Monday, September 12, 2011

Leopoldville 1923 - The Governor’s House and the Cultural Center

On July 1, 1923, a Royal Decree established Leopoldville as the capital of the Belgian Congo.  A subsequent Decree in August raised the new city to the status of an Urban District.  The move of the capital from Boma on the Congo River estuary had been under consideration for some time (See Mar. 13, 2011).  The previous October, former Belgian Prime Minister Henry Carton de Wiart visited the colony and while in Leopoldville, declared that the Government would soon establish itself on Kalina Point between Leopoldville and Kinshasa.  Public Works engineers in Boma were already at work on designs for the administrative district which would reflect best European city-planning practice; incorporating parallel circular avenues bisected by radial boulevards originating from a central square.  The Governor General’s residence would anchor the square on Kalina Point.  Monumental public buildings were to be erected along the main boulevards, creating an administrative district reflecting the grandeur of an imperial power.
Kalina Point -- 1920s

Vander Elst's design for the Govenor's Residence -- 1924
The Governor General’s residence was thus a first priority.  A first design prepared in 1924 in Beaux-Arts style by Maurice Vander Elst, an architect of the Public Works Department in Boma, combined the volume and facades of the Congo Museum at Tervuren near Brussels with the cupola of the Royal Palace – both symbolic of Leopold II, founder of the Congo.  Also at issue for Belgian sensibilities was general criticism of the Governor General’s prefabricated metal residence in Boma, dating from the early days of the Congo Free State, derisively referred to as “the sardine can.”
The Governor General's Residence at Boma

The issues of national pride apparently led the colonial authorities to conclude that the design of Governor’s residence could not be left to the likes of a colonial architect and in 1928, a new competition was organized.  Of the twelve architects who submitted concepts, none had any significant experience in Congo.  Interestingly, neither the exotic 18th century design of veteran architect Henri Lacoste nor the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired plans of Leon Stynen were retained.  Instead, the panel selected Raymond Moenaert’s concept, intended to accommodate the climate through use of arcades and other Mediterranean elements.  Nonetheless, the arabesque character of the design did not sit well with colonial authorities, in particular Governor Auguste Tilkens, the intended client.  Moenaert was sent back to the drawing board, but when Governor Tilkens officially transferred the capital to Leopoldville in October 1929 (See Jan. 6, 2011), he moved into an elegant two-story structure built for the Provincial Governor (presumably the product of the under-rated Public Works architects), up the river bank from the proposed Governor’s residence.  Tilkens and his four successors would all be involved in the Governor’s residence, but none would ever live in it.
The interim Governor General's Residence in Leopoldville -- facing the River

Significantly, while the construction of the Governor’s residence remained problematic, other aspects of the new capital center moved forward. During King Albert’s visit to the Colony in July 1928, he inaugurated an equestrian statue to Leopold II on the square fronting the proposed site of the Residence, reinforcing its symbolic importance.  The erection of the statue seemed to signify a rehabilitation of the sovereign, whose reputation was severely tarnished by the “Red Rubber” campaign of the early 20th Century. 
Leopold II Monument on inauguration day -- July 1, 1928
Schoentjes' design for the Brussels Expo -- 1935
In any event, plans to construct the Governor’s Residence were put on hold at the beginning of the Depression, though Moenaert continued to advocate for his design, proposing that part of the model be erected at the Brussels Expo in 1935.  Although Pierre Ryckmans, who succeeded Tilkens as Governor General in 1934, was noted for his modest taste, he did write to the Minister of Colonies in 1937, urging that once the economy improved, a suitable dwelling be provided so the Governor could properly discharge his representation functions.  Ryckmans assigned René Schoentjes, an architect with the Ministry of Colonies who was engaged in designing the Gare Centrale (See Jan. 23, 2011), to review the 1928 designs in light of straitened economic conditions.

Popijn's design for College Albert 1er -- 1937
Schoentjes produced several concepts between 1937 and 1939 which sought to take advantage of the river views and incorporate natural ventilation.  The plans also reflected an emerging trend of “modernisme modéré” in public architecture in Belgium and which could be found in the College Albert 1er, designed by Popijn and constructed in Kalina between 1937-1947.  With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, however, plans for a grand Governor’s Residence were again shelved.
The Governor General's Residence -- 1930s
Lambrichs' design for the new Governor General's Residence on Kalina Point -- 1951
After the War -- nearly a quarter of a century after Minster Carton de Wiart’s announcement of a grand imperial capital on the Congo River -- the government district had changed little aside from the development of the radial street plan and bungalows for civil servants.  The Colonial Ministry created an Urbanization Service under Georges Ricquier to prepare plans for “Le Grand Léo” (See July 31, 2011). Colonial Minister Robert Godding asked Schoentjes to resurrect his pre-war plans in 1945, but Eugene Jungers, the new Governor General named by Godding the following year, was not enamored with this notion and called upon one of his own architects, Georges Strapaert, to design his residence.  Strapaert’s austere, symmetrical concept would have fit well in Ricquier’s grand urban plan, but Strapaert proved incapable of bringing it to fruition and Ricquier declined to take it up. 
The completed building, Congo's first Parliament -- 1960
Consequently, the colonial authorities were forced to organize another competition in 1951, which saw concepts by veteran architects Van Nueten, Lambrichs and Heymans, while Leon Stynen was on the review panel. Marcel Lambrichs’ classical modernist design was selected and construction began in 1956 (See Aug. 15, 2011). The work was substantially completed by Independence in June 1960 and the building converted to serve as the first Parliament.  Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba moved into the “Tilkens” residence, which remains the Prime Minister’s official residence to this day.  
Patrice Lumumba on the balcony of the ex-Governor General's Residence, with Ghanian UN security detail -- July 1960
The Gouvernement Central building, Ave. Ryckmans, looking toward Parliament
Ricquier’s plan for “Le Grand Léo” called for a monumental boulevard (l’Axe du palais du Dominion) which became Ave. Pierre Ryckmans (now Héros Nationaux).  Except for the Central Bank Building, designed by Ricquier himself, and the colonial Administration building (Fonction Publique, there were to have been twin buildings facing each other) built in 1954 by J. Genet, Ricquier’s plan was largely incomplete at Independence.  Part of the challenge was a hill in the direct line of the boulevard (failure to account for the topography was one of the reasons why Ricquier’s urban plan was not adopted).  Beginning in 1953 the current Ministry of Justice was constructed on the hill (Archs. A. Gernay & Ch. Simon), conclusively demarcating the other end of Ave. Ryckmans.
Ministry of Justice (center), Parliament (rear), Le Royal on Blvd. Albert 1er (foreground)
One of the designs for the Centre Culturel du Congo Belge -- 1959
Ricquier’s plan also included a major cultural center along the boulevard.  Already in 1953 when the Museum of Native Art relocated to the old Post Office (See Feb. 20, 2011), arts patron Maurice Alhadeff was promoting the creation of an Art Institute in a large park setting to house the Museum’s 9,000-piece collection as well as auditoria, lecture rooms, and library.  An international competition was launched in 1958 for a Centre Culturel du Congo Belge which included most elements of Alhadeff’s dream:  a Museum of African Culture, a library, exhibit hall, 2 auditoria, a theatre and a Museum of Western Civilization.  The competition attracted designs by 126 architects from 25 countries, including Claude Laurens; with a prestigious jury presided by American architect Richard Neutra.
Another concept for the Cultural Center -- 1959
The original site for the Cultural Center, Place de l'Independance -- 2010
The panel did not award a first prize, citing a lack of “valuable monumental architecture” in the submissions. The jury did award a second prize of Frs. 50,000 to Pierre Humblet of the Belgian Congo and several third and fourth prizes.  At this point, the outcome becomes even murkier.  Press reports from the period continue to report that the Cultural Center was to be built “in a luxurious park of tropical vegetation” south of the Governor General’s palace and “” claims that ground was broken for the center on the circle in front of the Ministry of Justice.  However, the complex was never built.  For one thing, Congo’s informal “color bar” militated against placing a cultural facility open to all, “Africans and Europeans…students and workers”, in what was still a “white” district of the city.  Another site appears to have been selected next to the “Population Noire” bureau near Pont Cabu (now Pont Kasavubu), because when Premier Lumumba hosted a Pan African Congress to bolster his political position in August 1960, the meetings were held in the “ugly new” Palace of Culture, the Salle Cultrana (Cultures et Traditions Nationales).
Place de l'Independance and Ministry of Justice -- 1960s
The Cultrana continued to be used for cultural events and mass meetings.  However, on June 2, 1966, President Mobutu convened 250,000 Kinois at the Place Cultrana for a public hanging of the 4 Pentecost plotters.  On Independence Day at the end of the month, he pronounced the traffic circle in front of the Ministry of Justice as the “Place de l’Independence”, the same time as he declared Lumumba a National Hero and ordered construction of a monument in his memory (See Aug. 20, 2011).  The Cultrana housed the Ministry of Culture and the Institut National des Arts (INA), created in the 1970s.  However, when the Chinese arrived to build Stade Kamanyola in the 1980s, the Cultrana was demolished.  As the Chinese Embassy was relocating from the Hotel Astoria on Ave. Commerce to Ave. des Aviateurs, the Chinese arranged for INA to move into the Hotel (See Mar. 30, 2011). 
The Institut National des Arts (ex-Hotel Astoria), Ave. du Commerce -- 2006
The Litho family had acquired the Hotel Astoria during the economic nationalization of the “Zairianization” in 1974, but lost it in the “Retrocession” in 1976.  In 2003, an armed group sent by the Litho family attempted to expel INA from the building, but they were unsuccessful.  INA continues to deplore the loss of the Cultrana, and the Ministry of Lands has allocated them a parcel on the site of Litho’s “Tembe na Tembe” supermarket adjacent the Palais du Peuple, which was looted and destroyed during the “pillages” in 1991.  After the Kabila regime took power in 1997, Stade Kamanyola was renamed “Stade des Martyrs de Pentecôte” in memory of the alleged plotters who were executed on the site in June 1966.
Stade des Martyrs -- 2002
·        Industrial Design, 1959.
·        Lagae, Johan. 2004. “Colonial Encounters and conflicting memories: shared colonial heritage of the former Belgian Congo”, The Journal of Architecture, Summer 2004.
·        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.
·        “Leopoldville Plans a Cultural Center”, New York Times, June 7, 1959.
·        Ross, Albion. 1953. “Congo Native Art has U.S. Avocate”, New York Times, Aug. 22, 1953.

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