A Concrete State. Building ambitions in the (Belgian) Congo, 1908-1964

October 2015 to September 2022
Rika Devos
Jacob Sabakinu Kivilu
construction history
colonial Congo
material histories of architecture
Université de Kinshasa (Congo-Kinshasa)
Research fields
Arts and Architecture

The general focus of architectural history on finished artefacts, continues to obfuscate the very real societal and ecological impacts of the construction of architecture. It is, I believe, only by understanding buildings not as artefact but as process, that architectural history and theory can gain societal relevance and bring unepexted ecological, cultural, economic or political dimensions of building to light.

In my PhD thesis, I investigate what such a focus on the process of construction can mean for the colonial architectural history of the Belgian Congo, or even for its history proper. After all, in a colonial context this disconnection between process and product is even more problematic: these architectural histories feed into tired binary narratives of architect’s working overseas and by paying attention to the finished artefact only, confirm rather than challenge the idea of the Belgian Congo as an efficient state. Focussing on the process instead of on the artefact however, one is constantly confronted with the lack of building know-how of all sorts of building professionals (Public Works department, private construction firms, engineers, architects), the continued reliance on local construction techniques, the extraction of raw materials for building or the economic networks that didn’t comply to political geographies (e.g. the importance of German, Italian and Greek contractors, British and French concrete experts, or even a multinational shoe company).

Research conducted within the framework of the FWO-project: “’Tout le Congo est un chantier’. Re-assessing Congo’s architectural history from 1918 till 1975 through a construction history approach” (project n° G053215N, 2015-2018, supervisors: prof. Johan Lagae & Luc Taerwe (UGent), prof. Rika Devos (ULB), prof. Jacob Sabakinu Kivilu (Université de Kinshasa)