Building for "l'authenticité:" Architect Eugène Palumbo in Mobutu's Congo

Kim De Raedt 1, Johan Lagae2
1Ghent University, Gent, Belgium, 2Ghent University, Gent, Belgium

In 1966, Mobutu Sese Seko, who had just seized power in the Congo, the former Belgian colony that had gained its independence in 1960, proclaimed his first ideas on what was to become in the early seventies the political doctrine known as the "Recours à l'authenticité". Aimed at erasing all remaining traces of Belgian colonialism, this doctrine manifested itself via the dismantlement of colonial monuments and the changing of colonial names (Congo being renamed "Zaïre"), the introduction of a new national flag, anthem and outfit, the so-called abacost (à bas la costume), as well as the "return" to -albeit "invented"- traditional values, customs and food. This doctrine of "authenticité" also found its expression in a new form of state culture, with Congolese artists receiving large public commissions and being promoted via (inter)national, state sponsored exhibitions.


This paper questions to what extent the architecture of the young state responded to this doctrine. Given the fact that training for Congolese architects only started in 1958, Mobutu had to rely on the expertise of foreign designers, with a large number of commissions being granted to French architects and urban planners. Here, we will focus on Eugène Palumbo (1925-2008), an Italian architect who arrived in the Congo already in the 1950s, worked temporarily for the UNESCO after Congo gained its independence and was to associate in the late 1960s with the first Congolese architect of a certain reputation, Fernand Tala N'Gai. Palumbo's work, that comprises a large number of official projects as well as projects for Congo's new elite, offers a telling case to examine to what extent the new architecture of Congo stayed in tune with contemporary strands in modern architecture of the late 1960s and 1970s, while simultaneously seeking to embody the "authentic" culture of this post-independence African nation.