The Influencers’ Influencer: Jo Noero

WORDS Annette Klinger PHOTOS Elsa Young (Forest Town House), Supplied Portraits Mark Blower (PANCHO GUEDES), Supplied

Ever wondered who inspired our current generation of architects? In the first of our series, Jo Noero of Noero Architects explains how the work of PANCHO GUEDES shaped his refreshingly pragmatic approach to design.

If there’s one thing that tends to rile up architect Jo Noero, it’s a waste of space. “I am sick and tired of overblown, expensive houses that serve no purpose other than to satisfy the misplaced ambitions of their owners and architects,” he says. “We live in a world of diminishing resources, and we need to marshal what we have as carefully as possible. We should reduce the footprint of the houses in which we live.”

It’s predominantly for this reason that, in his almost four decades as an architect, Jo has mostly steered clear of residential projects, focusing instead on structures that have an impact on the greater public – works such as the West Coast Fossil Park, a minimalist, sprawling place, partially sunken into the excavated site on which it was built; and the Christ Church in Somerset West, where the seamless lines of a rectangular structure are dramatically punctuated by a burly column.

It’s not that he has avoided residential properties altogether – it’s that he has designed them on his own terms. “We find it difficult to design houses that are far too large for the families that will live in them,” he says.

“The houses that we have done range in terms of cost but not in terms of size – and most don’t have huge budgets.” Even on a “grander” scale, one of his most innovative and well-known residences, Castle Rock Beach House, presents as a clifftop mansion, but occupies a footprint of only 110 square metres. Cupped around the sea view in front of it, the sculptural, curvilinear structure gives a distinct nod to the geometric wizardry of one of Jo’s biggest architectural influences – the late Pancho Guedes.

Born in Portugal, raised in Mozambique and trained in South Africa, Guedes had an illustrious 25-year architectural career in Maputo, before moving to Johannesburg in 1975 to head up the school of architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“As a young architect, I was very taken with the way in which he employed geometry in his work, which was in turn most powerfully realised in the drawings he made of the work,” says Jo. “Pancho held the view that the drawing was fundamentally important because it captured, even more than the completed building, the ideas of the design.

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I usually redraw everything that I have made many times, even years after the project has been built, so as to perfect the idea of the drawing, and hence of the design.”

During the 1980s, Jo spent a stint teaching alongside Guedes at Wits – a time which he describes as a revelation, notably in terms of learning to challenge the Eurocentric lens through which architecture was viewed. “We learnt that architects like Andrea Palladio, whom we admired, owed many of his ideas to Mimar Sinan, a Muslim architect practising on a different continent at the same time,” he explains. “Pancho’s engagement with Africa anchored his work in a way that I have not seen in the work of any other architect, living or dead.”

Perhaps one of the most enduring wisdoms Guedes imparted is that an architect’s job is to transform that which  already exists, not try to invent new forms of architecture. Says Jo, “In architecture we need to go back to basics and do our work better – which is to make fine spaces admirably suited to the purpose for which they are intended.”

Looking for more architectural inspiration? Read about what inspires architect Sumayya Vally.