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Monday, January 21, 2008

Red Location Museum

Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth, South Africa by Noero Wolff Architects

It would be trite to point out that site and context are important when designing a building, but to say that the historical context of a place is also important is less obvious. When confronted with the site and a program of the Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth (part of the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality), South Africa, dealing with history is unavoidable. Noero Wolff Architects' approach to the design of a modern museum located in a "shack settlement" and dealing with the history and actions of national struggles is commendable for appreciating this multifarious context.

Located in the first settled Black Township of Port Elizabeth, Red Location's name refers to the color of the the site's corrugated iron barracks actually built from concentration camps from The Boer War. This apparently opportunistic development of houses and other buildings in the early 20th century and onwards illustrates a complex and not-too-clear past. How this past is remembered is the main goal of the architects, who cite professor of comparative literature Andreas Huyssen's ideas as shaping theirs and henceforth the building.

The architects see the past "represented as a set of memories that are disconnected yet bound together by themes" and therefore multi-faceted. They use the analogy of the Memory Box, traditionally used by migrant workers to hold their most valuable possessions, to fashion the interior spaces of the museum. Twelve unmarked, rusted boxes (each two cubes high) are located under the scalloped, shed-like space. Each box contains a singular exhibition or "experience," with the space in-between intended for reflection.

In addition to the Museum's cube galleries are "an auditorium, library, art gallery, offices, a memorial space to commemorate the local heroes of the struggle and an adjoining tomb where...national struggle heroes, are buried." Within its context of rusted shacks and fine-grain fabric the Museum stands out as a large presence apparently at odds with its surroundings. The architects contend that the Museum will give locals an opportunity to "enjoy the potential that the investment in the new building will provide," though the building's lessons on freedom are the more dramatic potential in evidence.

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