SA wins Building of the Year 2012

WORDS Charl Blignaut PHOTOS Dave Southwood

Jo Noero’s Red Museum in Port Elizabeth has been named global Building of the Year 2012 by Icon magazine in London, writes Charl Blignaut.

An art gallery in a Port Elizabeth township was named the best building in the world this year at a glittering ceremony in London [last] week.

It beat the likes of the spectacular, curved Olympic Velodrome in London and the critically acclaimed Lyric Theatre in Belfast to win Building of the Year 2012 at the inaugural Icon Awards for architecture.

When City Press contacted him [last] week, winning designer Jo Noero of Cape Town’s Noero Architects, said: “I didn’t even go to London because I really wasn’t expecting it.”

This is just one of a number of awards Jo has won for his work on the country’s most-lauded cultural centre.

The project – that began with a museum and will include an arts and craft school, a conference centre, and 250 houses for locals – aims to keep memory alive in unique ways.

So, forming the centrepiece of the design and part of the entrance to the new gallery is an old tin shack. It points to an extraordinarily rich history that Jo tapped into to create his iconic work.

Jo said: “Shacks were built here as early as 1902 and people are still living in (them). We had this shack declared a national monument. It hasn’t been restored.

“We’ve left it in a decrepit state on purpose. We want people to see it as it was lived in. It gets constant maintenance, though. If there’s a leak it gets patched with plastic. It’s a living monument.”

The Red Location settlement dates to the turn of the 20th century.

Noero explained: “There was a British concentration camp in Uitenhage that housed mainly women and children. At the end of the Boer War, it was dismantled and brought to Port Elizabeth, where it was reassembled to be used as a barracks by the British army.

“When they moved out, families were moved in. This became the first formally settled location for black urban families in Port Elizabeth. The artist, George Pemba, was born here and so was ANC leader Raymond Mhlaba. Govan Mbeki lived here, and playwright and actor Winston Ntshona lives up the road.”

Red Location was a crucial site of black resistance during apartheid. The first underground Umkhonto we Sizwe cell was formed here and the railway station witnessed the first anti-pass law resistance campaign.

Noero said: “In the early 1990s, Mhlaba and Mbeki mooted the idea of building a special place in Red Location to serve as a space to keep memory alive. 

“It was decided to build a cultural centre and a competition was held in 1998. My firm won that. We’ve been working on the site ever since, and we are going to be here for another 10 to 15 years.”

The museum has documented the lives of the two young men who were living in the now world-famous shack.

“They were born here and their father and mother lived in this shack for 35 or 40 years. The parents are dead now. One of the brothers was in jail and came out again. They will be getting one of the new houses we’re building,” said Jo.

The first artwork to hang in the new gallery is also world famous after making its debut in Italy earlier this year. Jo was invited to show it at La Biennale di Venezia – the 13th International Architecture ­Exhibition. 

Jo said: “I did a 9m-long drawing of the Red Location project alongside a huge tapestry by a nearby women’s arts group that is a reworking of Picasso’s Guernica.

“Their Guernica is about HIV/Aids. It lists the names of their friends who have died and incorporates grey hospital blankets. Today it hangs in the gallery,” he said.

Jo described the project as his life’s work. “I love working at Red Location because the people have got so much strength. Despite the hardships, they just get on with it.”

First published in City Press on Sunday 9 December 2012. Be sure to follow City Press @city_press and Charl Blignaut @sa_poptart on Twitter.