Sub-Saharan Africa Architectural Guide: Exploring the Architecture of Bangui and Kinshasa
When we look at African architecture, we see the architectural diversity of a continent which has been shaped and moulded into its present form by a combination of internal and external factors. When we look at African architecture, there is also a tendency for certain regions to take precedence over other parts of the continent. The Tropical Modernist works of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew in Ghana and Nigeria, for example, are extremely well documented. So is the extremely well-preserved colonial-era architecture of the Eritrean capital of Asmara. Yet, there seems to be parts of the continent that “slip under the radar” in African architectural conversations – and the book Architectural Guide: Sub Saharan Africa is a welcome addition to African architectural scholarship.
DOM Publishers’ latest contribution to their architectural guide series is a seven-volume collection that provides a comprehensive overview of the architecture found south of the Sahara, with over 850 buildings and over 200 articles featuring in the book. Each volume focuses on a particular region of the continent, and the volume on Central African architecture is an especially illuminating one, one that sheds light on a region with an extremely interesting architectural character but which fails to find its way into mainstream discussions on African architecture.
Two countries stand out in this volume as a particularly good example of the complex urban identities present on the continent: the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In these countries, two cities – Bangui in the former and Kinshasa in the latter – have a particular distinctiveness, being cities shaped by colonial urban planning, and existing in countries that have seen their recent history almost exclusively portrayed as violent by many media outlets.
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The city of Bangui is a city that no doubt wields the scars of recent violent political crises. It is a low-rise city, with high-rise buildings scattered across the city. The current layout of the city is a direct remnant of the colonial period, with the current city centre that functions as the most urbanised section of the Bangui being the old colonial district. In present day, many of these formerly colonial buildings have been left in a state of disrepair, the administrative buildings built under French occupation left derelict.
The book sees Central African-French architect Thierry Bangui make a case for the preservation of these structures, and brings to the forefront a timely debate on architectural conservation, and what happens when a government does not have the adequate resources to focus on it due to external issues such as instability.
Kinshasa, on the other hand, is a city that has in a similar fashion to Bangui seen some degradation of the city, but it is a city that is now seeing a construction boom. The city was also divided across racial lines during colonial times, with the European section built alongside the Congo River and the African section constructed to the river’s south.
Echoes of this division are found in present-day Kinshasa, with the increasing number of gated communities further contributing to a city that is becoming more and more urbanised, but even more divided in some aspects. It is a city trying to carve out its own identity in today’s world, but one that can sometimes leave the welfare of its citizens behind, such as the recently inaugurated Place du 30 Juin in Central Kinshasa, an important intervention in a symbolic part of the city, but an intervention that is a tree-less open space, attracting an uncomfortable amount of sunlight.
Bangui and Kinshasa in the book are presented as complex cities worthy of examination and rigorous analysis. At its heart, the book Sub-Saharan Africa Architectural Guide neglects romanticizing African cities in colonial times or painting a one-dimensional picture of a passive continent. The cities of the African continent are a lot more complicated than that.