. Against this background, the evident architectural quality of powerful forms and strong colours of the gallery, library and archive is very unexpected. ‘Many people find it a shock,’ says Noero, but with some satisfaction as ‘that opens up minds to the fact that people live here’.

The apartheid deliberately and cynically attempted to make the majority population invisible to the white community, but exhibitions and the quality of the archive − including Nelson Mandela’s prison journals − are beginning to break down these barriers. Noero looks forward to ‘university professors in the archive’ working in adjacent spaces to ‘young barely literate kids in the library’. If architecture can open up minds, it can find new ways of bringing them together.

The very existence of the precinct is all the more remarkable given the history of Red Location. The township is probably the oldest permanent urban settlement for people of Black African descent in South Africa, founded in 1902 as a dormitory for Port Elizabeth’s growing industrial base, which eventually turned it into the Detroit of Africa.

In a piquant touch, the materials for its first buildings were recycled from a concentration camp into which the British herded thousands of Boer women and children, and where many died from neglect and poor sanitation. Some of these huts were still used as homes until a couple of years ago: one has been preserved in the gallery’s forecourt. Memory, refashioned and reconstituted, continues to persist.

By the end of the 1980s, Red Location was under almost permanent siege from the security forces, reflecting its importance as a centre of resistance to apartheid. Decades earlier, the activist Raymond Mhlaba initiated direct opposition when he led a group of comrades through the door to the railway station marked ‘whites only’, and after a few twists and turns ended up on Robben Island.

Govan Mbeki, Thabo’s father and a veteran leader of the anti-apartheid struggle, came from the area, and together with Ernest Malgas, was responsible for insisting that part of the post-apartheid settlement would be a centre which celebrated this resistance and the culture which sprang from the struggle.

Two people picked up that challenge: local councillor Jimmy Tutu, who has struck a clever balance between political machinations and the ambitions of his electorate; and Rory Riordan, an economist and former director of the Human Rights Trust, who chaired the ANC council’s finance committee after the 1994 elections, and has since left politics and acted as project manager for the precinct.

They were largely responsible for developing the concept of a cultural precinct − in contrast to the default option chosen for most town centre developments in South Africa, of a shopping mall, a product, says Noero of Reaganomics and Milton Friedman. Winning the initial competition for the precinct in 2000 was an opportunity to ‘treat people with dignity, as something other than units of production and consumption’. Red Location and the surrounding township of New Brighton were fertile if challenging ground for this ambition.

Many locals had made their mark in cultural activity. John Kani and Winston Ntshona, actors and writers who worked with Athol Fugard, grew up nearby. The painter George Pemba lived in Red Location and drew heavily on its experiences in his art. There was no lack of culture but almost no way of recognising and celebrating it. Even now many local people make art, but few go to galleries. Without architectural precedents for public buildings, let alone cultural institutions, Noero had to fashion an architecture that was relevant and legible to its community.

That is a consistent thread in his architecture, going back to a series of inventive projects from his time as architect to the Anglican Church in Johannesburg where he worked with Bishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu, Noero recalls, looked to buildings by Hawksmoor, Butterfield and Street in poor urban areas of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries as precedents for high-quality architecture for the disadvantaged urban communities of apartheid South Africa.

The starting point, Noero and his colleagues found, was in the informal settlements, which were the only places where black people could organise for themselves, even though their means were limited. They found inventive ways of using cheap and waste materials. Noero’s goal became ‘to show how to elevate [this architectural language] even further’.

One example is the use of local pine. Noero spotted that it was used as fencing for shacks ‘to keep the goats in or the dogs out’. It’s cheap and robust, and an ideal cladding material. He used it around the archive, and where scholars will go to consult original and printed material on the history of apartheid. Yet if all there was to this architecture were a deft assembly of detritus it wouldn’t be very interesting or functional and it would probably not fulfil the symbolic potential of the precinct either. But Noero shows a shrewd and imaginative spatial intelligence as well, and it is the mix of sophisticated types with his understanding of local sensibilities that elevates the overall architectural language.

The archive, for example, may be clad with what local people use for fences, but it is the highest building in the precinct. Its long, thin interior, illuminated by a strip skylight, would not be out of place as an Oxbridge college library. University professors should certainly feel at home in this hushed, book-lined space. They will be able to reach the printed material for themselves, either from the ground floor or the elegant but simple steel galleries. Rare works will be stored in spaces with all the protection a major archive should have.

To reach the archive you go through the digital library. Its entrance is a generous forecourt which opens between two converging canopies. The canopy roofline becomes a datum that joins the different volumes of the library and archive. A sawtooth roof brings light into the pine-clad working spaces − a teaching room on one side, and several computer banks on the others.

The route to the archive passes a series of faceted bays with window benches before going up a slightly rising but steeply curving ramp around the archivist’s desk, clearly signalling a different space but not making it inaccessible.

The gallery shows a similar sensibility. Though small it has all the security and art handling facilities needed for international exhibitions. South-facing (away from the sun) light scoops bring modulated daylight into the main exhibition area and a system of panels allows for many different divisions and lengths of walls, so it can take primarily hung exhibits or floor-mounted installations.

The effect is almost Kahnian, but the presence of the preserved shack and a single picture window looking across the neighbourhood ensure that no-one forgets where they are. The combination of architectural quality and clear reminders of location make the case for art and society being entwined more eloquently than reams of Marxist art history. It will have a permanent display of local art and introduce work from further afield.

These are very skilful buildings, built on very low budgets and by a procurement method where local people − mostly unskilled − had to make up a proportion of the labour force. Noero knows the limitations of this situation and turns them to his advantage, using simple materials but coaxing unusual forms and even more unexpected effects.

They have a nobility but feel remarkably embedded within their context and community. The crossroads is already an important meeting point, giving each building a forecourt which leads onto the streets and infuses a sense of generosity, even of public realm, into the urban context.

Noero has thought long and hard abouthow to develop an African urbanism. Cities, he points out, are a new phenomenon in South Africa, and their designs largely imported from Europe. The idea of public space, used for its own sake as opposed to, say, a political meeting, has little traction.

What are used in South African cities, though, are streets. They take you from point to point, and are lined with formal and informal retail activity. So they are the starting point for developing public space, and that is why each institution has its own forecourt, as a kind of intermediate zone between the public street and the building, and these are beginning to be used, initially as short cuts but increasingly as points of social contact. Benches around the trees in front of the library add to these opportunities.

Noero sees the evolution of an urban culture as a long process. But starting at Red Location, it suggests how public space at least might become less of a scene of contest and more a place of pleasure. Given that the buildings of the cultural precinct infuse local with international culture, and make space for memories to be recorded and presented, culture, memory and history might follow too.

Read more about the early stages of the museum masterpan from The Architectural Review’s Archive from 2006 article written by Catherine Slessor.

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