Architect talks about planned Apartheid Museum

Midway between Durban and Cape Town, South Africa, an industrial city is confronting its racist past. Port Elizabeth, a former giant of auto manufacturing once described as "one of the most segregated and disjointed cities in Africa," has just selected South African architect Jo Noero to design the country's first Apartheid Museum.

Mr. Noero says he believes architecture can heal. During a recent interview in Boston, he explained his plans to build the museum next to a dilapidated shack settlement of rusty corrugated-iron houses, known as the Red Location neighborhood. The project should be completed in two years.

"It was a place where many of the black unionists engaged in the first passive-resistance campaign against the so-called 'pass laws,' " Noero says.

He and his wife, Gillian, have long worked with South African leaders in the battle for human rights, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Noero has used his creative talents to develop community churches, cultural and educational centers in Duduza and Soweto, and a nonsegregated courthouse in Pretoria.

Among the goals of the museum project, funded by federal and local government money, is to revitalize a community that was once a hotbed of conflict. It will include a library, a marketplace, a 24-hour education center, offices, new housing, and a cultural center,

"Red Location is a fully functioning community," says Noero, who has made a conscious choice to bring museum visitors to the site of historic racial tensions. From the museum complex, visitors will be able to view the shanties at Red Location. He aspires to create a tribute, "a context for the museum, where people who come can actually see the people's living conditions."

He wants visitors to feel the walls creak under intense heat and to hear the rain pounding off the flinty saw-toothed roof, which reflects the architecture of nearby factories. As visitors walk through the museum's corridor, he wants them to feel uncomfortably close to the elements - like those who live in the nearby shacks.

Noero will incorporate the tradition of black migrant village workers who tote photographs and memorabilia to distant cities in decorative wooden "memory boxes." The museum will have fifteen 40-foot "crates" representing these very personal boxes. Standing behind a network of columns that will honor anti-apartheid heroes, these crates will showcase local craftsmen's renderings of what Noero calls "a series of sharp and pungent memories reconstructed through artwork." The boxes will be heavily insulated to encourage silent meditation and reflection. Since there will be no prescribed course through the museum, visitors will be encouraged to navigate a path of their own.

Noero says he feels it is crucial for visitors to feel the shock of years of segregation. He drew inspiration from American colleague Daniel Liebskind, who designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The "form of the [Berlin] building and the shaping of the spaces evoke the horror ... of the Holocaust," he says.

Ultimately, Noero says, he hopes the museum will build new memories, "ones that... will allow us to begin to hope for an African Renaissance that allows culture to emerge naturally as the residents struggle to improve their lives."

*Elisabetta Coletti is a member of the Monitor staff.

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