Monday, August 15, 2011

Leopoldville 1950s - Tropical Modernism sets the tone

After WWII, and particularly with the ground-breaking construction of the Forescom Building (See May 28, 2011), high-rise buildings came to define the Leopoldville skyline as unique among the major cities in the colony. Indeed, richer provinces such as Katanga resented this apparent transfer of wealth to the capital.  Generally described as “tropical modernism”, the architectural genre drew heavily from the “international style” popular in Europe and North America, but with particular attention to accommodating tropical sunlight and heat.  These developments were enhanced by ambitious physical planning to shape the colony’s capital city, including Boulevard Albert 1er and plans for a monumental “Boulevard de la Dominion” intersecting Blvd. Albert as it passed through the government administrative district of Kalina (now Gombe) and which was intended to provide major vantage points for monumental buildings (See July 31, 2011). Several architects contributed significantly to the city’s metamorphosis.

Downtown Leopoldville -- Blvd. Albert - l959 (14 of the structures featured in the 3 posts since July 31 can be found in this photo)
Maurice Houyoux (1903-1960).   Houyoux, and partner Jules Ghobert, were awarded the winning designs in 1947 for the Mont des Arts redevelopment of Brussels, which incorporated the Albert 1er Library.  The Mont des Arts project, which continued through the 1950s, has been compared with the plans for the government district of Kalina in Leopoldville. In the late 1940s, Hoyoux received commissions from the Banque du Congo Belge (BCB) for buildings in Leopoldville, Stanleyville (Kisangani), Bukavu and Luluabourg (Kananga). The Bank project in Leopoldville, located next to the original pre-WWI structure on Ave. Hauzeur (Wagenia), also included apartments for bank staff.  The building now houses the Portfolio Ministry.

The Banque du Congo Belge, Ave. Hauzeur - 1949

BCB in Luluabourg

BCB in Stanleyville

BCB in Bukavu

The bank complex in Leopoldville
BCB staff apartments behind the main building

The Ministry of Portfolio - 2010
In the mid-1950s, Houyoux also designed the Interfina building on Blvd. Albert 1er and the CCCI (Compagnie du Congo pour le Commerce et de l'Industrie) building, also on the Boulevard, opposite the new post office (See Mar. 19, 2011). The Bank, Interfina trading firm and CCCI holding company were all subsidiaries of the Société Générale de Belgique.

The Interfina building, Blvd. Albert 1er -- 1950s

The Interfina building, Blvd. 30 Juin -- 2011

The CCCI building 1959

The Governor General leads a parade past the CCCI building

The CCCI building 2006
Lambrichs' winning design
Marcel Lambrichs (1917-1986). Lambrichs was a partner with Georges Ricquier in the Groupe Alpha in Belgium, which collaborated on the Cité administrative de l’Etat in Brussels in the mid-1950s.  In 1951 Lambrichs submitted the winning bid for the new Governor General’s residence at Kalina Point in Ricquier’s grand design for the governmental district (See July 31, 2011).  Construction of the more classical building, incorporating an arcaded façade and central cupola began in 1956 and was converted to serve as Congo’s first Parliament building at Independence in 1960.

The Governor General's residence on the eve of Independence (Aug. 1959)

The CADECO offices
Caisse d'Epargne. In 1953, Lambrichs received the commission for the Caisse d’Epargne du Congo (CADECO) headquarters in Kalina, in a competition in which Claude Laurens and Charles Van Neuten also submitted designs. CADECO was a savings institution created in 1950 to encourage Congolese to save for housing.  The headquarters building on Ave. Prince Charles (now CADECO) comprised a broad base housing the administrative offices topped by a 5-story tower with apartments for senior staff.

The Belgian Embassy 1960 -- Ivory Market in the Place Braconnier
Belgian Embassy.
Lambrichs also won the competition for the Building du Cinquantenaire, completed in 1958 to commemorate fifty years Belgian colonial rule.  Located on the Place Braconnier, the building has housed the Belgian Embassy since Independence.  After Independence, Lambrichs’ design for the Social Security agency INSS was erected on Blvd. 30 Juin (See June 28, 2011).

Kinois awaiting transportation at Place Braconnier, Belgian Embassy in background -- 2003

Claude Laurens (1908-2003). In the post-war period, the Belgian airline, Sabena, expanded services as did most airlines.  War surplus aircraft were widely available and new long-range planes, such as the Douglas DC-4, were coming on line.  In Brussels, Sabena’s new terminal set a signature statement. 

SABENA publicity for the first DC-4 flight arriving in Leopoldville Feb. 4, 1946 -- 25 hours from Brussels

The Cercle de Leopoldville on Blvd. Albert 1er

In 1951, Sabena commissioned Claude Laurens to undertake a series of commercial and residential projects for the firm in Congo.  Laurens had been born in Paris, the son of celebrated sculptor Henri Laurens, and grew up around such artists as Picasso, Chagall, Braque and Matisse, who were regular visitors. After working for the Bureau technique de Reconstruction in Zurich, he set up his own practice in Belgium in 1946.  Sabena wanted to build a new terminal in downtown Leopoldville and a luxury hotel adjacent to it on Blvd. Albert.  The site for the hotel, to be called “Aviamar”, was the Cercle de Leopoldville (See Mar. 19, 2011).   One of Laurens’ first tasks was to design a new building for the Cercle to induce it to move (presumably to the Golf Course, where it is today, though the Laurens design was never built).
The SABENA terminal (foreground) and proposed Hotel Aviamar behind

The apartment buildings were set on two-story piers

The Sabena Buildings. Laurens’ next project for Sabena was residential housing for Sabena staff and aircrews.  In January 1952, he produced plans for three 60 meter towers raised on piers to provide parking space and promote air circulation (See Mar. 19, 2011).  All access routes (stairs, elevators) were in a separate column along the side of the building.  The land-use plan was influenced by Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer’s designs for Brasilia, but the buildings were not popular with Sabena staff, who would have preferred individual houses and gardens and which they could see all around them.  Only two of the towers were built.  Nonetheless, the buildings remained iconic of the “new” Congo and featured frequently in the colonial government public relations materials. 

The SABENA buildings looking west on Blvd. Albert 1er

The SABENA buildings shortly after completion in 1956
SABENA building and Blvd. 30 Juin - 2011

Sabena’s Urban Terminal. The plans for the downtown air terminal were completed in 1954.   Located on Ave. du Port, the building provided ticketing and baggage registration on the ground floor and two floors of administrative offices above.  When completed in January 1956, passengers could check in and board Sabena’s courtesy bus for the trip to the airport.  
The SABENA Terminus Urbain on Ave. du Port -- Note old Cercle de Leopoldville extreme right

The designs for the 145-room Hotel Aviamar were completed in 1953 and featured a banquet hall, drug store, beauty parlor, offices and other amenities.  Facing Blvd. Albert in the heart of downtown Leopoldville, the luxury hotel was intended to provide international standard as Leopoldville became a hub for Africa. By the late 1950s recession hit the global economy and plans for the Aviamar were shelved.
The Terminus Urbain - Interior
Lignes Aeriennes Congolais Terminal - Ave. du Port

The Banque International de Credit
Other projects by Laurens in Kinshasa include the Crédit Congolais building (1954) on Ave. Beernaert (now the Banque Internationale de Crédit, Ave. Equateur) which housed the British and Liberian Embassies in the 1960s; the DIFCO garage (d’Ieteren Frères au Congo -- Volkswagen dealership, 1955) on Ave. Basoko; the Sarma retail complex next to the Central Market (1956), and Résidence Leopold II (1955) on Ave. Wagenia, now the Centre Médical de Kinshasa.

Residence Leopold II, Ave. Hauzeur - 1958
Notwithstanding this volume of work, Laurens never moved to Congo, preferring to fly in to visit his on-going projects.  In 1959, he submitted an unsuccessful concept for the Cultural Center of the Belgian Congo.  After Independence, he developed a number of projects in Rwanda, including Kigali Airport.
·        Caltagirone, Sandra. 2010. Maurice Hoyoux sous les Tropiques,Les Nouvelles du Patrimoine, pp. 27-29.
·        dePange, Isabelle. 2010. Modernisme sous l’Equateur, Claude Laurens au Congo, Les Nouvelles de la Patrimone, pp. 30-32.
·        Lagae, Johan. 2004. Colonial Encounters and Conflicting Memories: shared colonial heritage of the former Belgian Congo, The Journal of Architecture, Summer 2004, pp. 173-197.
·        Lagae, Johan. 2007. Léopoldville, Bruxelles: Villes Miroirs? L’Architecture et l’Urbanisme d’une Capitale Coloniale et Metropole Africaine, pp. 67-100, in: Vellut, Jean-Luc,  Villes d’Afrique: explorations en histoire urbaine, Tervuren: Musee Royale de l’Afrique Centrale.


  1. Another fascinating insight into Congo's colonial past and present. Thank you Mwana. I found your material absolutely riveting. Please keep it coming!

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