"Illuminating the Hole": Kinshasa’s Makeovers Between Dream and Reality

Filip de Boeck KU Leuven, Belgium
Abstract: I examine the history of modern urban planning ideas and makeover models in the capital city of Kinshasa, Congo, with specific reference to the career of Pume Bylex. These proposed and attempted makeovers are looked at in the historical, cultural, and social context of Kinshasa itself, specifically regarding its colonial past, its prevailing mysticism, and its residents' collective yearning for a dream city and a utopia that removes them from the reality of the actual city and nation they inhabit.

Kabila left his trace. Our Congo does not want just words. Leave something tangible behind just like he did. Look at the roads he built, look at the new Cinquantenaire hospital, look at the schools.[1] The chief of all chiefs, Kabila Kabange, is leaving his trace. People will remember him. He demonstrated to Congo what is possible. Congo has become Europe, and Europe has become Congo. He stimulated our young people to build the New Congo.

Kin-based singer Kas Kasongo in “sisa Bidimbu," a song Joseph Kabila used during the 2011 presidential elections as propaganda for his "Cinq Chantiers" or infrastructural renewal programme, currently known as the "revolution of modernity."

Mirrors have a life too and that which gets caught in them continues existing there. Reality is a version of the mirror image. […] Even though something can be inserted easily enough into the mirror, none of us knows precisely how and when it can be taken out again. Do mirrors have looking-glasses too, deeper layers, echoes perhaps incessantly sounding the fathomless?

Breytenbach 2009, 66

A new radical politics must revolve around the construction of great new fictions that create real possibilities for constructing different urban futures. To the extent that the current postpolitical condition, which combines dystopian urban visions with a hegemonic consensual neoliberal view of social ordering, constitutes one particular fiction (one that in fact forecloses dissent, conflict, and the possibility of a different future), there is an urgent need for different stories and fictions that can be mobilized for realization. This requires foregrounding and naming different urban futures, making the new and impossible enter the realm of politics and of democracy, and recognizing conflict, difference, and struggle over the naming and trajectories of these futures. Urban conflict, therefore, should not be subsumed under the homogenizing mantle of a populist globalization/creative city discourse, but should be legitimized as constitutive of a democratic order.

Swyngedouw 2007, 59

In her insightful chapter on "noir urbanisms," Jennifer Robinson (2010) outlines the longstanding tendency within urban studies to conceive of contemporary African cities in dystopic terms. This essay attempts to do the opposite; it examines if, where, and how the inhabitants of Kinshasa reclaim hope and invent alternative futures for their city beyond the widely shared and immediate desire for a "Western" house, a bourgeois living room, and the lifestyle that goes with it. Indeed, the models that were defined by colonialist modernity have never ceased to exert a strong attraction. Even if these colonial notions and ideas about what constitutes quality housing and infrastructure, and therefore a high quality of life, are beyond the reach of the average Congolese, they certainly continue to inform and format local notions of what the good life is all about. Everybody dreams of a "proper" house, bathrooms with running water, sewage systems that do not stink or overflow whenever it rains, kitchens with electricity, and roads without potholes. The built form with its "durable" materiality of bricks and mortar continues to embody and define what decent living, material comfort, and success are deemed to be about. Lubumbashi-based artist Richard Kaumba, known for his maquettes of colonial-style villas and mansions, illustrates this very well with the following statement he wrote on one of his creations in rather idiosyncratic French: "La maison est une machine à affronter le bon moment" [“The house is a machine to confront the good moment"]. What Kaumba calls the bon moment is the material and emotional life inside the house. In other words, the quality of one’s house determines the quality of one’s life. A house is wealth, peace, and quiet.

The Chinese posters that have come to adorn the walls of many Congolese living rooms in recent years basically convey the same idea as Kaumba’s maquettes do but translate it to a more contemporary reality, which so far has reached Congo principally in a visual form. These glossy posters of "western" mansions and country houses, or the skylines of (often imagined and nonexistent) "modern" cities, update and aesthetically repackage the past colonial dreams of petit-bourgeois modernity, transposing them into the oneiric futures of more global and transnational spaces (see Hendriks 2013, 170ff).

This essay examines if, where, and how the inhabitants of Kinshasa reclaim hope and invent alternative futures for their city beyond the widely shared and immediate desire for a "Western" house, a bourgeois living room, and the lifestyle that goes with it.

Whether in the concrete or imagined materiality of the built environment by means of spectral images that advertise the arrival of the new global city on Congolese soil or in the artistic utopian fantasies that I present here, all these material and mental spaces represent various forms of "effective desire" (Crapanzano 2003, 6), each of which possesses a specific transformative capacity. I will reflect upon the current potential of the city to realise a new urban future for itself by focusing on what a locally produced skyscraper has in common with the creative work of Kin-based artist Bylex and the sprawling, new urban development area of the Cité du fleuve. For better or for worse, the city is what it is and cannot escape itself; it depends on itself to fulfill its potential. But at least it has got "de la gueule" in that it enjoys a strong belief in itself. It has had a history of tenacious resilience and elastic flexibility and the creative capacity not to submit but to distrust official vocabularies, to bypass institutional (non)solutions and devise escape routes from what seem to be—when observed from the outside—obvious and inescapable dead ends. A complex and often problematic site of assemblage, multiplicity, and social interaction, this bootstrapping city manages to suture and stitch itself together towards a future horizon by means of an always surprising and often unexpected inventive reworking of the fractures and frictions of its various pasts within the contours of a rapidly changing present. Such a future will necessarily have to take into account its own longue durée and include less visible though still very active histories and sociopolitical rhythms and architectures (in terms of a politics of land and kinship, for example) that continue to unfold and structure the urban landscape, thereby impacting upon the format of possible future urban trajectories.

Utopia 1: The Tower. A Concrete Utopia?

The tower stands in the middle of the industrial zone of Limete, one of the more central municipalities of the city of Kinshasa. Part skyscraper, part pyramid, part citadel, this unfinished and ragged twelve-story building sits strangely in the midst of warehouses, industrial plants, railroad tracks, and new houses under construction that make up the built environment of Limete industriel. Soaring high above this desultory landscape in defiance of gravitational laws and urban zoning rules, this unusual architectural proposition is one of the city’s strangest and most enigmatic landmarks. A giant question mark begs profound reflection on the nature of the city, the heritage of its colonial modernist architecture, the dystopic nature of its current infrastructure, and the capacity for utopian urban dreams and lines of flight that it continues to generate.

A complex and often problematic site of assemblage, multiplicity, and social interaction, this bootstrapping city manages to suture and stitch itself together towards a future horizon by means of an always surprising and often unexpected inventive reworking of the fractures and frictions of its various pasts within the contours of a rapidly changing present.

The proud owner and his wife are the tower’s only inhabitants. He is a middle-aged medical doctor who specialises in "aeronautic and spatial medicine" and is known to all as "Docteur." In 2003, he bought a small plot of 109 m2 and with the help of two architects, he started to build a four-storey building. But long before reaching the fourth floor, Docteur fired the architects and from then on and without a clear plan, he became his own architect. This is the norm rather than the exception in Kinshasa. Somewhere along the process, however, Docteur got carried away by his love for and preoccupation with space and skies, and soon what had started as a modest and rather conventional housing construction evolved into an increasingly megalomaniac vertical venture, reaching forever higher into the sky and consuming ever more cement and concrete. After sacrificing his own finances, health, and peace of mind to considerable length to bring about this "vision," Docteur gradually lost control of the building site. Inspired by pyramid and ziggurat shapes,[2] the tower took on and started to impose its own unstoppable approach to building itself to its logical conclusion, while Docteur became its hostage and visionary martyr. He hopes it will be completed by "posterity" as he is very aware that he will probably not be able to see its completion in his own lifetime.

I contend that this tower should be understood as an idiosyncratic but also programmatic, even messianic, statement on the nature of a more ideal and liveable future city. First of all, Docteur stresses the functionality of the building, even though its functionality obviously leaves much to be desired from an infrastructural point of view. There is no running water or electricity inside the building, for example, and the plumbing for the many bathrooms and lavatories planned on every floor has simply been forgotten or ignored. But aside the level of its material infrastructure, Docteur envisages the still unfinished building to be a city in itself, a humanistic project that transcends the city while concurrently recreating it within its own confines, incorporating all kinds of people and activities. The tower sets the scene for a new vertical and autarkic urban community. A number of medical cabinets and operating rooms have already been installed on the first and second floor, even though patients are few and far between. These rooms transform the base of the building into a hospital and an area for healing the sick and injured. The third floor is designed for lawyers’ offices, the fourth floor will house an entire aviation school, and the sixth floor is to have a restaurant for all the tower’s future inhabitants. Scattered throughout the labyrinthine building, there will also be rooms and offices for visiting philosophers, poets, inventors, and scientists. Finally, high above the ground, on the building’s windy top floor in the company of birds and close to God, is the place for soul healing. The spire on top of the tower invites you to pray, but also to contemplate the beauty of the natural world, the Congo River, and Kinshasa’s many surrounding hills. Looking out over the stage of the city below, it offers the perfect setting to reflect upon human nature itself, with all of its virtues and vices, its possibilities and shortcomings.

Situated at opposite ends of the tower, the healing of both body and soul thus brackets the owner’s whole concept. From ground floor to spire, the tower offers a continuum extending from corporeal to mental matter. These two levels are architecturally connected by means of what Docteur refers to as an "ergonomic" flight of stairs, precariously spiralling towards the top. Consequently, the tower’s main function is to transform its urban residents into better, more fully integrated human beings. For the Docteur, the tower will therefore also function as a tourist site, a place to visit and retreat to, where people will be able to resource themselves before plunging back into the chaos of the surrounding city.

The Docteur's tower, Kinshasa

The Docteur’s tower, Kinshasa. Photograph by Sammy Baloji. All rights reserved.

The tower does many other things as well. In Docteur’s own words, his tower is an attempt to illuminer le trou ("illuminate the hole"). The tower is intended to transcend bare life and the mere level of survival that the city imposes upon its inhabitants. It is, for example, a perfect structure for the visual observation and control of life on the ground level. In its maker’s mind, the tower is therefore also designed as a watchtower, a concept that, in the Congolese context, immediately takes on a religious meaning in reference to the South African branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, and the local Congolese Kitawala movement that originated from it in Katanga province in the 1920s. The Kitawala movement was characterised by its strong millenarian and anticolonial message (Fields 1985), and the notion of (religious) sovereignty is powerfully conveyed in the image of the watchtower. But the same image of the watchtower also evokes notions of fortification and (military and colonial) control and domination. It is clear that Docteur’s tower also incorporates these meanings as well. In his view, the tower offers "a perfect vantage point to observe suspect movements and to warn of imminent terrorist attacks in the city." And thanks to an intricate system of antennae, which has yet to be installed, the tower will also operate, in its creator’s mind, as an air traffic control tower. If, for any reason, the infrastructure of Kinshasa’s international airport should not work, airplanes will be able to use the tower as a beacon to ensure a safe landing. The tower is a solid, safe haven; a Noah’s ark for Kinshasa’s inhabitants in case of a flood, for example, or the more unlikely event of a tsunami. This is probably a less far-fetched notion than it seems at first for those who, like most Kinois, believe in the possibility of an apocalyptic end of the world. In fact, the tower functions as an overall protective device against all forces of nature. In this way, it also “splits" the winds and storms during the rainy season, thereby protecting neighbouring homes. The fresh breeze that constantly blows through the tower’s many rooms also makes it a welcome refuge to retreat to from the city’s heat. In Docteur’s mind, the tower thus offers a strong, sustainable, and ecological alternative when compared to most of the housing in the rest of Kinshasa. It provides a greener way of life in the city’s polluted environment. The protruding cement roofs are designed to "absorb" and "breathe" rainwater out into the city’s smoggy atmosphere. The rooftops themselves could be turned into gardens and areas to keep chickens and goats. And ideally, the tower will be powered by solar energy one day as Docteur hopes to cover its surface with solar panels.

The Forescom Tower

In spite of the tower’s phantasmagorical character and the moralist and religious (as well as messianic and apocalyptic) notions that underpin it, Docteur’s discourse about the tower, unhindered by infrastructural obstacles and shortcomings, actually reworks many of the propositions made earlier by colonial modernist architects and urban planners. If, on a very general level, the vertical topos of the mountain as the physical site of domination, control, and subjugation may be considered colonialism’s basic geographic feature (it was no coincidence that Stanley’s first trading post was built on top of Leopold Hill), then colonial modernist architecture subsequently incorporated and translated this idea of the mountain into built vertical statements of power. These were gradually emerging in the urban landscape of the 1940s and 1950s. For example, the Forescom tower, located in what is now Kinshasa’s downtown district of Gombe, became one of the early landmarks of Belgian colonial modernist urban architecture. Completed in 1946, and soon to be followed by other even more impressive high-rise buildings of tropical modernist signature (see Lagae 2002), the Forescom tower was Kinshasa’s first skyscraper. With its ten storeys, it was one of the first of its kind in Central Africa.[3] As such, it was reportedly a source of pride for both colonisers and colonial subjects. For the former, it represented the success of the colonial enterprise, while it allowed the latter to dream of partaking of and being inserted into a more global modernity. The building was the tangible proof that Leopoldville was well under way to becoming the first Poto moindo, the first "Black Europe." Pointing towards the sky, the Forescom tower also pointed to the future. And because some of its architectural features made the building look like a boat on the banks of the Congo River, the tower also seemed to promise to set Leopoldville sailing to distant shores of other wider (and whiter) worlds beyond the horizon of the Congo River basin. The Forescom tower thus gave form to new hopes, prospects, and possibilities. It materially translated and emblematically visualised colonialist ideologies of progress and modernity. Simultaneously, it should be added, it also embodied the darker repressive side of colonialism, with its elaborate technologies of domination, control, and surveillance. The tower here was also a watchtower, the built extension of the panoptical colonial Big Brother. As such, the figure of the tower forcefully reminds us of the fact that the colonial urban landscape of Kinshasa largely came about as the result of a very intrusive history of both physical and symbolic violence and domination, marked by racial segregation as well as violent processes of dispossession and relocation.

The Hole

How liveable is the legacy of colonialist modernity in the contemporary urban setting? What remains of the colonial infrastructural heritage on a material level? What kinds of social lives and afterlives does it still enable, and what dreams and visions of possible futures, if any, does that colonial legacy still trigger for the residents of Kinshasa today? Much of modernity’s promises and dreams have turned into a nightmare in postcolonial Kinshasa. The city is littered with colonialism’s broken infrastructural dreams, with fragments and figments of a modernity that has become part of an irretrievable past. And rather than referring to the ideal of the vertical, Kinshasa’s inhabitants often seem to resort to the concept of the "hole" to describe the urban infrastructure in which they live. On a first level, the notion of libulu (“the hole”) refers to the material holes and cracks that have come to scar the urban surface. There are the numerous potholes in the streets, of course, but also the hundreds of erosion points that are caused by heavy rainfall or by deficient water drainage. Swallowing houses and roads, these erosions cut through Kinshasa’s hilly landscape and form a constant threat to the city’s infrastructure. The largest erosion sites have even been given individual names, as if they were real persons, with their own character and temperament. This is the case with the libulu Manzengele in the municipality of Ngaliema, for example.[4] This particular erosion site became so well known throughout the city that even a Congolese nightclub in Bobigny, Paris was named after it. In 2008, another large hole appeared in the erosion-plagued area of Kindele, which is one of the city’s troubled southern neighbourhoods on the slopes of Mont Amba, the mountain on which is the campus of Lovanium, later rebaptised the University of Kinshasa (UNIKIN). This particular hole in the city’s surface was named libulu Makaya ("the cigarette hole"), and it became famous because of an onsite artistic intervention by the Kin-based artist collective SADI.[5]

How liveable is the legacy of colonialist modernity in the contemporary urban setting? What remains of the colonial infrastructural heritage on a material level?

But libulu may also refer to the dark hole of prison, for example, or the city’s shadow economy. Wenze ya libulu ("market of the hole") is the name of a particular marketplace in the municipality of Barumbu, but more generally wenze ya libulu may also refer to an "informal" market where things are sold below the official price (see Lusamba Kibayu 2010, 314). The concept of hole is often used as well to make ironic comments upon the state of things in Kinshasa and Congo generally. A couple of years ago, a Kinois businessman opened a dance bar next to the Forescom tower and called it Le Grand Libulu, "The Big Hole." The formula proved successful and the owner opened two more bars with the same name in more distant parts of the city. In the meantime, the name has also been adopted by other more informal small pubs and dancing bars throughout the city, inspiring a typical Kinois response to the subject of holes: "If we have to live in a hole, we might as well dance in it!"

But even if holes have emerged as Kinshasa’s generic type of infrastructure as well as a kind of metaconcept to reflect upon the degradation of the colonial infrastructure and upon the closures and often dismal quality of social life that followed the colonial city’s physical ruination, there is still the question as to how the gap between colonial mountain/tower and postcolonial hole is filled in the experience of Congolese urban residents. Apart for dancing, what other possible answers do Kinois come up with in response to the challenge presented by these holes? If the city has transformed towers into holes, how can holes be "illuminated" and become "towers" again?

Utopia 2: Bylex and the Model of the Tourist City

As noted, the inhabitants of Congo’s urban landscapes have been turning away from former colonial models and have redefined the spaces of colonialism on their own terms ever since independence. Kinshasa’s residents reworked the legacies of colonialist modernity by appropriating the former colonial housing infrastructure, for example, and by reassembling and translating it in ways better suited to local social life. Using their own bodies as infrastructural building blocks and imposing the rhythms of their own forms of mobility onto the city, Kinois have designed alternative maps and architectures for Kinshasa. Through music and words, they have invented new acoustic urban landscapes, and in doing so they have also moved away from French, the coloniser’s language. And there have been many moments of collective rebellion in which the mirror of colonialist modernity has been violently smashed and destroyed.[6] And yet somehow, Kinshasa constantly returns to and remains hypnotised by images reflected in the mirror of colonialist modernity. This fascination is often expressed in playful ways that manage to transcend, thanks to their ludic and parodying nature, a merely mimetic reprise of the colonial legacy and former metropolitan models. For example, think about the sapeurs’ playful appropriation of Western designer clothes, or consider the fact that Bandalungwa and Lemba, two municipalities in Kinshasa, are currently engaged in a well-humoured (but also deadly serious) dispute over the ownership of the names "Paris" and "ville lumière," even though (or precisely because) they are constantly hit by power cuts and have to remain in the dark for days on end. The mayor of Lemba even painted the slogan "Lemba is Paris" above the entrance to the municipality’s administrative headquarters. Similarly, on Facebook, one finds several pages called Lemba c’est Paris or Bandal c’est Paris.[7] Here, mimesis becomes a poetry of the possible that, as argued by Newell in relation to urban youth in Abidjan, offers a form of playful appropriation and transformation of the realities of modernity (Newell 2012).

Using their own bodies as infrastructural building blocks and imposing the rhythms of their own forms of mobility onto the city, Kinois have designed alternative maps and architectures for Kinshasa.

But even when approached critically, or with humour and irony, modernity’s propositions continue to fascinate and enchant. This fascination comes across in the work of Kinshasa-based artists such as Kingelez Bodys Isek (1945–2015) and Bylex (b. 1968). Both are known for the utopian urban visions that emanate in their artistic work, and especially in pieces such as Kingelez’s Ville fantôme (“Phantom City”) and his Projet pour le Kinshasa du troisième millenaire (“Project for Kinshasa of the Third Millenium”), or Bylex’s Cité Touristique, (“Tourist City”).[8] Whereas the original maquettes that gave form to the colonial urban plans of the 1950s are slowly decaying (as are the neighbourhoods that they gave birth to), the models of these two artists revive and rework many propositions of modernist urban planning, albeit with a specific twist. In different ways, the emancipatory and humanitarian preoccupations of colonial modernity, its religious overtones, moralising framework, authoritarian and totalitarian nature, as well as its obsession with security issues and control return incessantly in the form and content of the ideal city that they propose in their artistic oeuvre. What is striking in these propositions is the fact that the ideal city is not viewed as an entity to inhabit on a permanent basis, but as a prolegomenon, a place to counterbalance existing cities, a place to visit and resource oneself. In their view the ideal city is, in a way, a resort.

Sun City and the Chinese Pagoda of Nsele

The prototype in Africa of the "city as resort" model is undoubtedly Sun City, South Africa’s most famous high-end tourist centre, which brands itself a "kingdom of pleasure." In Kinshasa, this idea of a resort-like "kingdom of pleasure" materialised most strongly in Mobutu’s presidential site of Nsele, east of Kinshasa’s national airport along the Congo River Basin. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, Nsele and the neighbouring fishermen’s village of Kinkole were developed into sites that fully symbolised the ambitions of Mobutu’s Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR). It was in Kinkole that Mobutu launched the country’s new currency, the Zaire, on June 24, 1967. And it was on the Place du Zaïre in Kinkole that many of the MPR’s historical political rallies and meetings were held and Mobutu gave some of his most legendary speeches. The newly built cité of Nsele, some fifteen kilometres east of Kinkole, was the “citadel of the political life of the Mobutist regime" (Fumunzanza 2011, 236). 8 It was here that the MPR was founded on May 20, 1967 and it was also here that its ideological charter, the historical “Manifest of Nsele,” was issued. From 1966 onwards, the 8,000 hectares of the nearby Nsele domain were developed as a private presidential agroindustrial farm. Later on, the presidential domain was turned into a tourist site and made accessible to the inhabitants of Kinshasa. In 1980, when the presidential domain of Nsele had already gone bankrupt, Mobutu donated it to the state, which meant the beginning of the end for the Nsele resort. But for a while, it attracted many Kinois, especially after Mobutu built the palace of Nsele, an oriental fantasy dominated by a huge pagoda and constructed with the help of the Chinese. A kingdom of pleasure indeed, the palace of Nsele was at the centre of a grandiose tourist infrastructure, with an Olympic-size swimming pool, tennis courts, a conference centre, and a large restaurant and hotel complex (2,000 beds and 100 VIP suites), with villas, bars, and bungalows (cf. Fumunzanza 2011, 237). Nsele became the stage where the madly decadent and hedonistic side of the Mobutist regime, with its theatrical but corrupt magnanimity and all its grandiose dreams, displayed itself most fully. It also provided the setting for the inevitable end to Mobutu’s dictatorship. It was here that Mobutu, in a historical and emotional address to the nation in April 1990, announced that the one-party system and twenty-three years of dictatorial regime had reached an end. Today, the palace is an abandoned ruin.

Unlike Sun City and other “pleasure” resorts such as that of Nsele, Bylex’s maquette of the "Tourist City" is a more reflexive resort that forces us to use our minds and ponder. The Tourist City occupies an almost mythical place in his thinking and embodies his uncompromising striving for a better, universal world. And again, the main protagonist is the tourist.

Kinshasa, a Story of Imperfections

First, a word about the artist Bylex (born Pume). Bylex is a researcher, a godlike architect, and an inventor of concepts; a true demiurge who creates order out of chaos. He investigates in an almost scientific way the invisible laws and processes of the world. As an artist, Bylex is not interested in the day-to-day reality of Kinshasa but turns his attention to what lies beyond the horizon of the visible and the tangible. He penetrates what he refers to as "the mysteries of the invisible" in order to create his own universe with its own laws of nature: a world with perfection and harmony at its centre. The visual language of his objects, drawings, costumes, furniture, and models is immediately recognisable. The titles of his works, as enigmatic as they are poetic, refer to one great indivisible universe: Les mystères de l’oeil caméra (“The Mysteries of the Camera Eye”), Le hibou menacé (“The Threatened Owl”), Souris métallisée (“Metallised Mouse”), Papillon vampire (“Vampire Butterfly”), Montre Bylarti (“Bylarti Watch”), La chaussure croissante (“The Growing Shoe”), Voiture Bassai (“Bassai Car”), L’humanité prise en ôtage (“Humanity Taken Hostage”), Escartes, Blue Bird Perroquet (“Blue Bird Parrot”), Cité Touristique (“Tourist City”), and many others. All of these objects are always accompanied by written texts that act as guidelines offering interpretive grids to read the objects’ hidden meaning.

Bylex grew up and still lives in Petro-Congo, a neighbourhood in the municipality of Masina. A long dusty dirt road leads to his compound, a tiny plot of land with a small house on a street corner at the edge of Malebo Pool. I vividly remember my first visit to this house over ten years ago. The room in which Bylex welcomed me was dark and oppressively hot. Petro-Congo had been without electricity for several days, and the fan and television set in his modest living room were standing idly by, while a tiny light bulb hung purposelessly from the ceiling. As a result, conversation inevitably turned to the limitations and impossibilities of life in Kinshasa, its shortages and deficiencies, and the constant decay and breakdown of its infrastructure. It was not long, however, before Bylex diverted our conversation to the question of how to overcome these problems. In his view, this obviously demanded an intervention on an immediate material level. Who doesn’t want a refrigerator that refrigerates, a television that displays images, or a fan that rotates and cools the air? But more importantly, according to Bylex, the chaos of Kinshasa also invites you to engage in a mental exercise that triggers an even more compelling inner need to overcome imperfection.

Seeing Beyond the Horizon

What really interests Bylex is not so much the banal reality of daily life, the lived-in order of everyday existence (the parole or the performance, so to speak) but a more mental order of things, a thought-of order that Lévi-Strauss would undoubtedly have called pensée sauvage; that is, the world’s underlying universal order, the untamed thought processes (the langue or the competence) that sustain the world before being tamed by the social or cultural context in which they happen to be expressed. In the case of Bylex, this "taming" occurs within the context of Kinshasa, but for him this is something of secondary importance. In his view, this fact is no more than a rather annoying coincidence, although Kinshasa is unquestionably present in his work, albeit often indirectly or by contrast (as the Cité Touristique example to be discussed illustrates). Bylex sees himself living and working just as easily in New York, Paris, or Tokyo and ultimately the question of "where" makes no real difference. Bylex remains unperturbed by these accidental twists of fate.

In a sense, Bylex is essentially a conceptual artist. He is as much a chercheur (“researcher”) and concepteur (“inventor”) as an artist. He is, as he puts it, as concerned with words and ideas as with the making of objects. Bylex’s work is marked by thorough, almost scientific research work into the invisible laws and processes that underlie the visible reality of the material world. He thus turns his gaze resolutely to that which lies beyond the horizon of the visible and immediate experience. Voir plus loin que le lointain ("to see beyond the horizon") is what Bylex invites us to do. He asks us to say what cannot be said, to think what has never been thought before, and to give form to something that has never had a shape before; in sum, he wants to enable the invisible to become visible.

In this spiritual universe, where lucidity and insanity come together and touch, God serves as the great safety net. In this, Bylex is a true Kinois as well: someone for whom God is an ineluctable reality.

Mysteries of the Invisible

It is from this imaginary—but no less real—place in his head that Bylex set off on a voyage of discovery many years ago in search of what he calls les mystères de l’invisible (“the mysteries of the invisible"). From within this personal imaginary space, a mental platform between art, science, and the spiritual, Bylex began his ongoing expedition in search of the laws of that invisible, perfect universe beyond the imperfect empirical reality of the visible world. And he regularly reports on this mental journey in the form of sketches and models of objects and buildings, often constructed out of photo paper and enclosed in small, glass boxes:

Inspiration is a mystery. And a mystery is something that the eye cannot see. My own universe, my own distinct world, my inner spiritual mechanisms cause the Bylex body and the Bylex mind to invent. Sometimes, when one is asleep, one dreams. And sometimes, one conceives of a work of art by using one’s mind. Meditating is an activity which takes place in one’s brain, inviting one’s cells to coordinate one’s dreams. Thoughts have a labyrinthine structure. One tries to travel in one’s mind. And one’s thoughts make one reflect and meditate about the world. Starting from these thoughts, one generates images in one’s memory. My brain constantly generates a lot of images. And these images allow me to translate the invisible into something that is visible and palpable. My hands are there to help externalise and put onto paper the ideas which live in my mind.[9]

The drawings, plans, and objects that he brings back from his travels through his mind attempt to render the invisible visible, but ultimately they are no more than a few stones, a bit of grit and dust, and unsteady pointers to the trail he is blazing through the crystals of the mind. They merely are, as it were, humble fragments, imperfect shadows of the unattainable—divine—perfection.

L’esprit est libre (“The Mind is Free”)

As far as Bylex is concerned, the exercise of transcending and overcoming the obstacle of materiality is performed on a daily basis within his head. Every head, and certainly his own, says Bylex, contains a marvellous instrument, which is a brain. And in this brain dwells l’esprit, the mind. This mind works according to a process that Bylex calls adaptation magnétique (“magnetic adaptation”): certain things feel drawn to one another, belong together, while others do not. You are free in your head to reinvent that magnetic attraction between objects and even devise new connections. You can classify things according to your own rationale and can design, think, and create an alternative, albeit invisible, mental world as you see fit. In other words, in your head you can cut yourself loose from the world and be freed of its material manifestations. "The mind," says Bylex, "is not limited like the body.” He continues,

Your mind does not need to take public transport. Your mind does not have to get on a plane to return to your room in Kinshasa or Brussels when you are somewhere else. The mind is free, and even in captivity it cannot be confined. Consider a prisoner. Lock him up in a cell somewhere. What do you see? If the prisoner feels the need to see his house or his room, he doesn’t need permission from the guard. A guard would never allow my mind to see my room! But my mind can get out even without the guard’s permission, and go to see my room. By this I mean that the mind is the basis, for in your mind there are relations far more complex than those outside, in the visible world. That is the power of the mind, and this power is a victory.

It is this spiritual flexibility that gives Bylex the ability to construct a worldview with universal ambitions amid the difficult circumstances that characterise life in Kinshasa. His work is made up of models and objects that become exact expressions of an imagination transformed into images. Bylex’s work can certainly be regarded as one long exercise in the visionary rethinking of the impossible. This transcendence in and through the mind of the imperfection of empirical reality is important in a city such as Kinshasa, where the potholes along the road can be very deep indeed, and where the stench of the sewers is often unbearable. Bylex’s oeuvre thus unfolds as an exercise in designing another, more ideal world, a world that is pure, crystal clear, and hard as rock, monolithic and solid, and consistent with the laws of the mind rather than the daily caprices and worries of life in a city such as Kinshasa.

With God and Science in Search of Perfection

Bylex’s quest is subsequently a continual, radical, and absolute search for "perfection." The objects he makes are copies of an ideal and idealised world within his head. In this world, reason is of crucial importance. It is no coincidence that Bylex called one of his costume designs Escartes or Esprit Cartésien (“Cartesian Mind”). Reason appeals to him because of its absolute and almost divine nature, which suggests an attitude of unmistakable Romanticism. In Bylex’s quest for reine Vernunft, we not only find reflections of a form of Kantian idealism, but also of the reaction that this idealism sparked in the Romantic period. The artist is an autonomous subject ("Je suis quand même le maître de mon esprit" [“I am master of my own mind”], Bylex says), but at the same time he is also an instrument of the Divine. Bylex’s work moves, as does his life, in a space between reason and religion that many of us would no longer recognise but that undoubtedly would have been familiar to people of the early nineteenth century. It is not hard to imagine that the things Bylex sees through his mind’s eye are not so different in their nature from what Caspar David Friedrich perceived when he painted Wanderer above a Sea of Fog or The Polar Sea: a perfect, frozen, silent, and sublime world in which God’s hand is present—a seemingly paradoxical marriage between a sublimated Enlightenment and the godlike Sublime (cf. Gamwell 2002). God and science go hand in hand in Bylex’s work, as they seemingly do in Docteur’s mind with his tower, and very much in the way they did in that of nineteenth-century painters, natural philosophers, and scientists for whom, partly as a reaction to Kant and the German Idealists, scientific rationality could perfectly well coincide with a mystical, pantheistic longing for the essence and totality of things. As artiste-chercheurconcepteur, as Bylex likes to describe himself, and as a man of God (for Bylex is also very active as a preacher in one of Kinshasa’s many neo-Pentecostal movements), his quest for perfection is indeed highly religious in nature, for God is perfect and will choose only the perfect on the Day of Judgment. And the perfection He seeks is beauty. Hence Bylex devotes a great deal of attention to understanding la beauté. Like a mantra, the phrase la beauté, c’est ni la couleur ni la taille, c’est la forme (“beauty is neither colour nor size, it is form") returns time and again in Bylex’s explanations.

"Indirect Emotion": Bylex, Mathematics, and the Reinvention of Fordism

In order to convey the religiously based idea of perfection underpinning his artwork, Bylex talks about the rules of the modern manufacturing process, or the order of numbers and figures. His artworks are made according to the principle of industrial production. For Bylex, all the objects he makes must be reproducible on a large scale, like industrial products, and manufactured by what he describes as "indirect emotion," in other words, through Abstraction and Reason, reproducible independently of the person of the artist himself, and therefore more perfect than artworks that are made by "direct emotion" (although both are needed in order to succeed in the creative process):

There is direct and indirect emotion. When we speak of direct emotion, we deal with thoughts that are produced without being thought. That means that you don’t think about them. Rather, they are generated intuitively, and on the spot. Indirect emotion, on the other hand, is something that is reflected upon and thought about for some time. That is indirect emotion. I can give you an example of such indirect emotion. When I use a typewriter to write, I produce letters that were already pre-existing. These letters are like indirect emotions; they existed previously to my typewriting. The letters already existed before I pressed them down on my typewriter. Direct emotion, on the contrary, is something that is realised on the spot. It is like saying "yes" or "no" on the spur of the moment. The same applies to works of art. When an artwork is created by means of direct emotion, it means that its realisation was not part of the process of reflection. For example, I can say: "Here I intend to use the colour "blue," but in the process of creating the work of art, I suddenly change my mind and I tell myself to use the colour "green" instead of "blue."" The colour green is the expression of a direct emotion, a sudden intuition which announces itself without premeditation and without reflection. But indirect emotions are conceived of well in advance. They are premeditated, less immediate. I think about what to do in advance: "This is what I will do, this is the size of the object," and then I stick to what I thought about before making it. That’s indirect emotion. Take for example the inventor of cars. When one starts to make a car, one can say: "This will be a BMW of this particular type or series." As such, this specific car can be endlessly reproduced. One can make ten thousand cars of this particular BMW type. That is what indirect emotion means: it is conceived beforehand, imprinted. But, during its production, it is also possible to change from the original concept, put in other chairs, for example, or shape it in other forms, and give it other colours. At that moment, the original idea changes. It becomes an instantaneous creation, a direct emotion rather than something premeditated, imprinted, and preregistered.

In Bylex’s world, the search for perfection has close ties with "mathematics." This "mathematics" is symbolised in his work by the recurrent motif of little black and white squares. For Bylex, the square represents the perfect form because it has four equal sides. And black and white are "perfect" colours because they exist in themselves and not as blends. White also represents balance, while red in the Bylex universe signifies hope:

In the Bylex art, the square symbolises a certain equilibrium. Bylex always works according to the norms and rules of basic geometry. I also work a lot with the colour "white." For Bylex, this colour represents purposefulness and determination. I will give you an example of this: Doctors are dressed in white to show people that they have the will power to accomplish their job in spite of all the difficulties they might encounter. Some people are already dying when they arrive at the hospital, but this does not discourage the doctors. They will surmount this difficulty to heal the patient in question. This goes for me as well. Sometimes I encounter great difficulties while I am working on an object, but I try to surmount this difficulty to arrive at the best possible result. This is why I use the colour "white," to illustrate my determination to make the best possible artworks. I also use the colour "red." In the Bylex language, this means that there is always hope, no matter how insurmountable the difficulties. I have always been hopeful that I will succeed one day. This is also the meaning of the word Byl. Byl is the man who doesn’t acknowledge the impossible, the man who always finds a solution and demonstrates that anything is possible.

The name Byl also brings us back to numbers. Like the square or the colour white, numbers and figures have the same ideal purity that points us to the true nature of the Divine Plan. In Bylex’s work, mathematics and figures not only stand for modernist reason, but also for ‘science" in the sense that alchemists must have used it (and the alchemical tradition lives on in Kinshasa, partly under the influence of Rosicrucians).[10] For Bylex, numbers are the bearers of an almost kabbalistic symbolism that gives meaning to the Divine Plan. Numbers represent both science and mysticism, the irresistible nature of Reason, as well as the incomprehensibility that lies within religious experience. Therefore, the artist’s utopian code name is Byl, a name composed of three letters: b—the second letter of the alphabet, y—the twenty-fifth letter, and l—the twelfth letter. Together the numbers of these letters add up to thirty-nine, which is to say: 39 = 3 followed by 9 and then 9 = 3 times 3. This formula applies to Bylex himself (for he is his father’s third son) as well as to Christ (who died at the age of 33). The ex at the end of Bylex stands for exhibition.

An Encompassing Total World

The name Bylex embraces an entire creative programme as well as a method for transforming the private individual, Pume the imperfect human being, into a public personality, the ultimate form of Bylex. The Bylex personality is a conceptual project in which the artist, in his quest for perfection, ultimately becomes God himself and, in creating his own world, becomes one with Him. That is why Pume constantly refers to Bylex in the third person and why he gave his daughter the name Lorbyl (a combination of "Lord"and Bylex). It is this aspect that also explains the authoritarian and totalitarian, all-encompassing and monolithic nature of the Bylex universe. The world of Bylex is, in a sense, the world of monologue. Bylex thinks, lives, breathes, and creates in his own world, a world in which there is little room for dialogue, difference, and openness. Undoubtedly, this is something of a protective reaction of a man who lives in a cannibalistic urban space that is forever invading the lives of its inhabitants and constantly forcing its way into their field of vision, penetrating their intimate spaces, bodies, ears, pores, and noses, and compelling them to submit to its whims. Hence, no doubt, his obsession with safety issues (as illustrated by his Tourist City project; see below).

Against this indomitable Kinshasa, Bylex juxtaposes an all-encompassing total world with its own equally compelling aesthetics. In contrast to the world out there, Bylex is the lord and master of his own world: he controls and surveys its contours, and imposes his own will and order on it. To free himself from the many limitations and restrictions that Kinshasa forces upon its inhabitants, Bylex thus creates his own maniacal utopia. He does this on a grand scale in a city plan such as the Tourist City, and also on a smaller scale, right down to the details: with his models of individual houses, cars, furniture, clothing, shoes, and even watches and tiepins, he designs his own urban environment.

The City’s Verbal Infrastructures

Bylex’s authoritarian and totalitarian manner of speaking, thinking, and designing is undeniably also a characteristic of the Congolese capital itself, for Kinshasa is the city that was permeated for decades by the Word of the Dictator, and the all-pervasive aesthetics of the Mobutist animation politique which accompanied that Word. It is no coincidence that this totalitarian political discourse was laced with references to God and marked by a constant religious transfiguration of the political field. In daily broadcasts on Zairean state television, Mobutu descended from heaven with a halo around his head, without a hint of irony. In today’s Kinshasa, that legendary Hegemon has been replaced by the Old Testament God. With the help of the thousands of churches and prayer groups active in Kinshasa, the inescapable voice of Yahweh foists itself in just as authoritarian a way upon the public urban space in order to turn it, through the light of His Word and Will, into the City of God, the new Jerusalem. And in this city where the Holy Spirit manifests itself at every moment of the day in the form of glossolalia, and where the trance-like prayers of the faithful are continually charged with the power of the Divine, it is not very difficult to believe in the potential of words to represent and redesign the city in a new way through the construction of rhetorical architectures. Their speech, prayers, and songs form an unremitting attempt to subdue the rapture of urban madness, to comprehend the living thing that is the city, to build and to govern the unmappable world of people’s journeys through the city’s perilous and transitory ground, and to conjure up new possible futures for it. Even though, as I have argued earlier, the city often disrupts the links between signifiers and signified, and corrupts the meaning of words in the process, speech nevertheless remains one of the most important building blocks with which to conquer and alter the city. In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1). This is a profound belief that Bylex shares with his fellow citizens and transposes onto his own universe. Through language, Bylex ceaselessly redesigns the city to enable its rebirth in an unremitting attempt to subdue, comprehend, build, and govern it in order to convert its chaos into an alternative order. And through the creation of a whole library of Bylexian neologisms, he tries to impose a new linguistic order on the urban world in order to seize the city and imbue it with a new, more liveable meaning.

Improvisation and Laughter as the Key to Imagination

The totalitarian longing for a controllable universe, the demiurge-like impulse to create a perfect world—and become oneself a god—stands in stark contrast with the imperfect, chaotic, irrational, and totally unpredictable city that Kinshasa is. This is why all Bylex’s artworks, be they grandiose plans and construction projects or small models of objects such as visionary armchairs, clocks, shoes, or wristwatches, are enclosed in their own space and shielded from the evil exterior world in glass boxes, almost as if Bylex is aware that his poetic propositions are too fragile to survive the contamination of the urban chaos without extra protection. In fact, the city incessantly forces Bylex to leave the high plane of reason and return to "direct emotion." This "direct emotion" is essentially none other than the capacity for improvisation. Kinshasa naturally compels its residents to improvise. Confronted with human mistakes and infrastructural shortcomings, you are forced to improvise in order to bridge the constant hiatus that exists between words and deeds or between ideas and their practical implementation in the everyday business of urban life. And like every other resident of Kinshasa, Bylex also knows how to give the quality of improvisation its due:

Sometimes I need direct emotion, at other times indirect emotion. I combine both to arrive at something that is complete. When I make something, the indirect emotion might change, the form might change. The same happens to ideas. When you want to construct a house, for example, you picture it as having three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom, but while building it you run out of money. This forces you to change the original concept: two bedrooms instead of three, and a living room and kitchen but no longer a bathroom. So the concept adapts itself to the circumstances, and this thanks to direct emotion. The decision made on the spot, this is direct emotion.

One of the basic elements of improvisation is laughter, and this playful laughter is also an important bridge between Kinshasa and Bylex’s work. In Kinshasa, jokes, jibes, parody, and the derisory often constitute the ultimate "weapons of the weak" with which the downtrodden thumb their noses at the rich and powerful. Similarly, it is laughter that teasingly breaks open the enclosed totalitarian world of the city from which, all too often, no escape seems possible. Humour generates the oxygen and openness necessary to save the self-referential urban world from suffocating, and in similar ways it opens up the closed system of the Bylex universe. Bylex proffers this relativising laughter in a mocking and understated manner. It is often by means of an ironic joke disguised as scientific seriousness that Bylex pulls the viewer’s leg. The viewer can never be entirely sure that they are not being taken for a ride or when Bylex’s statements are meant to be taken seriously or not; for instance, when he explains the name of one of his children, Dane, as an acronym meaning densité d’analyses normales experimentées (density of normal experimental analyses), or when he distinguishes between vraie and fausse folie (“true and false madness”). A bicycle trying to pull a truck is one of the examples Bylex gives of "false madness."

It is in this playful but also completely serious way that Bylex navigates the many contradictions in which he lives. His gaze pierces the city, sometimes with touching naïveté, at other times with “scientific” originality, but always with humanity and engagement. In a compulsive effort to perceive beauty, he provides, in a single stroke, both an analysis and a synthesis of the urban world. In this sense, his work is one long exercise in learning how to “see” anew; in reflecting upon the visible, muddy reality in which urbanites have to live, and in extending one’s gaze beyond the theatre of the everyday to capture the invisible laws on which this incomprehensible reality is founded. In the end, Bylex offers you the opportunity to return to the childlike capacity to be astonished by the world and imagine it as a better place.

The Tourist City

Let us now turn to the model of the Tourist City itself. The Tourist City is a utopian urban project which condenses the core of Bylex’s Weltanschauung. With the Tourist City, Bylex seems to question not only the "true" objectives of architecture but also of politics.

Within the generalised condition of economic and political crisis that marks the global world today, and speaking from a city where the physical life of that crisis is omnipresent in very tangible ways, Bylex makes a strong plea for a new universal humanism and offers us a language to reimagine, reinvent, and rebuild the very premises of the urban world that we all inhabit. Implicitly or explicitly, Bylex suggests that the basis itself, the necessary premise for any form of political and architectural thinking about the city, is situated within the urban dwellers themselves. Bylex’s Tourist City is therefore a relevant, though mostly indirect comment on the political because the conceptual architecture and visual language of this centrepiece provides an emancipatory space to express alternative social ideals and ethical concerns in the real world.

Pume Bylex's Tourist City

Pume Bylex’s Tourist City. Photograph by Sammy Baloji. All rights reserved.

The architecture of the Tourist City is entirely and unmistakably marked by the central presence of the Royal Dome. This Dome is not only a "Temple of the Spirit," as Bylex likes to call it, but also the Temple of a humanity without God, or rather, the Temple where Man, in typical Bylex fashion, becomes his own God. The "Tourist," the figure of the Wanderer, is called to this cupola-shaped Temple in order to induce contemplation and reflection about himself:

In the middle there is the Royal Dome representing a king’s crown. To the left there are hotels. We see the passage of a tunnel running through this building, and the black and orange parts represent the asphalt highways. To the right we see three swimming pools located on the commercial square. All of the buildings around it represent the commercial centre. On the other side there are three more pearl-shaped swimming pools, in red and blue, and a bit further there are again three more swimming pools. So that makes for nine swimming pools in the commercial centre.

We also have cylindrical pillars which are put there for security reasons, with radars and solar cameras. These cameras work with different systems; they are multidirectional and will work 24 hours a day to assure the tourists’ security. But let us return to the Royal Dome. You see the Dome and its passageway tunnelling through it. The colour yellow is that of the synthetic lawns. There will be yellow grass, crystal-coloured grass, as well as sapphire blue grass. A bit lower, we see the shape of the windows in the hotel buildings of the Tourist City. These are anti-kamikaze buildings. As we have said, there will be a central nucleus and then these external glass-shaped structures that stop bullets. Continuing our way around the city we arrive again at the Dome. To its left there is another hotel, in red this time, which also has an anti-kamikaze security system.

The centre is the most important part; it is like a kingdom. Around the king are his subjects, but it is the king who gives his orders to the others. Therefore, the Royal Dome is the city centre and there is something special that sets it apart. The other buildings do not have a large amount of synthetic lawns, but the Royal Dome is surrounded by a multitude of colours, a veritable amalgam of colours. It is as if to say: it is the Royal Dome that took all the colours and distributed some to the other buildings. It is the centre giving the example to the other buildings, as if to say: "It is I who guide the commercial part, the hotels, the asphalt roads." That is why the city’s central part is its human heart: through this centre people get access to the different parts of the city (the hotels, the commercial part, the swimming pools, the circulation, the city’s higher and lower points) to finally reassemble in the Royal Dome, the point of interrogation. After having visited the whole city, people return to this part of the city that enables reflection and meditation, asking themselves: "What purpose does this city serve?" That is the role of the Royal Dome, which is also some kind of museum. A museum is a place of meditation. One can walk through different rooms and observe different objects and things. It is as if one was walking through a temple. And in a temple, one has to be respectful. In a temple one does not behave as in a bar, and you have to make sure to say and do the right thing, or walk the right way, because it is a place for meditation. It is like going to a cemetery. There you do not behave like a barbarian either, do you? Once there you wonder: "And what if I die? How am I going to be buried? How is it going to work? Where will they put the flowers? What is life after death going to be like? Who is going to stay behind?" In short, you put yourself in the deceased’s place, and this reflection induces a sort of discipline, a kind of silence, a feeling of calm and quiet. In conclusion, you tell yourself: "I am not going to make any noise. Instead I will listen to my inner thoughts. What does my heart tell me or reproach me?" And the Royal Dome is this heart, it is the heart of the whole city.

After having visited the city and its hotels, and after having walked on the city’s roads, you finally end up in a huge universal temple. And there you will be told: "This is not only a place where Buddhists enter, or Catholics, Protestants, etcetera, but it is a place where everyone is welcome." Some people pray without a church, because the real church is the heart! It is not a building; it is not a priest. Inside oneself there is a conscience. It is like a black hole. In this hole you will question yourself, your own words, because inside yourself you are all by yourself. No wife, no kids, just you… That is the real temple. So when you arrive at the Royal Dome you enter a state of self-reflection. You tell yourself: "Here I am. I visited all the places of the Tourist City, but what did I learn from this visit? Did it do me any good? What will the relationships that I established here bring me?" It starts a process of interrogation before leaving the city again: "What have I learned?" That is the question! Everything that one might have thought about the nature of the city will turn out to be relative, as if Bylex wanted to erect a universal temple where one does not have to worry about what is normal and what not. In this temple a Buddhist can meet a non-Buddhist or a Protestant, people who are different from me, but who all want this state of peacefulness.

What is the reason for making such a city? It is surely not to lead other people onto the road to Evil, no! The Tourist City is about universal cohesion. Everyone has his place in it, everyone is equally important. I am not the only important one, but all those around me are important too. Even if they are different and not like me, they too are important and should be safe. That is the Tourist City’s ideal! It is a city where one learns about morality. Not a morality learned from books, but a morality automatically instilled in you by the environment. An automatic learning process: you enter the Dome, and there you know: "This is the creation." And in the white part of the city you tell yourself: "I can’t stain this whiteness with impurity; here the person and the light have to become one." Within the Tourist City one takes care not to dirty the City. It should be kept clean, because long after me other generations will visit it and cherish its cleanliness. This is what perfection and harmony are all about. The Tourist City is the perfection of harmony!

In some respect, and in spite of the Dome’s royal adjective and its religious epitheton "Temple of the Spirit," Bylex seems to be close here to the more secular humanist ideals of the Belgian visionary and peace activist, Paul Otlet (1868–1944), famous at one time for his Mundaneum and World City projects (cf. Levie 2006). The Mundaneum, or World Palace as it was originally called, aimed at gathering all the world’s knowledge in one single classificatory system, which would then form the basis for a new "world city." In a rather similar way, Bylex’s Temple of the Spirit proposes the notion of a "global" museum that will bring together all knowledge ever generated about the world in one encyclopaedic heart, the Royal Dome. As such, a visit to the Dome will serve as an impetus, not so much as to create a new city but to rebalance the existing urbanscape, as I will further argue ahead.[11] This museum of knowledge and beauty is open to all humanity. It immerses the visitor in an atmosphere of peace and quiet, thereby stimulating the "tourist" to ponder and philosophise. Bylex wants the Royal Dome to prompt existential questions in the tourist. By assuming that such contemplation has the power to transform the tourist into a more reasonable and moral human being, Bylex also expresses his strong belief in the power of architecture as a universal instrument of political, social, and ethical emancipation. The Dome is the built form of a "Bildungsideal." By its very form, it influences, inspires, and reeducates people and illuminates the "black hole" of their conscience.

The Dome is the built form of a "Bildungsideal." By its very form, it influences, inspires, and reeducates people and illuminates the "black hole" of their conscience.

Simultaneously, Bylex uses architecture as a sort of totalitarian system of control (and here he echoes some of Docteur’s preoccupations with his tower). Bylex trusts that the design of the buildings and the perfection of the architectural form itself will convey his universalist message and his quest for Order, Perfection, and Enlightenment in an empathic manner. At the same time, authoritarian undercurrents are never far away. In this respect, Bylex’s oeuvre can easily be placed within the context of the post 9/11 era, which has defined the beginning of the twenty-first century and also forms the inevitable backdrop for Bylex’s own work. However naive the model of the Tourist City might seem, the hotels and offices, with their bulletproof "anti-kamikaze" glass windows and their security cameras, show a world where perfection and harmony are under constant threat and need to be safeguarded through the iron logic of defensive measures. To a certain extent, Bylex’s utopia might be said to have much in common with contemporary Singapore, for example, where the state runs the city as if it were a gated community.

Although the model of the Cité Touristique at first sight seems to be a rather crude translation of a modernist belief in the tabula rasa, that is, the possibility of leaving the existing city behind in order to start from scratch somewhere else, it is really a much more complex and hybrid combination. It brings together Christian Messianic idealism, Russian Constructivist ideas about social control and condensation, the profane (German) Bildungsideal, the modernist ambition to create a sanitised and "bright" architecture based on social equality and formal perfection, as well as on neoliberal ideals of the charter city (and as we will see, one is currently being built on Bylex’s doorstep).

Even though the Tourist City is an imaginary space outside the reality of any existing city, it still provides the urban subject with a potential for emancipation in the real world.

In a way, this puzzling mix is what Bylex offers us, but he adds his own specific twist to it. By exploring the language and metaphors that Bylex proposes and by immersing ourselves in the utopian dimension of his urban paradise, we, as "tourists", wanderers, and spectators, start to understand under what set of axioms the aesthetic discourse might become political. For Bylex, the utopian city still has a practical (and political) role to play as a major scene of and for change. Even though the Tourist City is an imaginary space outside the reality of any existing city, it still provides the urban subject with a potential for emancipation in the real world. No matter where you live or what your actual urban background is, the Tourist City’s social ideals may be expressed and achieved there. Subsequently, the model of the Tourist City is not meant to exist independently. The Tourist City is an analogous city; it is an exordium and introduction to the city. It is not conceived as a city to be lived in on a permanent basis, but it provides a model of the city as a refuge in order to reflect upon and counterbalance the imperfections of existing cities. In this, it is not an African escapist alternative to Disney World or other theme parks and resorts such as Sun City, but rather an honest attempt to deal with the shortcomings of the existing city as a universal form with universal urban problems. Bylex is not running away from the real world with its political and economic realities. For example, Bylex’s Tourist City does not start from the premise of Homo Ludens and the idea of an economy that has freed people from labour, as is the case of New Babylon, the urban utopia proposed by the Dutch artist Constant. Bylex’s Tourist City, on the contrary, is all about cities where architectures may be positively instrumental, even if these cities are encapsulated in and marked by the inequalities of a neoliberal capitalistic system. The tourist is not a pleasure seeker, but someone in search of inner growth. After a trip to the Tourist City, the tourist always has to return to the imperfections of the real city that he calls home. But now replenished with fresh inspiration, creativity, reflexive capacity, and imagination, the tourist is ready to brave the urban dystopia on the ground and bring the existing city, whether its Kinshasa, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Paris, or New York, back into balance again, thereby making it a better place for all.

Utopia 3: The New City

Spectral Kinshasa

Bylex’s utopian alternative Kinshasa strongly resonates with Docteur’s vision (and in many ways the latter’s tower forms the logical material realisation, the heterotopic translation of Bylex’s artistic cardboard and coloured paper utopia). Similarly, the tower and the vision of the Tourist City are in tune with a number of urban developments that claim to announce the birth of the new Kinshasa.

The promise of financial reward and material benefit that neoliberal capitalism holds out (a promise that is magnified in the discourses of religious entrepreneurs who run the numerous "miracle" churches that have sprung up all over Congo) also propels the pauperised population of Congo’s cities, towns, and villages into imagining the possibility of a future that magically converts their nightmares into utopian dreams. Whereas many Congolese are often not in the position to bridge the divide between today and tomorrow, let alone plan much further ahead in time (and therefore frequently seek to escape from the present by having recourse to nostalgia for a reinvented colonial or precolonial golden era), the teleologies of today’s global neoliberal frameworks address and convert the otherwise uncertain future in strongly utopian terms, turning today’s hardships and disillusions into the possibility of hope and "change" in the process. This is the attraction and strength of visions of the future that private investors, real estate companies, and government alike hold up to the urban residents of Congo. Almost every main street of Kinshasa, and other major Congolese cities such as Lubumbashi, is lined with huge billboards that either promise new gleaming apartments, condominiums, and entire new towns for a middle class whose emergence still remains rather hypothetical, or else they announce the construction of new conference centres, shopping malls, five-star hotels, and skyscrapers with names such as "Modern Paradise,"[12] "Crown Tower," or "Riverview Towers." These advertisements proclaim the coming of a new and modern city and with it a "new standard of life for Kinshasa" (un nouveau niveau de vie à Kin, as one billboard has it), and, as such, they also offer a spectral and often spectacular vision of Congo’s reinsertion into the global oecumene, even though this remains highly speculative and very volatile. While some of these projects are actually being built or have been completed, many continue to exist merely as "ocular ground" (McCarthy 2002, 542), almost as if the image in itself was sufficient materialisation of the dream. Simultaneously, the same image constantly reveals the tensions and disjunctures between these mirages of the new city and the histories and temporalities of the lives currently lived in Kinshasa by most people. In February 2010, for example, I was struck by two adjacent billboards on one of Kinshasa’s main avenues. One presented a picture of a new shopping centre, complete with fountains and gardens, while a poster right next to it advertised a new brand of Aladdin lamp, still the most important device for many Kinois to help them light up their nights because large parts of the city are no longer or not yet, or then only at random moments, connected to the city’s failing electricity grid.

The Modern Titanic

In the sustained politics of "visibility" that the Congolese government brands as its "revolution of modernity," many advertisements that have popped up since the early 2010s sport a portrait of President Kabila alongside the declaration that Congo will soon become "the mirror of Africa" again. In other words, Kinshasa is again looking into the mirror of modernity to fashion itself, but this time the mirror no longer reflects the earlier versions of Belgian colonialist modernity. Instead, Kinshasa’s political elites are eager to capture the aura of Dubai and other hot spots of the new urban Global South.

Of all these billboards, the most striking appeared in 2010 near Ngobila Beach, Kinshasa’s main port, not very far from the spot where, in Conrad’s novella, "An Outpost of Progress," Kayerts and Carlier watched over "the fetish," the storehouse containing the capitalist spirit of civilization. However, Ngobila Beach is a sorry sight nowadays. It has become an industrial wasteland. The riverbank itself is hidden from view by semisunken boats that no longer offer possible lines of flight. Instead, the carcasses of these rust-eaten boats just lie there stranded, stuck in the mud and surrounded by floating carpets of water hyacinths. It is in this very same spot that a building company calling itself "Modern Construction” chose to erect a new conference centre. In 2010, it put up a huge billboard that also displayed a photo of a smiling Kabila. On his left and right, you could see a computer-generated picture showing the new international conference centre in the form of a giant cruiser, complete with a rooftop terrace and restaurant. Kabila seemed to be telling the Kinois that this new building, reminiscent of the boat-like architectural elements of the Forescom tower—the material emanation of the triumph of colonialist modernity—was offering the nation a new start and promised a prosperous voyage en route to a more global modernity. Even if, rather cynically, the project developers at the time had provided the building with the name "Modern Titanic,"[13] the image of the ship setting sail towards a new future for Kinshasa proved powerfully seductive. Although there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the odds against the Titanic not sinking remained overwhelming, and although many urban residents in Kinshasa knew that they would never gain access to this new future, this naval image inspired irresistible hopes of a better future and new and more advantageous ways to cruise through life and navigate the city. Even those who count themselves amongst the president’s political adversaries could not help but exclaim: "If only this were true," or "And what if it turned out to be real this time?" Although utopias usually remain locked within the realm of pure speculation and material impossibility, Kabila’s chantiers seemed to awaken new hopes and rekindle a dormant capacity to "believe" and to dream against all odds.

La Cité du Fleuve

Nowhere does the speculum of neoliberal global modernity conjure up the oneiric more spectacularly nor reveal its exclusionist logics more strongly than in the much debated Cité du Fleuve construction project, which, as the developer’s website states, "began as a dream in 2008." Contrary to many other projected new "cities" in and around Kinshasa,[14] Cité du Fleuve is currently underway although its infrastructure turns out to be far more banal, less spectacular, and on a much smaller scale than the advertisements and promotional videos promised. Cité du Fleuve is being built on land reclaimed from sandbanks and swamps in the Malebo Pool, a small distance from Port Baramoto, another one of the city’s sorry harbours, adjacent to Ngobila Beach. In its final phase, Cité du Fleuve will be 600 hectares in size, and include over 200 villas and 10,000 luxury apartments, 10,000 offices, a marina, schools, cinemas, restaurants, and conference rooms. It will be connected to the rest of Kinshasa by two bridges and a transit road. Self-sufficient in water and electricity supply, Cité du Fleuve aims to offer potential buyers a luxurious lifestyle and secure land titles. In this respect, the developer’s website states:

One of the many factors that make La Cité du Fleuve unique in Kinshasa is that no land titles have existed on this property before (as it will be built on reclaimed land, where until now there has been a swamp along the Congo River). When you buy land at La Cité du Fleuve, you can rest assured that there are no possible claims on your property.

According to the developers’ website, Cité du Fleuve will thus provide a “standard of living unparalleled in Kinshasa and will be a model for the rest of Africa"; it will be a haven of "modernity, sobriety, friendliness and the pleasure of living," "a white water lily," "a satellite floating on the riversides of the majestic Congo river" that will “showcase the new era of African economic development" and constitute Kinshasa’s major "tourist focal point." Parallels with the Bylex vision are obvious. Cité du Fleuve and the Tourist City share the same glossy, bright aesthetics and the same preoccupations with security and cleanliness. Moreover, neither Cité du Fleuve nor the Tourist City is, by any standard, a real and living city: they are tourist attractions, offering opportunities to break away from the real city. But whereas the raison d’être of Bylex’s Tourist City is premised on a return to the real urban world, Cité du Fleuve makes no such claim. On the contrary, it aims to keep the real city at bay. The utopian idea of a tabula rasa has always been at the heart of much modernist urban planning, but the materialisation of these modernist dreams has always involved an endeavour to include different social classes. In India, for example, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh was conceived of as a city where both rich and poor could belong, and its zoning plans envisioned a place for all. As a matter of fact, Jawaharlal Nehru commissioned this capital city not only to showcase the newly independent India’s modern, progressive stance but also to offer an alternative city model that reached beyond the strictures of class and caste (Kalia 1999). Similarly, Brasilia was an attempt to transform the class structure of Brazilian society, even though these principles became subverted in the process (cf. Holston 1989). Contrary to the original inclusive ideal of the modernist city, or to the universal humanism of Bylex, satellite cities that are currently being constructed or planned in Kinshasa and in many of Congo’s major urban areas seem to have given up on this ideal of a broader collectivity. Conceived as huge gated communities that are run by means of specific bylaws, the new segregationist cities for the emerging African middle class, the supposed beneficiaries of the new economic Afro-optimism, profoundly redefine the meaning of the current urbanscape.

Conceived as huge gated communities that are run by means of specific bylaws, the new segregationist cities for the emerging African middle class, the supposed beneficiaries of the new economic Afro-optimism, profoundly redefine the meaning of the current urbanscape.

The reality is that most people living in the city will never be able to set foot on the two islands.[15] If all goes according to plan, Cité du Fleuve will probably be accorded the administrative status of a new municipality and then be subject to its own special bylaws.

Operated as a huge gated community, Cité du Fleuve will inevitably redefine what is Kinshasa’s centre and edge. Consequently, it reflects many of the ideas behind concepts such as Stanford economist Paul Romer’s "charter city"; that is, a special urban reform zone that allows local governments, in partnership with global investors and other actors of "extrastatecraft" (Easterling 2014), to adopt new systems of rules and establish cities that are supposed to drive economic progress in the rest of the country. At the same time, Cité du Fleuve also replicates the segregationist model of Ville and Cité that proved so highly effective during the Belgian colonial period. It is clear that the islands will become, at least in the minds of their makers, the new Ville while the rest of Kinshasa, with its 10 million inhabitants, will be redefined as its periphery. In this way the new city map will redraw the geographies of inclusion and exclusion in radical ways, and relegate—conceptually if not materially—its current residents to the city edges.

Undoubtedly, this reurbanisation process regularises Kinshasa and ends its "exceptionalism" in the sense that Kinshasa’s dynamics of urban growth has now started to resemble that of other world cities in the Global South such as Dubai, Mumbai, Rio, and the urban conglomerations of southern China. Simultaneously, however, Kinshasa joins the shadow side of that global process of urbanisation, a side that reveals itself in the increasing favela-isation and more difficult access and right to the city for many of its current inhabitants. Here, the spectral dimension of the marvellous inevitably merges with the more dismal dimensions of violence and terror, expressed through the processes of repression, “sanitation," expulsion, and forced relocation that have always been an integral part of the politics of urbanisation in this part of Central Africa. This nightmarish aspect is repeated in these new spectral topographies and forms the curtain, the tinfoil backing of the mirror that increasingly also attends the process of urbanisation worldwide (cf. Sassen 2014).

Undoubtedly, this reurbanisation process regularises Kinshasa and ends its "exceptionalism" in the sense that Kinshasa’s dynamics of urban growth has now started to resemble that of other world cities…simultaneously, however, Kinshasa joins the shadow side of that global process of urbanisation, a side that reveals itself in the increasing favela-isation and more difficult access and right to the city for many of its current inhabitants. 

In spite of this, projects such as Cité du Fleuve have generated remarkably little conflict. When I started to follow the construction of the first island in 2008, I expected major clashes between the government, the developers, and the inhabitants of the Malebo Pool’s southern riverbank, including a number of fishermen, who had to or will have to make way for this project. Two of the fishermen’s villages in the marshlands of the Pool have already been removed to make room for the expanding Cité du Fleuve islands. A number of inhabitants in the Kingabwa neighbourhood have undergone a similar fate. Their shacks were demolished to make way for the construction of the access and transit road currently connecting Cité du Fleuve to the city. Yet their eviction only generated short-lived clashes with developers and the authorities, and at no point did these evictions engender more sustained collective action than people’s initial anger.[16] Protest quickly came to a halt when (small) financial compensations were made to (some of) the evicted inhabitants of the riverbank shacks. In the rare cases where individuals continued to put up a fight, it was not so much to protest against their removal but to demand a higher compensation rate.[17]

In the meantime, hundreds of farmers currently cultivating land in the riparian area are in danger of being evicted from their fields as well, but so far they have shown little or no solidarity with those already evacuated. Here as well, dissent largely remains "atomised" (Harms 2012). Similar processes of eviction have equally failed to generate a strong organised collective resistance elsewhere in the country.

Clearly one reason for this lack of organised collective (political) protest is already to be found in the absence of or in the difficulty to construct a formally constituted public realm, as previously illustrated. Another and perhaps equally important reason certainly has to do with the fact that Kinshasa’s residents and their leaders not only share the same longing for a better future city, but they also remarkably often share the same dream of what that city should look like. When I asked the farmers in danger of eviction whether they were aware of what awaited them, they said: "Yes, we’ll be the victims, but even so, it will be beautiful, it makes one dream!" (C’est beau quand-même, ça fait rêver!). Notions of beauty, as Harms remarks in relation to similar emerging urban zones in Saigon, reproduce rather than challenge the core ideals that legitimise such exclusive building projects despite their counterhegemonic potential (Harms 2012). In other words, people who will not be granted access to the new "Mirror of Africa" often revel just as much as the ruling elites in this dream of the modern city and the forceful promise made by this "aesthetics of arrival" (Kaur and Hansen 2015), even though the dream of a new future for the city simultaneously generates very tangible forms of ever more pronounced segregation and of new topographies of inclusion and exclusion, of propinquity and distance, of haves and have nots. In spite of this, the expectations of both groups are remarkably similar and seem to reflect a far more widespread yearning for the right of inclusion in a global society.

A site such as Cité du Fleuve is not a utopia in the strict sense of the word. It is something else. Unlike utopian visionary dreams, it does not generate or offer hope. Instead, it offers Kinshasa a new heterotopia, a novel space that escapes from the real order of things…

Subsequently, a site such as Cité du Fleuve is not a utopia in the strict sense of the word. It is something else. Unlike utopian visionary dreams, it does not generate or offer hope. Instead, it offers Kinshasa a new heterotopia, a novel space that escapes from the real order of things, from its standard forms of classification and accumulation, if only because it conjures up the marvellous through an appeal to the imagination and the aesthetics of the oneiric that is apparently irresistible. This new heterotopology for Kinshasa is generated in the specular qualities of the image of the new city and in the very process of mirroring that is most strongly realised in urban spaces such as Cité du Fleuve, where the interplay between real and unreal, or visible and invisible, is most fully played out (cf. De Boeck and Plissart 2004). It is this that has allowed Kinois to overcome, even if only for a moment, the fragmentedness and the contradictions and ruptures that have scarred the face of the city’s existence for so long now.

In the end, this is also why it seems almost not to matter whether the new city is physically built or not. In any case, it remains unclear whether the government itself cares or believes that the new polis will emerge in any lasting way. The Kinois are not easily fooled either: they know very well from past experiences not to trust or believe in official discourses or outcomes of government policies. For all they know, the new city might well prove to be as chimerical and volatile as the speculative capital and the hedge and vulture funds that will supposedly finance and build it. There is something indeed "magical" about the nontransparent, speculative, and volatile nature of these forms of capital production, profit-making, and wealth accumulation. The sources of that wealth are never revealed and remain very opaque, "mystique," and unpredictable, and therefore they are easily explained in terms of the cultural discourses and practices of the occult that people continue to use to "capture" (Lingala: -zwa) extravert sources of material well-being[18] as well as to understand their own predicament and exorcise the nightmarish abyss of material and spiritual insecurity that constantly opens up in their everyday life. In fact, hedge funds, money market funds, and other investment vehicles that constitute the dark money of the global “shadow banking system" (SBS) seem to be defined as much by uncertainty as the everyday lives of the Congolese. Even though this shadowy world of global finance is ideologically driven by modernist teleologies that have become so impossible in daily life, it is attracted to cities such as Kinshasa precisely because of that genomic or systemic similitude that illustrates that the unpredictable is not only located in the figure of "the African city" but also in the global scape. It is in this spatial vector that local actors and the forces acting upon them meet and jointly generate the same velocities and accelerations while sharing the same aspirations and futurities.

In the end, these new cities short-circuit any real tangible roadmaps for the construction of a better urban future in spite of their capacity to engender dreams about a future that emerges as a kind of anticipation inscribed in the present.

In summary, a project such as Cité du Fleuve, which is "emerging from nowhere" (surgissant du néant), as a government propaganda magazine put it (Mobateli 2014), reveals the occult qualities of volatility and unpredictability that speculative capital and city share and because of which they are mutually attracted to one another. In a way, the occult thereby constitutes one of the city’s main assets and seems to generate its main financial opportunities. That the new city will ever materialise is unpredictable and uncertain in the eyes of many Kinois. The invisible and speculative nature of the crisis capitalism that finances these new urban projects, as well as the fact that this financial capital in a place such as Kinshasa defines itself as the fetish that Conrad already understood it to be, further contribute to these uncertainties. The 2008 global banking crisis and the subsequent 2012–2013 Cypriot financial crisis only heightened this feeling of uncertainty. Due to the global stock market crisis, many satellite city projects were cancelled or postponed. In this way, Lubumbashi’s Kiswishi City project was postponed until further notice. This large new city project was originally planned by Renaissance, a Russian investment company that has since shapeshifted into various other identities with different names.[19] Similarly, in the case of Cité du Fleuve, construction was considerably slowed down for a while because of cash flow problems. The project was supposed to be completed within eight years, a time span that is likely to be expanded much further into the future. In addition, there is a huge difference between the spectacular images used to promote the idea of this new city and its actual materialisation. In reality, rather than making Kinshasa a new Doha or Dubai, Cité du Fleuve amounts to nothing more than banal suburban housing infrastructure. Somewhere between dream and reality, prices keep going up in all kinds of mysterious ways indeed.

In the end, these new cities short-circuit any real tangible roadmaps for the construction of a better urban future in spite of their capacity to engender dreams about a future that emerges as a kind of anticipation inscribed in the present (de Abreu 2013; Guyer 2007; Nielsen 2011). In the face of this spectral politics of images on billboards and advertisements in which the hyperreal city seems to appear out of nothing and might well disappear again into nothing, the only place where the city can be inhabited, and where it is constantly being built, is the Hole, the living city that projects such as Cité du Fleuve so desperately try to keep at bay.


  1. Hôpital du Cinquantenaire: In 1954, the Belgian colonial authorities started the construction of a prestigious hospital building that was, however, never finished. Quickly taken over and squatted by Kinshasa’s inhabitants, it remained a "blight" on the urban landscape for the next fifty years. The ruins of the hospital building were rehabilitated as part of the "Cinq Chantiers" programme, and the totally renewed hospital was inaugurated by Kabila on March 22, 2014. Operated by the Indian group Padiyath Health Care, the new hospital turns out to be rather unpopular with Kinshasa’s inhabitants, mainly because the medical services it offers are considered far too expensive, with medical fees way beyond what the average Kinois can afford.
  2. Several miniature replicas of the pyramids of Gizeh are displayed on Docteur’s desk.
  3. Also see De Boeck and Plissart (2004, 29) for a photo of the Forescom tower.
  4. The Lingala verb, zenga, means to cut, to amputate.
  5. Photographs of the Kindele holes were taken by SADI photographer Yves Sambu and shown as part of the exhibition "Tozokende Wapi? Tokokende Wapi?" at Halle de la Gombe, the French Cultural Center of Kinshasa, in 2009.
  6. One may refer here to the massive lootings that swept across the city and the country in the early 1990s (cf. Devisch 1998).
  7. On the notion of mimesis in the context of Kinshasa, also see De Boeck and Plissart (2004, 20).
  8. On Kingelez Phantom City, see De Boeck and Plissart (2004, 250–1). Also see Magnin (2003). On the Tourist City by Bylex, see De Boeck and Van Synghel (2008) and Van Synghel and De Boeck (2013). On Bylex more generally, see Articlaut (2003) and Pivin and Martin Saint Leon (2012).
  9. This and all the following fragments in which Bylex speaks are excerpted from a series of long conversations that Koen Van Synghel and I had with Bylex in Kinshasa in September 2006. Part of these conversations were incorporated in a video film that came out with the book The World According to Bylex (De Boeck and Van Synghel 2008).
  10. The Rosicrucian Order, which is also known as AMORC (from the Latin Antiquus Mysticusque Ordo RosaeCrucis), is a worldwide brotherhood dedicated to the study of the "elusive mysteries of life and the universe." Rosicrucianism was well established in Congo, especially during the Mobutu years, and even today it continues to exert its influence, primarily among politicians, civil servants, soldiers, and businessmen (see Lambertz 2015, 95ff).
  11. The form in which Bylex imagines this is reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s plans for the Mundaneum. Uncharacteristically, Le Corbusier designed a symbolically charged building in the form of a Ziggurat for Otlet’s World City. But in contrast to the ancient Assyrian temple typology, which is related to the pyramids (and replayed in Docteur’s tower), the form Bylex adopted for his Royal Dome borrows the visual language of later Christian churches built according to a central plan. I thank Koen Van Synghel for bringing Otlet to my attention.
  12. Significantly, the people wandering about in the 3D poster image of this building were not Congolese but Asian.
  13. In the meantime, this building is nearing completion and the construction company has changed its name. Today, the Modern Titanic goes by the more neutral name of the Congo Trade Centre.
  14. These include Cité Joseph Kabila Kin-Oasis that aims to integrate 182 apartments and 33 villas in the municipality of Bandalungwa, Cité du Millennium (Millennium City) in Mitendi and Cité de l’Espoir (City of Hope) in Mikondo.
  15. According to Robert Choudury, the manager of the Cité du Fleuve, most of his clients are Congolese. My own investigations reveal that the majority of people who have acquired real estate in the Cité du Fleuve are either Congolese who live abroad or politicians, such as government ministers, members of parliament, and other members of the political elite, including the president and people belonging to the inner circle of power. Since the banking sector in Congo is relatively recent and not financially solid, it is ill-adapted to the newly emerging housing market. Until now, it has proven to be almost impossible for ordinary citizens to obtain a bank loan, and in the absence of an appropriate banking system, the acquisition of an apartment or house usually has to be paid for in cash. In contrast, certain categories of government officials and politicians have less of a problem to obtain bank loans because these are guaranteed by the Congolese state.
  16. Cf. Thomas Fessy, Congo River luxury condos cause Kinshasa controversy, BBC News, Kinshasa, 20 August 2011.
  17. When clashes about land occur, they often involve a different set of actors.
  18. Here I use the notion of "extraversion" in Bayart’s sense as the local mobilisation of resources derived from what is often a very unequal relationship with the external global environment (Bayart 2000).
  19. Today Renaissance is probably better known as Rendeavour. It is the initiator of several other new city projects elsewhere in Africa, including Tatu City near Nairobi, Appolonia near Accra, and King City in Takoradi, Ghana. Of these three, only the King City project seems to move on, although at a much slower pace than announced. On Tatu see Van Den Broeck (2017). On King City see Vanoppen (forthcoming).


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This paper is an early version of a chapter in Suturing the City: Living Together in Congo’s Urban Worlds, by Filip De Boeck, and illustrated by Sammy Baloji (London: Autograph ABP, 2016).  Included by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.