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Heinrich Wolff of Cape Town architectural firm Noero Wolff Architects deservedly won this year’s DaimlerChrysler Arts Award, writes Hannah Le Roux

Within South African architectural discourse, the last few years have been a period of reflection. The critical writing of Alan Lipman; the multi-disciplinary work of Sharp City’s directors, Thorsten Deckler, Anne Graupner and Henning Rasmuss; and Mphethi Morojele’s critical curation of recent work for the Venice Biennale all come to mind. Such projects suggest that as an institution, architecture is publicly disentangling from apartheid ideology and engaging with some challenging questions about its social role.

On March 1, DaimlerChrysler announced its first award to an architect. Significantly, the seventh cycle of this award, which has until now covered branches of the arts, now includes architecture. This choice suggests a growing public interest in the achievements of the profession, and prompts the question why this has taken so long to happen. The profile of the finalists confirmed that the profession is still, numerically, overwhelmingly white. The age limit of 40 cut off some of the more exciting solo practitioners at work in the country, and meant that with the exception of those nominees who work with partners, the body of work under review was confined to a few, smaller works. Architecture, by virtue of the technical and business aspects of the work, is a late blooming profession, and nearly all of the post-apartheid graduates are still finding their voices. The award went to Heinrich Wolff of Cape Town-based architectural firm, Noero Wolff Architects. Established in 1985 as Jo Noero Architects, the firm has won many awards and honours, often in the name of the practice’s founder, Jo Noero, and so the DaimlerChrysler Arts Award is a fitting recognition of the role of the younger partner.

This recognition comes at a time when Wolff is beginning to develop a fresh approach to spatial planning and detailing that responds, in part, to the township context, as well as his own interest in architecture’s expressive potentials. The practice has always been praised for its production of buildings that are carefully detailed, generous in their public interfaces, and tailored to their clients’ briefs and sites. The practice has also had a consistent formal signature that could be described as the integration of rectangular plans, repetitive, classically proportioned vertical surfaces and expressive roof forms.

But some recent work that has been executed with Wolff as principal architect shifts away from extending this language, returning to a more primal sort of form-making that draws inspiration, perhaps, less from the cerebral skills of the practice and more from his emotional reactions to everyday places.

One such recently completed project is the Inkwenkwezi School on the Cape Flats, a collaborative project done in association with Sonya Spamer Architects, which I accompanied the architect to on a tour. The practice’s extensive experience with materials such as steel framing, ribbed roof sheeting, unplastered concrete columns, exposed slabs and steel windows has guided the construction, but the fundamental order of the grid, which is almost a hallmark of previous projects, has been softened substantially. Apparently drawing on the influence of Gawie Fagan’s domestic work, and reminiscent too of the Portuguese master architect Alvaro Siza, the school buildings are arranged around a baggy polygon.

This big yard, starkly grey (until shaded by the saplings in planters), is animated by an irregular scattering of elements and potential events on the periphery: steps here and there, rainwater tanks on drums, corridors and a meshed opening to look back at the township. It is not hard to imagine this space animated by kids, framing groups and games, allowing both intimate and distant ways of interrelating. The lack of formal rigidity promises a similar social fluidity in use.

After speaking of his aspirations to get at some sort of South African architectural underbelly through a process of observation and memory, Wolff drove us through the surrounding area with its low-slung RDP houses and their additional lean-tos and spaza shops. He pointed out the stoep from which someone watched the building go up, and from where he was invited to come and take a photo of it when completed. He is excited at having produced a building that created views that people are proud of, more so, since he references the simple envelope and painting of the building back to the influences of everyday contexts such as this. It seemed fitting that this building was part of the winning portfolio for the DaimlerChrysler Arts Award. On the one hand, it draws on the slow and steady development by the practice of affordable, dignified solutions to public buildings in contexts of extreme hardship. In some ways it is a humbler structure than, for instance, the Red Location Museum, but gains value in connecting back to its surroundings. It is possibly a weak model for any sort of generic solution to township schooling, in its idiosyncratic and site specific planning, but that could also be seen as a strength. Instead of attempting to be a model, it offers a unique sense of place.

On the way back from the school we stopped off to see Wolff’s additions to his home, in Observatory — the project is being completed by Noero Wolff and the architect’s wife, Ilze, also an architect. Breaking with the typology of the “Obs” semi, they have packed a multi-levelled dwelling into the space behind the existing two front rooms. The windows capture oblique views, and the living area rotates around a service core. In such inward looking spaces and tightness, experiences of family life are starkly intensified. The sense of relentlessness with which Wolff has driven the practice over the past 12 years seems to have come home here. Far from being a place to escape architecture, it seems to be a furthering of his ambition to maintain a dialogue between subject and building, in this, the most constrained of arts.

Hannah le Roux is an architect and lecturer at the Wits School of Architecture and Planning

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