SA architect built career worthy of global honour

19 April 2015 - 02:00 By GABI MBELE

Jo Noero has more than 200 “children” scattered across South Africa. He is not a nomadic lothario but an architect, who regards the buildings he has created over the past three decades as family members.

Next month, Noero, 66, will join the mere handful of South Africans to have been honoured with a fellowship from the American Institute of Architects.

The ceremony in Atlanta, at which former US president Bill Clinton will be the key speaker, will honour five architects. The others are from Spain, Chile and China.

“I started working during the height of apartheid,” said Noero this week. “Most of my work was in the townships at that time — building homes, schools and churches. That was my most earnest work because I was contributing to people’s lives in a troubled time.”

Born in Johannesburg, schooled in Durban and now living in Cape Town, the former University of Cape Town professor said he initially wanted to become a doctor.

“After seeing blood in my second year, I ran away from medicine and went back to surfing. Then a friend of mine invited me to a party which was attended by big-shot architects — t h at ’s when I became interested in the profession.

“I couldn’t even draw when I started studying architecture. When a lecturer asked me to draw my favourite building I drew a tree. Amazingly, he thought my drawing was the most impressive drawing ever,” laughed Noero.

While studying, he won a scholarship to Cambridge University, which he later swapped for a chance to study in Newcastle in the UK.

On returning to South Africa in the ’80s, Noero made his name working for the South African Council of Churches, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and the Anglican Church on schools, community centres, churches and homes in the townships, notably in Soweto.

“The first building I worked on was St Paul’s church in Jabavu in Soweto, a church that was attended by Hector Pieterson’s family. I worked closely with Bishop David Nkwe [the former spiritual leader of the Anglican Church’s Matlosane diocese in Klerksdorp] and Tutu and the churches council for over 15 years,” he said.

“I had started my own practice and was passionate about working in the townships. I can count up to 40 churches I worked on back then, although I would be lying if I said I knew their current state today.”

Post-democracy, his work broadened to include offices, public buildings and the homes of some of South Africa’s leading struggle heroes, business leaders and arts personalities.

His work has won him numerous awards, including the International Fellow by The Royal Institute of British Architects and Gold Medal for Architecture in 2010 from the South African Institute of Architects.

It has been exhibited in cities including New York, Rome, Munich, Venice, São Paulo, Singapore and Istanbul.

He is currently working on the Red Location cultural precinct in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth — and the project’s gallery was named the best building in the world at the 2013 Icon Awards in London.

“This is among the highest honours the AIA can bestow upon a colleague who has contributed significantly to architecture, ” said the organisation’s president, Elizabeth Chu Richter.