It is almost three decades since South Africa officially realized its radical political change: the abandonment of its system of discriminatory rule. Spatial exclusion and the concomitant segregation of so-called indigenous peoples had been the primary building block for apartheid. Whereas it has been relatively easy to change and dismantle that practice’s legal structure, the legacy of its spatial infrastructure continues to present its most enduring and divisionary attribute.
Noero Architects, originally founded in 1984, represents an inherent ability to generate design projects that complement this national imperative. This has enabled the development of a unique identity. Predicated on the ability to ask thoughtful questions, as opposed to simply solving design problems, this studio pursues what is possible in conditions particular to each project. One of these has been the Red Location Cultural Precinct, which transformed the oldest surviving relocation site in Port Elizabeth—where thousands of native Africans were forced to settle—by providing opportunities for education, employment, and artistic expression. An enduring response is evident in the sustained production of transformed building types that directly contribute to offering new life for users.
The entrance court brings the old and new churches into alignment along a longitudinal axis. Photo © Paris Brummer, click to enlarge.
The design of a set of interventions for Christ Church in Somerset West is a project that comprehensively demonstrates this intention. There, a congregation had outgrown its existing parish—a common occurrence in the suburbs, where churches have expanded to accommodate growing community needs and to become centers of help, learning, and recreation. Noero’s design has transformed an existing suburban setting into a compound by providing a landscape for both religious and secular activities.
Bounded by an enclosure of breeze blocks, the reconfigured site offers ambiguous readings through its relationship with context—sharing its entrance and parking lot with an adjacent shopping center; looking like a water tank; and, through the power of its circular form, establishing a holy place on its sloping site to engage with the community, recalling historical religious associations.
Bathed in sunlight from the cruciform skylight above it, the circular worship space allows the priest to be in close proximity to the congregation. Photo © Paris Brummer
Leaving the parking lot, one enters the walled courtyard through a sliding gate and semi-enclosed ramp. To the right is the old church, which now operates as a hall for weekly gatherings and community meetings. Directly opposite, on axis, the new church complex predominates, presenting itself as a pure white cylinder emerging from within the newly raised and landscaped precinct.
The opposite edge of the site is lined by an ancillary building, accommodating breakaway classrooms, restrooms, and a kitchen, and linking to the church with a connecting “cry room” for youngsters and babies. Spanning the entire length of the site, this bank of rooms acts as a retainer, and might in the future take an additional floor, with the potential of alternative means of access from the higher reaches of the sloped site.
The purity of the cylinder provides the primary signifier for the sacred space within an extended ground plane. This light-filled silo floats 8 feet above the church’s finished floor level, marking the primary worship space. The ground plane extends beyond the circle to a rectangular space whose glazed edges establish an expanded zone of use for secular activities or larger congregations. The main circular church space comfortably seats 450, while the adjacent area can extend this to 900. Depending on the occasion, the seating is easily reconfigured for alternative uses.
Furniture and finishes, which include custom ash wood and white steel–framed chairs and a polished-concrete floor, were kept to a minimum, following the ethos of the church (1 & 2). Photos © Paris Brummer
Daylight comes mainly from an overhead cruciform opening, allowing the reflection of light to play across the textured acoustic treatment within the cylinder. Peripheral natural light enters from the greened landscaped area, affording a further temporal experience—both diurnal and seasonal—and evoking, in a sense, a contemporary baroque.
The ability of the church to straddle the tensions between the sacred and the profane has been significantly informed by the contribution of the client, as represented by its new minister, Gavin Millard. As an architecture student of Noero’s at Wits University in Johannesburg, earlier in his life, he had been particularly interested in St Pauls Church in Soweto, which was circular in plan and completed by Noero in 1985 for Bishop Desmond Tutu. This project represents both a radical return and significant closure for him.
A particular defining aspect in the recent work of Noero Architects is the consideration of the ground plane as an architectural element. This has contributed directly to the experiences shaped by the making of architecture—and perhaps represents a significant measure for spatial transformation and its productive role in societies that have suffered under colonialism.
Design thinking, when creatively deployed, is capable of giving new life to forms. Architecture in both its practice and teaching requires a return to the measured complexity that results from expanding our imagination within the exigencies of specific localities.
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Noero Architects — Jo Noero, principal; Joao Silva, Michael Hobbs, design team
De Villiers and Hulme (structural and civil)
Mackenzie Hoy (acoustics)
Christ Church Somerset West
11,000 square feet