Jo Noero on Self-Help Housing, Neoliberalism, & What Patrik Schumacher Doesn’t Understand

In this interview, South African architect Jo Noero discusses the importance of dweller control in housing—and how it can make the temporary become permanent.

Table House, by Noero Architects

Courtesy Uno Pereira

At the recent World Architecture Festival (WAF) in Berlin, Jo Noero of Cape Town-based Noero Architects presented his ongoing Table House project: a deceptively simple, low-cost combination of posts and beams that can be adapted by residents to suit specific needs. The concept is a collaboration with Rainer Hehl, from the Architecture Design Innovation Program at Berlin’s Technical University. The two architects suggest the typology could be used to address entirely different housing crises in their respective countries. Following the festival, Metropolis contributor Elvia Wilk met with Noero to discuss whether the temporary can really become permanent, Rem Koolhaas’ “diabolical” influence on the profession of architecture, and, yes, Donald Trump.

Elvia Wilk: Having followed several of your projects over time, one thing that stands out is that they have had many lives, always evolving according to how residents use them. How do you build flexibility and longevity into the design process?

Jo Noero: It’s just good design. First of all, we work in South Africa, which is my country, and which I know very well. I have huge sympathy for the situation that many people find themselves in there. At my firm we see our work as helping them in whatever way we can—through architectural means. I don’t pretend to be a social worker. I’m an architect, and I construct things in space. Longevity is really a question of being acutely attuned to what’s happening in communities, understanding the political exchanges happening on the ground, and making spaces for them. We don’t do fast-track work. I don’t fly into a city and leave an hour later with a napkin scrawled with notes. We take our time; we do it properly. I wish more architects would do that. We would have much nicer buildings.

EW: Why don’t they?

JN: Most architects get caught up in the fame business, and they want to do as many buildings as they can. The current obsession in architecture is to make images, not buildings. A lot of architects believe there’s an intuitive, creative process that just runs out of you, and with a few moves of a pencil or pen you can come up with something good. But we’ve also lost the relationship between focus, program, and form, which is really what Modernism was about. Modernism invented program, and then, through program, offered opportunities for architects to make buildings for the everyman and woman, as opposed to an elite.

EW: But Modernist buildings for the everyperson were often prescriptive of how people should live. People want to have choices and upward mobility. Do you think that’s part of why the idea of program was lost?

JN: Yes. Neoliberalism has led to radical democracy, which has led to the contemporary condition where everyone wants to be a genius expressing themselves—so we’ve lost this sense of joining together. We’re recovering it, though, because the world is going to go through a crisis. Things will collapse in many parts of the world, which I’m kind of looking forward to. I think Donald Trump is the best thing that could have happened to America—he’s going to create revolution. People are going to stand against him and take to the streets, and that’s exactly what America needs.

In terms of dislocating program from form, Rem Koolhaas has been a really pernicious influence. He’s clever, but he’s diabolical as well. Together with that crazy man Peter Eisenman, they looked at late capitalism and said: we can’t predict the uses to which our buildings are put, because before we’ve even finished them their uses have changed, which means that program has nothing to do with architecture any longer. That’s bullshit. The trick is to shape buildings around program, but to design the spaces in such a way that they can accommodate new uses over time. And that’s difficult. It’s much easier to just make a lot of noise, to make something that’s eye-catching, and move on to the next one.

EW: Doesn’t the economic system that underpins architecture encourage that kind of divorcing of form and program too?

JN: All Koolhaas needed to say was, “I’m going to do a few nice little buildings in Rotterdam and forget about flying around the world.” It was his damn choice. Don’t blame late capitalism.

EW: Right, you shouldn’t blame the system for the actor. But many people do. For instance, Patrik Schumacher, who gave a talk here at WAF yesterday, thinks that the individual architect should cede social responsibility and therefore political agency entirely to the market.  

JN: I thought Schumacher was talking like an undergraduate majoring in political science. His use of Karl Marx and the withering of the state was so crude. Then again, we live in a world where most people don’t know who Marx was. The left-right debate has collapsed.

The one good thing Schumacher said last night was that we have to deal with the issue of state controls. What’s most useful for architects is to look at scale—what is the most appropriate scale to produce what building? Maybe housing should be produced locally with local control. That doesn’t mean that the state has no responsibility; the state still has a responsibility to make sure there’s equitable distribution of resources. Then people can decide for themselves how to use those resources.

Dweller control. When people own or have an investment in a property, their relationship with that property changes. So temporary becomes permanent—and permanent becomes temporary.

I’ve been arguing with my government in South Africa for years about that. They’re building houses for poor people that are unsustainable, that are built in the wrong place, and that people don’t like. I’ve been saying to the housing ministry for ten years now that it shouldn’t spend money on houses, but should give people the money to do what they see fit. If people want to build a house, that’s great—if they want to go to university or set up a business, that’s also great. But the government doesn’t trust people, so it’s out of the question. Housing and education are very powerful tools used by governments around the world to control people.

EW: So, like Schumacher, you also see loosening of state controls as a way forward, but not with the aim of maximizing profit for developers?  

JN: Right. It’s not about giving freedom to developers, but to people. If you think about the provision of any kind of social infrastructure, the people who receive the benefits of a social investment are never consulted. You’ve got the architects and the government, and then you have the people who provide services, like the developers, and then at the end you have this passive group of people who are the unwilling recipients of social provisions. Good architecture is a matter of reversing those relationships.

EW: How does an architect do that?

JN: I think all architects know how to do it. When you’re briefed for a project by a bank, for example, you go in and meet the executive, you sit around the boardroom, they tell you what they want, you go off and make a series of propositions, and they choose one. But the architect never goes and talks to the security staff or the cleaners in the building. We should be doing that. I’ve tried a few times. On one or two occasions it’s worked, but most times it doesn’t, because the people who are funding the building have very little regard for the people who are doing the hard work inside their buildings, so their needs aren’t considered.

We’re good at doing individual houses because we talk with a family on a one-to-one basis, and we get to know what their needs are. But when you’ve got 200 families that need housing it’s much more difficult. We tend to standardize our responses—we build a standard two-and-a-half-person house for everyone.

EW: The dregs of Modernism, but not the intent?

JN: Exactly. That’s why the project I’m working on now with Rainer Hehl, the Table House, is absolutely minimal. We’re looking at the the minimal contribution that architecture needs to make in order to create opportunity for people, and which can lead to variety. What is the minimum we need to do in order to trigger a response in people, so that they can start to be responsible for their own lives? Architecture can act as a vehicle for that, and that doesn’t mean that we stop designing.

Table House, by Noero Architects

Courtesy Uno Pereira

Table House, by Noero Architects

Courtesy Paul Talliard

Maybe the thing to do is what Voltaire suggested—to look after our own vegetable patches in our own gardens. Slow down, do something really well, work sensibly and creatively. We have to become more place-bound in the world.

EW: It seems like privilege increasingly means the ability not to be place-bound. Isn’t there a type of architecture for the mobile class, and another type for those who can’t travel constantly?

JN: I think the reasons for the architecture of the mobile class are even simpler than that. [The theorist] Saskia Sassen has been doing studies in New York and London, looking at these huge buildings, and finding that they are simply land banking. People are looking for places to lodge their capital so that it becomes invisible. I don’t think anyone is so mobile that they need an apartment in every city—except for the architects who are flying around and building them.

EW: On the other hand, you conceived Table House as a kind of mobile architecture format that could be equally relevant in Berlin and Cape Town. Can one type of construction really be flexible enough to work in such different contexts?  

JN: There’s a possibility of the Table House working here in Berlin, but it needs a lot more thought and care. When I first came to Berlin, we visited some of the places where refugees were being housed, like the old Olympic Stadium. The Germans running the place were going completely mad. They would lay out the sleeping bunks with military precision, and then a big family would come and rearrange all the beds, turning them over to make walls around a space, and then sleep in the middle together. They weren’t acting as individuals but as huge extended family networks. The people working there were trying to fit the refugees into a typical German template, and it wasn’t working.

That’s why we shouldn’t be arguing about how to make the cost of housing cheaper, but about how to give people dweller control. One of things that went wrong with the concept of “self-help” housing was that the people who introduced the concept, John Turner and others, were talking about dweller control, not saying people should build houses themselves.

But corrosive governments, like the old apartheid government in South Africa, saw the idea of self-help as an opportunity to reduce the cost of housing by making people build houses for themselves. People were very smart—they said fuck off. They knew they shouldn’t have to do the work of the architect; but they should be able to have control over the built spaces. We were hoping we could manage that with the Table House.

EW: Thinking in terms of dweller control also helps us move past the once-trending idea of “learning from”—studying ad hoc building and then replicating it, as if an organic process can be replicated, or as if there’s no cultural or site specificity to the choices people make.  

JN: There’s a theory from cybernetics that Turner uses, Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. It says that if you want to maintain equilibrium in any system, the variety of the controlling system must be at least as great as the system to be controlled—otherwise entropy results. If you think of a typical pyramidal, top-down housing approach, you realize why entropy happens, why housing estates are such dismal places. So how can we build that variety into the plan? By changing the scale of provision, by making it local, and by giving people control. Not control of the building process, but of their own lives.

EW: So, back to the beginning, how does dweller control relate to longevity? How can permanence be built into a system that allows constant change beyond the architect’s control?

JN: During the Second World War, a lot of people who were chased out of London because of aerial bombing were provided with prefabricated bungalows by the state. When the Labor Party came to power after the war, they felt very embarrassed about the houses that people were living in, but they knew they couldn’t deliver new housing to replace them. So they said to people, “this house is yours, and the piece of ground it’s on belongs to you.” And 60 years later, those prefabricated houses are still being looked after. Dweller control. When people own or have an investment in a property, their relationship with that property changes. So temporary becomes permanent—and permanent becomes temporary.

EW: Is there any comparable system in South Africa?

JN: No. We had colonial rule, and then we had apartheid rule, which segregated races, and we also had modern town planning, which segregated functions. We have the most segregated cities in the world, functionally and racially. And cities were never actually where people lived until now. Previously, black people lived in townships on one side of the city, white people lived in suburbs on the other side of the city, and the city center was the place for labor. We’re only beginning to develop an urban culture. We’re discovering the city and we’re finding that we like it, but there are no spaces in the city that have been made for the high-density housing that people need.

EW: Is there room for housing in cities like Cape Town?

JN: There’s always room in a city. One of my students at the University of Cape Town recently did a study of pieces of ground smaller than fifty square meters in the city center. When she added them all up, they were the equivalent of two large city blocks. The reason we don’t use those spaces is because no developer could profit from them. If we could get a series of twenty little building companies with one architect for each, and tell each one to design a little housing block on it—I tell you, Atelier Bow Wow would die with jealousy!

EW: So is this next on your project list?

JN: No, it’s not the right time in our country. We’re still grappling with cities that are so disadvantaged, trying to solve these huge planning issues. There’s no money for these fine-grain responses right now. Projects like this will happen in two generations’ time.

Recent Viewpoints