Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Leopoldville 1930s – Postcards from the Art Deco (I)

Kinshasa is not particularly known for Art Deco architecture.  Lubumbashi, in Haut Katanga Province or Bukavu in South Kivu have a more significant concentration of such structures, which give these two eastern Congo cities an appealing character. Even so, these colonial era buildings there are under threat (as they are in Kinshasa) where they often occupy prime real estate locations of the central city.  Nonetheless, there are a number of Art Deco structures in Kinshasa, one just has to know where to look.
The Palais de Justice in Elisabethville (Lubumbashi) in 1931
Art Deco was a mix of different styles, combining verticality with horizontal lines, exterior decoration and new materials such as concrete, which allowed a departure from more traditional colonial brick and wrap-around arched verandah forms which characterized the early city.

In Kinshasa -- Leopoldville – the global Art Deco period coincided with the Depression, a time when not much of anything was built, as described earlier in “Leisure in a time of Depression” and much of what remains are public buildings.  As a result, there was never a concentration that could be said to constitute an “art deco district”.  Still, determined aficionados can seek out some of these gems in the Communes of Gombe, Barumbu, Kinshasa and Lingwala that comprise the old core of the city. Herewith a self-guided tour for Kinois and a virtual peregrination for on-line visitors. The street names cited are the current designations with colonial era names in parentheses.  For ease of location, the tour begins at the Pullman Kinshasa Grand Hotel on Ave. Batetela (Ave. 8eme Armée).
If there was a concentration of Art Deco in Leopoldville, it was the new administrative district of Kalina (now the Commune de la Gombe, Jan. 17, 2012), where three large complexes were built in the 1930s to serve the European community: Clinique Reine Elisabeth, Lycée Sacré Coeur and College Albert 1er (today Clinique Ngaliema, Lycée Bosangani and College Boboto, respectively).
This map of Leopoldville from the early 1950s provides the best platform for situating the different sites.

(1). Clinique Reine Elisabeth. Beginning at the Grand Hotel, head south and turn right on Ave. Cliniques (Ave VandenHeuvel) for 300 meters.  Construction of Clinique Reine Elisabeth began in 1929 from plans drawn by an architect in the Public Works Department and the first buildings completed in 1932.
Clinique Reine Elisabeth in 1957
Clinique Ngaliema today
(2-3). Lycée Bosangani and College Boboto. Return down Ave. Cliniques and Ave des Ambassadeurs (Ave. Commandant Bia) to Ave. Pere Booka (Ave. Frère Gillet).  On the left is Lycée Bosangani and on the right College Boboto.  These two schools were originally established to serve the children of European colonials and staffed by Catholic missionaries.
Lycee Sacre Coeur in the 1950s
Lycee Bosangani today.
Centre Culturel Boboto at the College.
(4-5). Commune de la Gombe. From College Boboto, turn right down Ave. Kisangani (Ave. Marie-José) and left onto Justice (Ave. Valcke), passing the Commune de la Gombe (formerly Commune de Leopoldville). Nearby, facing the river on Ave. du Fleuve (Ave. Tilkens), a villa houses the Congo International Investment Group, ostensibly a construction company, which was originally the residence of Marcelin Rae, an attorney at the Leopoldville Court of Appeals in the 1950s.  In the early 2000s the property housed the Embassy of Libya.

The Commune de la Gombe on Ave. Justice.
The CIIG offices on Ave. du Fleuve.
(6). Garage du Pool. Continuing down Ave Lukusa (VanGele), one passes the offices of Zenit Groupe, formerly the Garage du Pool and Fiat dealership and later Autocolor, a paint shop.
Looking down Ave. VanGele at the Garage du Pool.
Under transformation as Zenit Group.
Earlier incarnation as Autocolor in 2000s.
(7.) Forescom Building. At the roundabout is the Forescom Building. Built in 1946, it was as emblematic of Leopoldville then as the Sozacom building on Blvd. 30 Juin is of Kinshasa today (May 26, 2011). Dubbed “Le Building”, it incorporated the Streamline Moderne iteration of Art Deco (known in French as Style Paquebot). The stylized prow jutting into Place Leopold II and the porthole windows at the back reinforce the nautical theme. The Bralima brewery now operates a bar called “Cha Chas” at the penthouse level which offers great sunset views of the river. At the time of writing, the building is undergoing a significant exterior refurbishment and Cha Chas was closed (watch this space).
The Forescom Building under renovation.
Forescom Building - doors at the elevator landing. 
Forescom Building - stairs leading to Cha Chas.

(to be continued - Post Cards from the Art Deco II)


  1. Hello,
    I am writing a novel set during the time of the Foreman-Ali fight in Kinshasa 1974. I was wondering if you could perhaps answer a few brief questions about the city at that time.

  2. Bonjour. Est-ce possible d'avoir l'intégralité de la cartographie de Kinshasa en 1960 telle que dessinée supra. Merci

  3. Cliquez sur l'image de la carte et elle s'ouvrira en taille réelle. Faites un clic droit et vous pouvez l'enregistrer.