The Democratic Republic of Congo is widely believed to be Africa’s richest country in terms of natural resources and mineral deposits, and home to some of the continent’s most lush flora and fauna. As with most African countries, little has been written about Congolese architecture and urbanism. Recently, I sat down with designer Nicolas-Patience Basabose to discuss a wide range of historical and contemporary issues in the built environment, as well as its emerging environmental challenges. Basebose is the head of design at Kinshasa-based BasaboseStudio and also the curator of the first Congo Biennale, a festival of contemporary art that was held last year in Kinshasa, DR Congo.
MAJ: Mathias Agbo Jr.
NPB: Nicolas-Patience Basabose
What’s the idea behind the biennale, and how many editions have you held?
This was our inaugural edition, the first of many, we pray. The idea behind Congo Biennale is the celebration of contemporary art from the global stages in Kinshasa, DR Congo. For this edition we had over 40 artists from all corners of the world; sadly, a couple of them couldn’t physically attend for various reasons, but many sent their works, and the visitors enjoyed them all at our four exhibition sites. More than 40 artists, designers, architects, art historians, curators, art critics, and others from five continents were invited to propose projects realized and presented as part of this international event in the cosmopolitan city of Kinshasa.
What are the dominant architecture styles in the Congo, and what role did colonialism play in shaping Congolese architecture and urbanism?
Besides the vernacular architecture still alive in the countryside or remote locations, the most dominant style is tropical modernism built by the Belgian colonial powers of yesterday. The majority of public buildings erected in those times are still in use today, albeit their advanced state of abandonment in many cases. Colonialism did shape architecture and urbanism in Congo along their predefined lines of segregation; upon their departure, the same urbanism is kept alive with the rich, occupying former quarters for Europeans, while the poor masses manage to find a plot in the former chaotic quarters for “natives,” as we were called.
Upon Mobutu’s “Return to Authenticity” policy, a new language was developed by Congolese architects and their European collaborators of the time. This wave did leave a magnificent legacy in public architecture and urban planning, with a few examples of private residences for those who could afford it. Sadly, the degradation of the political order and the economy of Congo over the past decades has halted that quest for cultural iconicity, leaving room for all sorts of informalities and improvisations without control.
There is a new generation of practitioners eager to explore that abandoned path and discover what we might have become, and it’s promising. I can solemnly say that there is a new responsible architecture being developed across the country by architects driven by a desire to bring something new and socioculturally relevant. I spoke about it in an article with DesignIndaba and wrote about it in this upcoming book.
In the ’70s, Congo’s major cities dropped their colonial-given names for native African names. For instance, Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Elizabethville became Lubumbashi and Stanleyville was renamed Kisangani. Did these nomenclatural changes genuinely reshape the cultural heritage of these cities, as was intended by Mobutu Sese Seko, your then-president?
All that happened under Mobutu’s Return to Authenticity policy which was a very revolutionary ideology. Some aspects of it were disastrous, like in the economy, but others were successful, like the overall cultural heritage the policy left behind. One of them being that no city in Congo is named after a colonial figure.
In terms of shaping the cultural heritage of these cities, one must look at architecture as a mode of that expression. Mobutu developed a desire to promote an architecture that was iconographically linked to our cultural representation of ourselves. The nomenclatural changes carried new hope, but, as I mentioned earlier, the lack of economic action in that regard didn’t uphold that hope beyond its phantasmagoria.
The Congo basin is reputed to be the world’s second largest tropical rainforest, after Brazil’s Amazon, housing a rich collection of continent’s flora and fauna. What’s the current state of the rainforest, and how much has urbanization affected it today?
Happily we can say that the second lung of the planet has been safe for the longest time besides little intrusion of industrial wood companies who have managed to destroy pockets of this magnificent Congolese Forest. Urbanization hasn’t affected it as such. Sadly, the lack of presence of the central government in every corner of the country opened it to aggressive exploitation by armed groups and their financiers.
For decades there has been an abandonment of life in the countryside as most Congolese preferred to relocate to Kinshasa, the capital city and the heart of the national economy. This rural-urban migration left the countryside in a desolate state where infrastructure collapsed horribly. Sadly, besides Kinshasa, most cities here haven’t developed beyond their former colonial lines. That has become a curse for Kinshasa, which is today housing 10 times more people than she could handle, yet paradoxically a blessing for the environment in the countryside.
Lack of road infrastructure in the country also rendered movements of people very difficult thus keeping the countryside almost safe from human destruction. However there are still a number of threats to the health of the Congo rainforest and its residents, the Mbuti nation. The biggest drivers of deforestation in the Congo rainforest over the past 20 years have been small-scale subsistence agriculture, clearing for charcoal and fuelwood, micro-urban expansion, and mostly mining.
Oil was recently discovered in the heart of the Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the government has already issued permits for exploration, even though it is illegal since the country signed the UNESCO declaration to protect the site. Africa’s oldest national park and all its inhabitants are in danger, primarily the rare mountain gorillas who have survived poachers and two decades of war in the area. At least 16 people were killed in April, including 12 rangers. It was the latest deadly incident in the park, where more than 150 rangers have been killed since 2006. The Congo Basin is our common property, and we are all called to protect its biodiversity, with benefits including enormous untapped potential for agricultural, pharmaceutical and nutritional resources, its carbon storing, and its climate regulation virtues.
Featured image: Musée National de la RD Congo, courtesy of Nicolas-Patience Basabose. All others supplied by Basabose.