South African architect Noero Wolff picked up the RIBA's inaugural Lubetkin Prize, awarded to an RIBA member outside the EU and backed by the Architectural Review, last Friday (23 June). Afterwards the AJ spoke to the ebullient partners about their Red Location Museum of the People's Struggle.
This was no ordinary interview.
First, it was in the Park Lane Hilton. Second, it was 11.30pm on a Friday night. Third, the interviewees spoke fast with thick South African accents.
Fourth, it was slap-bang in the middle of a fairly monumental booze-fest. I'll be honest with you; it was brilliant. The best interview ever.
Through hazy post-RIBA Awards eyes, the AJ interviewed Jo Noero and Heinrich Wolff, the architects behind the winner of the rst Lubetkin Prize.
To be fair, it was more of an interview with the former, as Wolff remained almost silent throughout. The same cannot be said about Noero.
Just as the interview was far from mainstream, so is the Red Location Museum of the People's Struggle in New Brighton, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. It is an incredible project that aims to chart the history of the struggle against apartheid.
More than architecture, the scheme is in many ways like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) given solid form.
But back to the windowless room at the Hilton. As the last diner was polishing off the raspberry tart, the ever-efficient RIBA press ofce took the AJ, the architects, their entourage, and a cameraman off for the interview. Sat facing one another across a round table, the exchange denitely did not take the form of a classic interview; it was more of a rambling conversation.
'The thing is, this is the best decision the RIBA has ever made, ' Noero says. 'This is unbelievable. I thought we were coming over for a good time; I never thought we had a chance.' The excited banter is relentless - and a bid to regain some structure fast becomes necessary. Asking what Noero's connection with the UK and the RIBA is, seems to be an obvious starting point.
'None, ' replies Noero firmly. I must have looked perplexed - the Lubetkin Prize is for the best work outside the EU by an RIBA member, isn't it? 'Well I do have a sort of honorary thing, ' he says, seeing my confused face.
And then, from across the room, comes the first of several interjections by a mysterious female in the entourage. 'Stop it, Jo, ' she says sharply and he stops laughing. 'Tell them about Brighton and Newcastle.' So Noero explains that he spent two years at Newcastle University and also completed a masters in Brighton.
It soon becomes clear that Noero and his cohorts are not your average white South Africans attempting to make good in a post-apartheid society; they are clearly part of the new establishment. In fact, Noero was one of the leftleaning (at one stage Trotskyite) members of the white community, who aided the anti-establishment movement under the apartheid regime.
In fact, Noero was a close afliate of Archbishop Desmond Tutu during the struggle and was recognised worldwide for designing new social housing schemes in desperately poor black ghettos.
This background helps to explain why there is an overwhelming sense in our little room that the kids have taken over the asylum. The giggling is endearingly childish.
But the point of the conversation is to discuss the Red Location Museum of the People's Struggle. No supercial Libeskind-esque symbolism here - just a true reection of site and history.
The 3,150m² museum falls right in the middle of a genuine slum in the town of New Brighton, in a bid to bring people who want to see the museum through an area that exemplies how the vast majority of South Africans live.
In the struggle against apartheid, the repressed people of New Brighton were some of the earliest participants in civil disobedience and boycotts, and much of this campaigning took place on the Red Location.
The site, Noero continues, was also home to a prison throughout much of its history, and the form of the museum takes its style from the simplistic structures that rst appeared during this turbulent history.
Most importantly, he explains passionately, the museum honours the people involved in this struggle by telling their stories to visitors from the community and around the world.
'Tell him about the Memory Box, Jo, ' comes the strict voice from across the room again. Noero, it would seem, has forgotten to tell me about this feature.
He obediently corrects this omission.
'The Memory Box is the heart of the museum, ' he says.
'It is where people of all kinds can go to tell the stories of that era. It takes its lead from the TRC. We wanted to record the experiences of all the people without judging them. It is an incredible thing.' It would be hard to deny this claim.
Just as we're winding up the interview, Noero catches me in his gaze. 'The most important thing to emphasise is that this is the best decision the RIBA has ever made, ' he tells me again, quite seriously.
I don't think Noero has traditionally seen eye-to-eye with the good people of Portland Place. Do you?