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Photo © Rob Duker

Red Location Cultural Precinct

Noero Wolff Architects

Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Where Defiance Began: A cultural complex honors the legacy of the fight against apartheid, while bringing it alive for a new generation of South Africans.

By Karen Eicker

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Red Location is the oldest surviving relocation site in Port Elizabeth, where thousands of native Africans were forced to settle by the colonial government in the early 1900s. It is one of South Africa's original centers of antiapartheid activism, as well as a cradle of culture in the Eastern Cape; one of its townships, New Brighton, is the home of the Serpent Players (made famous by playwrights Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona), as well as artists such as George Pemba, and many jazz musicians.

The Red Location Cultural Precinct, in New Brighton, honors the turbulent history of the area, while providing the surrounding community with opportunities for education, employment, and artistic expression. The first phase of the project, the Museum of Struggle, opened in November 2006 with exhibits on the contemporary history of South Africa, particularly the resistance against apartheid. Noero Wolff Architects, the Cape Town–based practice, designed the entire complex after winning a national competition in 1998.

In July 2011, construction of the second and third buildings in the precinct—an art gallery and a library/archive—was completed, though the facilities have yet to be occupied. The final phase will comprise a performing-arts center and a school for the performing arts, to be designed by Jo Noero, who recently separated from his partner Heinrich Wolff. Construction is scheduled to start on these buildings in two years. Eventually, the complex will also accommodate 210 houses for people working in the cultural precinct, and various commercial and public open spaces.

Rory Riordan, chief executive of Dojon Financial Services and one of the project's tireless supporters, explains that the Red Location precinct began as an idea in 1992 when a group of politically interested people, including himself, were traveling outside the country studying local governmental issues. One of the group members was a township activist from New Brighton, Ernest Malgas, who had been imprisoned for his political activities and tortured numerous times. “During the trip, shortly before he died, Ernest called us together,” says Riordan. “He entrusted us with the joint responsibility of somehow commemorating how the people of Red Location have always had to live, and how they suffered in their fight against apartheid.”

After the dismantling of apartheid in 1994, several members of the group were elected to be councillors in the city government and began to plan a cultural center on a piece of open land next to the historic New Brighton Railway Station, where in 1952 activist Raymond Mhlaba initiated the Defiance Campaign by walking through the “whites only” entrance.

Noero recalls, “In a progressive move, the city agreed to leave the site as a single subdivision for the duration of the development.” This allowed the architects “to push the buildings as close as possible to the streets” and activate the public realm with visitors and local residents moving through the site. Noero is designing the performing-arts center and school so that some of their elements—including a performance space and a set-design area—can spill outdoors. The intention is to let people take charge of the street, especially as the project grows and commercial and social activities intensify over time.

Reinforcing the precinct's connection to its social context, a mix of formally and informally constructed houses—ranging from shacks to subsidized units—surround the site. Noero responded to the scale of these residential areas by articulating his buildings with porticoes and colonnades that reach out to their neighbors while serving as thresholds to the larger civic spaces inside.

He also acknowledged the area's industrial heritage and its powerful trade-union movement in his buildings' saw-tooth roofs, which echo those of nearby factories and the railway station. The roofs and their clerestory glazing provide good ambient lighting as well as natural ventilation. “The language and form are explicit yet simultaneously ambiguous, using pragmatic measures like volume and the quality of light to express the various purposes of the spaces,” says Noero.

The new 16,000-square-foot library and archive sits directly across the street from the museum, responding to the older building's large entry pergola with its own forecourt and thin concrete canopy. The different programs–digital library on one side of the central foyer and computer school, reading rooms, and archive on the other–are expressed as separate forms within the building's two embracing wings. Different floor finishes—concrete, timber, carpeting, and cork—reinforce the separate identity of each function. The saw-tooth roof brings in a diffuse south light (the equivalent of north light in the Northern Hemisphere) that softly reflects off the interiors' warm timber surfaces. A double-height reading room that will house printed works relating to South Africa, the Eastern Cape, and the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality (which includes Port Elizabeth) acts as a visual and spatial exclamation mark for the building.

The 12,000-square-foot art gallery welcomes visitors with a forecourt displaying a small, corrugated-iron shack dating from 1902. Inside the gallery, concrete vaults scoop south light into the exhibition spaces, their exposed concrete surfaces providing a cool, bright ambience for the art. A floor-to-ceiling window at one end of the sophisticated exhibition space, though, looks onto the ramshackle houses, offering a stark reminder of the building's context. The gallery will provide arts education for local residents as well as exhibition opportunities for emerging artists in the area.

“The fact that this project has moved forward very slowly has been of huge benefit,” says Noero. “To create quality architecture, particularly social architecture within complex communities, you need time to properly understand the processes and relationships.”

This careful consideration has produced a family of three closely related, yet distinctly individual buildings that gently capture the tough history and tenacious dreams of a community caught, always, in the throes of change.

Karen Eicker is a Johannesburg-based architect, writer, and curator, and director of the nonprofit Architects' Collective.

Completion Date: July 2011

Size: 16,000 square feet (library/archive); 12,000 square feet (art gallery)

Cost: $4 million

Architect:
Noero Wolff Architects

August 2012
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