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Resisting Material Binaries: Unpacking persisting dichotomies of building materials in Central Africa

Résister au binarisme matériel : critique des dichotomies persistantes des matériaux de construction en Afrique centrale
Robby Fivez

Résumés

Le discours actuel sur l’architecture africaine est fortement influencé par le design social, une pratique pour laquelle l’architecture joue un rôle important dans la résolution de questions et de problèmes sociétaux complexes. L'utilisation de matériaux de construction « alternatifs », par opposition aux matériaux industriels tels que le béton ou l’acier, occupe une place centrale dans ce discours. Cependant, comme le montre cet article, cette approche binaire des matériaux de construction est fortement influencée par la logique coloniale et postcoloniale. Pour comprendre cette continuité, cet article retrace certaines dépendances visibles en Afrique centrale depuis la période coloniale et jusqu’à aujourd’hui. Dans la première section, les préférences matérielles d’une agence d'architecture belge travaillant au Rwanda en 2012 sont corrélées aux réflexions binaires des agences d’architecture opérant dans cette région dans les années 1970 et 1980. La deuxième section explique comment la forte distinction entre les matériaux dits « locaux » et « modernes » constitue un vestige de la période coloniale. Grâce à une analyse approfondie des valorisations variables du ciment et de la chaux brûlée en Afrique centrale, l'article vise à faire en sorte que ces catégories coloniales paraissent moins évidentes. S'appuyant sur les études post-coloniales des sciences et technologies (STS), la conclusion propose une alternative à la pensée binaire — un choix conscient des matériaux qui tente de comprendre les matériaux de construction comme des processus situés —, permettant de dépasser les critères industriels par lesquels nous évaluons actuellement nos matériaux de construction.

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  • 1  Pedro Guedes, “Learning from the ‘Other’: Early Modern Emulation and Trans-Imperial Exchange of ‘N (...)
  • 2  “L’Habitation du noir,” La Belgique Coloniale, 5, 1896, p. 52.
  • 3  “L’Habitation européenne I,” Le Congo Illustré, 2/23, 1893, p. 178.

1In contrast to colonial regions like British India or the Dutch East-Indies, the colonizers of the Belgian Congo—or of the Congo Free State as it was first known—were little appreciative of the construction techniques and building materials that existed in Central Africa. Whereas the British, for instance, praised the Indian well foundations or waterproof chunam mortars1, the Belgian colonial discourse mainly framed Congolese building materials as “primitive,”2 sometimes even calling them “stinking.”3 Though the racist undertone was somewhat cloaked in later years, this view on local building materials became institutionalized when the seemingly scientific distinction between matériaux durables and matériaux non-durables was integrated into building laws and became part of everyday colonial vocabulary. In this article, I will discuss how this binary colonial categorization of building materials—between “local” and “modern”—lives on in current-day architectural practices operating in Africa. Although over time the preference completely shifted from “modern” to “local” materials, a more thorough questioning of the binary categorization itself is appropriate.

  • 4  Following the consensus in the field of postcolonial theory, I use post-colonial (with hyphen) to (...)
  • 5  Together with Katie Lloyd-Thomas and Simon De Nys-Ketels, I organized a thematic session on materi (...)

2To understand this continuity, I will trace the path dependencies from the colonial period to the present. In the first section, I discuss the approach to materials within social design, a practice that currently dominates Western discourse on architecture in Africa. Starting from the material considerations of a Belgian architecture firm working in Rwanda in 2012, I try to show how the contemporary distinction between “sustainable” and “unsustainable”—highly present in social design—can be linked to earlier binary interpretations of the immediate post-colonial period. The present-day celebration of practices from the 1970s and 1980s—also overtly present in social design—is illustrative of this continuity. In the second part, drawing on my research into the Congolese history of burnt lime and cement production, I will discuss how these post-colonial dichotomies actually perpetuate colonial logic.4 Through an analysis of the shifting valuations of cement and burnt lime in the late colonial and early post-colonial period, I disclose how such seemingly scientific material characteristics like “durable” or “appropriate” were culturally constructed. Although such an argument could be made in any context, the completely shifting positions of lime and cement in the Western discourse on building in Africa, along with the cultural, political and economic motivations behind them, make this a particularly relevant case study to discuss these machinations.5 Studying these shifts in value judgment not only reveals the colonial roots of these material dichotomies, but also aims to make these categorizations feel less natural.

  • 6  For a good entry into postcolonial STS, see: Sandra Harding, “Beyond Postcolonial Theory: Two Unde (...)

3In the conclusion, I will propose a possible alternative to such material dichotomies. Drawing on postcolonial science and technology studies (STS), I argue that building materials should be interpreted as locally and historically situated processes.6 I believe that contemporary architecture can gain from such an interpretation. Only by carefully attempting to understand the multitude of human and non-human actants involved in the construction of our buildings, and ultimately in the production of the materials with which we build, can we begin to assess the impact of our architectural production. Such a slow explosion allows for more conscious material choices that go beyond the denominators by which we value our building materials today. The widespread use of terms like durable, sustainable or ecological—in the face of ecological crises, almost every building material on the planet came to be depicted in such a way—points to the urgency of finding new ways of evaluating building materials that do not simply accept the unscrupulous industry-driven parameters we are left with.

Persisting material binaries: the material imposition of social design

4Venice, Italy, 2018.
In 2018, the Belgian architecture firm, BC Architects, was invited to the Venice Architecture Biennial. Their exhibition, entitled The Act of Building, featured a series of building tools that were used on the construction sites and training grounds of the firm. The first object in the series was a block press, used in their very first project: the Muyinga library, built in Burundi in 2012. Due to its prominent position—both in the exhibition and in the accompanying catalogue—the press seemed to be the material embodiment of the founding myth of their practice.

5Montréal, Canada, 2019.
Only a year later, the Canadian Center for Architecture—arguably one of the most important international architecture institutes—invited a partner of BC, the Belgian architect Laurens Bekemans, to give a lecture as part of the series The Invisible Friend, which focused on unexpected agencies within architectural firms. In his talk, Bekemans recalled the adventurous story of how three Belgian friends traveled to Rwanda to build a library in the town of Muyinga. The library was the first achievement of the now internationally acclaimed firm. The “invisible friend” to whom Bekemans paid homage was foreman Salvator. In the talk, Bekemans highlights how Salvator helped them source local materials for the construction of the library. Even though his enthusiasm for these local materials—such as sisal or bricks—is clear, some remarks during the lecture also reveal a more uneasy position towards them:

  • 7  Laurens Bekemans, My Invisible Friend. Laurens Bekemans on “BC Architects & Studies” and a foreman(...)

We were feeling that, okay, we can find earth—but then what? And we wanted to upgrade it, we couldn’t just make adobe. [...] They connected it very often to the huts they had, and that we had to avoid. So, we went back to the university for a year, CRAterre, which is an earth-architecture school in Lyon.7

6BC ended up analyzing earth samples from Muyinga in French laboratories, indexing and cataloguing them according to their granulometric properties, and finally creating a “sustainable” building material: a compressed earth block. To produce their blocks on site, so Bekemans stated, they reconditioned a piece of machinery that had been lying around, unused, since the 1980s.

7The two moments above are testimony to how a young Brussels-based architecture firm rose to international fame on the Western architectural scene. Using mainly “alternative” building materials, they are celebrated for their ecological approach to architecture. Numerous student interns, eager for such ecological alternatives to the extractive practices of today’s construction industry, have joined their construction sites for training, and several founding members of the firm currently teach these building techniques in architectural schools in Belgium and abroad. In this article, I do not wish to detract from the obvious merits of BC’s practices. However, the exhibition in Venice and the lecture in Montréal did spark critical reflections about the company’s material considerations in their early work. Though at risk of being mistaken for an armchair critic, it seemed important to formulate these critical remarks. Not only because BC’s practice is so influential for many young Western European architects and architecture students, but rather—and more importantly—because their material approach is very common among many Western architecture offices or student programs operating in African settings.

  • 8  In the book Modern Architecture in Africa, Antoni Folkers writes from an insider’s perspective abo (...)
  • 9  Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia (...)
  • 10  Ibid.

8First, the remark during the lecture that they could not “just make adobe,” betrays a limited belief in the so-called traditional materials: a “simple” adobe structure was not deemed good enough. The will to “upgrade” local materials can easily be traced back to the post-colonial period, when new international investment in post-independent sub-Saharan Africa led to the proliferation of all kinds of building research stations.8 However, these stations were not aimed at collecting and disseminating local construction materials and techniques, but rather at “improving” them through all sorts of scientific experiments. Such an approach—that is, incorporating local knowledge into a Western scientific epistemology—subscribes to “the widely accepted idea that there is something essential and unified called modern science which, like modernity itself, originated in West Europe and subsequently spread to the rest of the world.”9 The knowledge and practices of “others,” in this view, are often only the “hybrid or pale copies of the former, valid only locally, in contrast to the supposed universality of the original—a mere travesty of Western knowledges.”10 The importance of CRAterre—one such research institute established in 1979 and still operational today—for the construction of the Muyinga library is indicative of the continuity of this approach.

  • 11  Laurens Bekemans, My Invisible Friend, op. cit.
  • 12  BC Architects & Studies and Pauline Lefebvre, The Act of Building, Antwerp, Flanders Architecture (...)
  • 13  Ibid.
  • 14  BC Architects, “Library of Muyinga,” C-File, [online] [https://cfileonline.org/architecture-bc-arc (...)

9Second, it is remarkable how these three architects—obviously with the best of intentions—still so easily revert to imposing their own material choices. After all, it is clear from the lecture that the locals were not too keen on an adobe library, as they “connected it [adobe] very often to the huts they had.”11 The catalogue also tells how the three friends had to convince the commissioner, the archbishop of Muyinga, to build the library in adobe, since he considered it as “the material of the poor.”12 Only after showing him pictures of the Testaram press did his opinion shift, as the material “gained a mechanical—even industrial—allure.”13 Not unlike during the Belgian colonial rule over Rwanda, the Belgian “experts” imposed the materials to be used in the construction of the library. Despite the problematic power inequalities, the architects never seem to question their own choice when confronted with these local rejections. They justified the use of adobe because the material was available on-site and—allegedly—because of “the traditional techniques they had investigated during their field trip in the area.” The cruciality of readily available on-site materials remains incoherent, given the clear availability of means of transport. Moreover, since the local techniques Bekemans highlighted in his lecture were clay brick kilns scattered throughout the area, constructing with adobe does not appear the most obvious choice. Finally, in another text, the architects also acknowledged that cement was sold in a local shop.14 Given the ubiquity of dépôts ciments in Burundi, cement’s immediate rejection as a suitable local material is little grounded. The fact that the library’s adobe brick columns eventually had to be reinforced with a concrete core to give them sufficient load-bearing capacity—turning the adobe brick into a decorative permanent formwork—only adds to the irony.

  • 15  BC Architects & Studies and Pauline Lefebvre, The Act of Building, op. cit.

10Both the will to “upgrade” and impose local materials perpetuate colonial logic, which can be seen most directly in the block press on display in Venice. From the exhibition catalogue, we learn that the Terstaram press was a Belgian invention, from the engineer Fernand Platbrood. Several of these presses were apparently donated to different dioceses in Burundi as part of a “development aid” scheme in the 1980s (Fig. 1). “Eager to continue—or revive—this ingenious technique,” BC went to search for such a Terstaram press in Burundi.15 When, at last, they found two presses in a local brick factory, the factory refused to give them to the three Belgian friends. With a disappointment verging on indignation, BC writes:

  • 16  Ibid.

Although the factory was [...] using the machine only as a mould [instead of as a press] they refused to allow BC to use the press to build the library in Muyinga.16

  • 17  Ibid.

11“Following intense negotiations,” however, the Gitega brick factory eventually agreed to rent out their block press for two months.17 Again, it is important to formulate a critical remark on the architects’ insistence on the material choice: given the presence of a thriving local brick industry, the choice for making pressed earth blocks on site introduced a remarkable foreign competition. Although limited in time and scale—if the library did not become the example it set out to be—this choice had already literally disrupted the production process of at least one of these brick manufacturers. Moreover, “reviving” this technique from the 1980s not only disrupts current markets, but also continues the constructive practices of those periods, reinforcing colonial logic rather than truly introducing a postcolonial mindset (Fig. 2), as we will see in the next section. In this sense, it is significant that had the architects looked further, they might have even found a brick press from the 1950s, as this technology indeed has an even longer colonial history. During the Belgian colonial occupation of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, this so-called low-skill, self-help technology of the adobe block press was promoted as an ideal solution to the African housing crisis of the 1950s. Whereas pisé construction had always been discussed in pejorative terms by Belgian colonial officials, the goal of this machine was to make acceptable this earth-based material. Though the block press did not fully catch on during colonial times, it is not hard to see how colonial ideas about the need to improve African materials, or racist ideas about the competency levels of African labor, informed these building materials and techniques of the 1970s and 1980s—mainly marketed for requiring little to no “skill” (Fig. 3).

Figure 1. Rehabilitated Terstaram Press, used in the construction of the hospital of Bawa (DRC)

Figure 1. Rehabilitated Terstaram Press, used in the construction of the hospital of Bawa (DRC)

The photograph suggests that these Terstaram presses were also shipped to the DRC in similar 1980s development aid schemes. The construction of this particular hospital was funded by the Belgian development aid agency Memisa.

© Memisa

Figure 2. Cover of a 1986 publication on Soil Block Presses, published by the German Appropriate Technology Exchange

Figure 2. Cover of a 1986 publication on Soil Block Presses, published by the German Appropriate Technology Exchange

© Kiran Mukerji, Soil Block Presses, German Appropriate Technology Exchange, 1986.

Figure 3. Adobe block press advertising

Figure 3. Adobe block press advertising

Image: “Partout: Bâtir est un plaisir avec le TASSPARCHOC à LEVIER,” 1959.
© Onatra Archives, Kinshasa.

  • 18  Social design is a form of activist architecture that hopes to engage meaningfully with impoverish (...)
  • 19  For a critical approach to the Makoko school, see: Allyn Gaestel, “Things Fall Apart”, The Atavist (...)

12The reason for singling out BC—apart from their important position within the Belgian architectural landscape­—is mainly because they have since ventured into more interesting directions. The project in Burundi is quite distant from their current work, and this (short) temporal distance therefore allows me to use this example as a historical case study. However, it should be clear that this case, although in the past for BC, is still exemplary of the way in which materials are approached in many social design practices that have taken the architectural world by storm. In the social design movement,18 such a binary view of so-called local materials being “good,” and “modern” materials being “bad” is widespread. A textbook example would be the Makoko floating school, designed by Kunlé Adeyemi.19 Although the architect took pride in his use of local materials, its collapse in 2016, just three years after its realization, is telling. Considering these events and the high construction cost of the building, one might wonder whether another material—perhaps even concrete given that Lagos is the capital of one of the world’s largest cement companies, Dangote Cement—would not have been a more conscious choice.

  • 20  BC Architects & Studies and Pauline Lefebvre, The Act of Building, op. cit.
  • 21  For a discussion of the figure of the ‘expert’ in non-European settings see: Johan Lagae, “Editori (...)

13However, we can also question the extent to which a postcolonial critique is still within the scope of these architectural practices, often characterized by a very hands-on approach. BC’s homage to “an older generation of architects and engineers active in the 1970s [who] were eager to transmit their knowledge to a younger group of designers” betrays their admiration for these historical actors as well as a rather naive belief in their writings.20 This admiration would probably have been tempered if these new research stations had been understood—as I will try to argue in the next section—as direct relics of the colonial era. The engineers and architects that populated them were often colonial “experts” who continued their careers after independence in such post-colonial research stations, perpetuating colonial ideas about building materials in these “new” settings—particularly the dichotomy between modern and local.21 Finding explicit precedents and references in research stations such as CRAterre, it is therefore not surprising that these material approaches are so uncritically replicated today. Without a more thorough decolonial critique and historicization of these practices, underlying ideas of Western superiority continue to survive in contemporary architectural practice.

  • 22  For recent books celebrating “vernacular” building materials and connecting them to the notion of (...)
  • 23  Nina Gribat and Sandra Meireis, “A Critique of the New ‘Social Architecture’ Debate. Moving Beyond (...)
  • 24  Mariam Kamara, “Othering Africa: The Trouble with ‘African Architecture’,” in Philipp Meuser and A (...)
  • 25  Ola Uduku, “Affording Authenticity: thoughts on African Architecture,” in ibid.
  • 26  Naigzy Gebremedhin, “Vernacular Sustainability: Examples from Ethiopia and Eritrea,” in ibid.

14Although these material dichotomies clearly live on in several contemporary architectural practices, critical voices are now challenging this position.22 In their Critique of the New “Social Architecture” Debate, Nina Gribat and Sandra Meireis synthesize some of these critical voices, addressing, for example, how social design’s universal aesthetic preferences and its “universal approach to design and architecture as well as context” are at odds with its “emphasizing [of] the local and social.”23 In the recently published Architectural Guide of Sub-Saharan Africa, several authors have further criticized the supposed “authentically African look,”24 calling on architects “to engage with more than just the aesthetic materiality of architecture,”25 or unsettling binary material thinking through nuanced reflections on materials that resist easy categorization, like corrugated iron sheets.26

15Perhaps the most vehement challenge of these binary categories, however, can be found in the recent work of architect and architectural theorist Gabriel Arboleda. In his incisive book, Sustainability and Privilege, Arboleda builds on extensive field work—investigating several iconic examples of social design—to formulate a comprehensive critique of this architectural approach. One of the most important conclusions, in my opinion, relates to the simplistic dichotomy between “good” and “bad” materials:

  • 27  Gabriel Arboleda, Sustainability and Privilege: A Critique of Social Design Practice, Charlottesvi (...)

[Several] problematic dichotomies [are] widely popular in social design [such as] the simple dichotomy of good/bad, which is in turn connected to the also popular dichotomy of sustainable/unsustainable.27

16The fact that he explicitly criticizes the above-mentioned Makoko floating school—even as it remains celebrated on several pages of the Architectural Guide—is telling for the novelty of this new critical approach to the social design paradigm.

  • 28  Vandana Baweja, “Sustainability and the Architectural History Survey,” Enquiry. The ARCC Journal f (...)

17Since, according to Vandana Baweja, “architectural history has yet to produce a significant body of work in response to the environmental discourses that are currently dominated by sustainability,”28 I believe that formulating a critique of the social design discourse from history can be important. This belief is shared by the architectural historian Johan Lagae, who writes in one of the seminal pieces in the Architectural Guide:

  • 29  Johan Lagae, “History Matters: Authenticity and Cultural Guardianship,” in Philipp Meuser and Adil (...)

I have argued here that historical research might in fact have another role to play. Examinations of the origins, contexts, and moments of success and failure of past practices of ‘building social’ and ‘building sustainable,’ such as those of Hassan Fathy, [...] force us to ask difficult and unsettling questions on the modalities of and power structures underlying current tendencies and practices. Rather than constructing genealogies, historical scholarship should first help us avoid some of the naivety that pervades part of the current discourse in on architecture in Africa.29

18I believe that raising some of these questions from my position as a construction historian, focused on the role of building materials in the Belgian colonization of Central-Africa, can be valuable—despite the obvious shortcomings of this position. In the next part, building on my research into the history of concrete and cement in the Belgian Congo, I therefore trace how these material dichotomies acquired their significance in colonial times. By juxtaposing the colonial and post-colonial perception of lime and cement, I reveal how the colonial categorization of materials as “good” or “bad” completely reversed over time. This historical case first aims to reveal the colonial legacy behind the binary categorization of building materials—present today in the hegemonic use of the “sustainable” moniker— and second, to make these categories feel less natural by showing their historical fluidity.

Shifting material binaries: a perception history of cement and burnt lime

  • 30  Egide-Jean Devroey and Eudore De Backer, La Réglementation sur les constructions au Congo belge, B (...)
  • 31  Octave Louwers, Charles Kuck, and Léon Pétillon, Codes et lois du Congo belge, Brussels, M. Weisse (...)
  • 32  This law can be connected to an earlier urban planning law that aimed to segregate Africans from E (...)
  • 33  Here, “off-the-record,” refers to the absence of the use of local materials in the official discou (...)

19Throughout the Belgian occupation of the Congo, building regulations were scarce. Although there was a serious attempt to write an official building code in 1942—as the lack of rules was leading to outright dangerous situations—this code never gained legal status.30 Nevertheless, in 1913 there was an important urban planning law that regulated the use of building materials in the circonscriptions urbaines31—officially to prevent health-risks and fire hazards, unofficially to segregate Africans from Europeans. The 1913 law stipulated that only “durable materials could be used for building within an urban area.32 As a side effect, the law introduced a strong dichotomy between matériaux non-durables, on the one hand, and matériaux durables, on the other, a distinction that was upheld throughout the colonial period. Although these categories were not further specified, and it remained legally unclear which material belonged to which category, the distinction resurfacing time and again when building materials were discussed in all sorts of colonial texts. Despite the lack of a clear legal definition, all colonizers seemed to agree that any local material, such as thatched roofs or rammed earth structures, belonged to the category of non-durables. Hence, every local building material was immediately discarded as inappropriate for building—even though many people had depended on these materials and techniques for centuries and, off-the-record, colonizers continued to rely on them for all sorts of buildings.33

20It was not until the late colonial period that this public appreciation of local materials started to shift. A good example is the 1956 propaganda photograph of the interior of a colonial villa “entièrement construite en matériaux locaux” (Fig. 4). It remains unclear what spurred this sudden shift, yet a plausible explanation would be that the colonial population publicly started to appreciate local materials to justify the customary use of these materials in a variety of colonial buildings. Besides, this appreciation of local building materials also hinged on their appropriation. By no means did this new esteem extend to actual local building typologies. It is telling that the living room of the colonial villa pictured in the photograph—despite its odd materiality—is barely different from a living room in Belgium at that time. The Christian wall calendar, the lace tablecloth on the coffee table, and the Westmalle beer glasses on the top shelf of the closet, further reinforced the familiarity of the scene for the photograph’s Belgian audience.

Figure 4. Interior view of a European house in the Congo, completely built of local materials

Figure 4. Interior view of a European house in the Congo, completely built of local materials

Carlo Lamote (Inforcongo), Interior view of a house entirely built out of local building materials, close to Mushenge [“Vue intérieure d'une maison entièrement construite en matériaux locaux, près de Mushenge”], 1956.
Collection “Anciennes Photos”, HP.1956.15.5212 © KMMA Tervuren

  • 34  Jiat-Hwee Chang, A Geneaology of Tropical Architecture. Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscienc (...)
  • 35  The “Colonial Liaison Unit” of the “British Building Research Station,” led by George Atkinson, wa (...)

21This delayed instatement of African building materials was not limited to the Belgian Congo. As Jiat-Hwee Chang has shown in his Genealogy of Tropical Architecture, from the Second World War onwards—and with the launching of welfare agendas by most colonial powers—multiple building research stations were established across several colonial territories, all investigating how to build in so-called tropical regions.34 While initially studying materials like concrete or steel, they gradually started to revalue other building materials. The Colonial Building Notes, a publication of the “Colonial Liaison Unit” of the British “Building Research Station,” is a prime source for studying this shifting position.35 Through its close examination—and of cement’s dwindling position as Africa’s ideal building material within the publication—I will elaborate on this epistemological shift. Ironically, since the hardened consideration of cement as Africa’s ideal building material is today beginning to crumble, another material that had been considered its inferior local substitute during colonial times is becoming the favored choice: burnt lime.

  • 36  Stephanie Van de Voorde and Rika Devos, “The Scientification of Reinforced Concrete in Belgium Dur (...)
  • 37  “Les super-ciments et leur adaptabilité d’emploi aux bétons exécutés en pays chauds,” Le Ciment, 9 (...)
  • 38  Robby Fivez and Monika Motylinska, “Cement as Weapon: Meta-Infrastructure in the ‘World’s Last Cem (...)
  • 39  Fernand Nisot, “La Fabrication du ciment Portland artificiel au Bas-Congo,” Congo. Revue Générale (...)
  • 40  Colonial Geological Surveys Mineral Resources Division, “Cement in the Colonial Territories: A Rev (...)
  • 41  Ibid.
  • 42  “The Thermal Expansion of Concrete,” Colonial Building Notes, 5, 1951.
  • 43  “Aerated Concrete,” Colonial Building Notes, 5, 1951.
  • 44  Neville Nettleton, “Hurricanes: Details of Building Construction,” Colonial Building Notes, 9, 195 (...)
  • 45  “No-Fines Concrete: Its Use for Low-Cost Housing in Southern Rhodesia,” Colonial Building Notes, 4 (...)
  • 46  “Housing in Kenya: A Novel Form of Concrete Rondavel House,” Colonial Building Notes, 24, 1954.
  • 47  Betty Spence, “Prefabricated Houses for Africans,” Colonial Building Circular Letter, 49/4, 1949. (...)
  • 48  “Mortar Plasticizers: Their Use in Cement-Sand Mortars, External Renderings and Internal Plasters, (...)
  • 49  “Concrete Building Blocks: Their Manufacture and Use,” Colonial Building Notes, 34, 1956.

22Ever since its strong scientific development in the early 20th century, cement’s position as Africa’s preferred “durable” material became unassailable.36 In the Belgian Congo in particular, the establishment of a cement plant in 1921 only further consolidated this position. The factory in Lukala, celebrated in numerous Belgian propaganda publications, earned the Belgian Congo a good deal of respect from other colonial nations. One French contemporary wrote in 1932 that “it was only in the most advanced colonial regions of the world like Indochina, the Belgian Congo, Madagascar and the Dutch and British Indies, that Europeans had installed cement plants already.”37 The establishment of other African cement plants, as well as the invention and widespread use of derivatives such as asbestos cement or cement blocks, had turned it into the ultimate African building material by the mid-20th century38 (Fig. 5). Or, as the manager of the first Congolese cement plant put it: “le prototype des materiaux durables.”39 In the first editions of the Colonial Building Notes, this position remained unquestioned. One contemporary even commented how “few commodities of mineral origin are more important to the development and progress of the less advanced areas of the world than cement.”40 He saw its importance particularly in infrastructural projects, but also as an everyday building material that was of utmost importance in “the building of better accommodation and amenities for the people who live and work in those countries.”41 Numerous contributions in subsequent Colonial Building Notes dealt directly with cement and concrete in Africa, including publications on the thermal expansion of concrete42, aerated concrete43 and its use in hurricane plagued areas44, no-fines concrete45, experimental concrete housing46, precast concrete panels47, mortar plasticizers48 and even a special issue on its most popular application: concrete blocks.49

Figure 5. Eternit asbestos cement commercial

Figure 5. Eternit asbestos cement commercial

ETERNIT, “Le matériau idéal pour le Congo,” in Le Matériel colonial. Bulletin de l’Association pour l’étude du matériel colonial, 30/2, 1939.

23Despite the persistence of concrete and cement in the publication, the Notes editor in chief was already quite critical of cement, especially in the earlier “Colonial Building Circular Letters”:

  • 50  George Atkinson, “Building Research and the Problems of Building in Tropical Africa,” Colonial Bui (...)

While some building materials—such as Portland Cement—can only be produced on a large scale, and need expensive capital equipment and a large market, other materials—such as lime, gypsum products, burnt clay bricks and tiles—can be, and are, made on a much smaller scale. With these last materials, it is often a matter of improving existing methods rather than inventing new ones.50

  • 51  Alfred Edward Savige Alcock, “‘Swishcrete’: Notes on Stabilised Cement-Earth Building in the Gold (...)
  • 52  Archaeological research has shown how lime burning was a technique used in the Bas-Congo region. S (...)

24Although initially this new critical position mainly surfaced in the more reflexive texts, the articles on concrete have slowly been supplemented with research papers on “other” tropical materials. While at first, the numerous papers on cement-stabilized earth building testified to cement’s precarious position — “cement is expensive; too expensive for the average villager to consider”51—slowly but steadily other materials, previously ridiculed for being insalubre or non-durable, came to be considered best practice. Among the “alternatives” that slowly replaced cement as Africa’s ideal building material are rammed earth, wood, thatch, laterite and gypsum. Futher, the most striking article for this cement-lime comparison is the one on pozzolana-lime mixes. Examining one such lime mix, the Indian surkhi, the paper elaborates on the numerous advantages of using such burnt lime mixtures over Portland cement in tropical climates. The paper’s remarkable argument is that this Indian lime burning practice could be an interesting building technique to adopt in African “developing countries.” However, this suggestion takes on a particularly ironic tone when considering that lime burning had already been a widespread technique used throughout the African continent in the mid-20th century, and was known prior to Belgian colonization.52

  • 53  The archival and library collection of the Institüt für Tropenbau, one of the research institutes (...)
  • 54  G. E. Bessey, “Production and Use of Lime in the Developing Countries,” Overseas Building Notes, 1 (...)

25With the surge of African independencies around 1960, the Colonial Building Notes conveniently changed its name to Overseas Building Notes. However, with little change in the composition of its research network, its new agenda—the promotion of “appropriate” building technologies for Africa—remained the same. The colonial techno-scientific network on building in the tropics, still in its infancy in the 1950s, proliferated enormously in the post-colonial years, with numerous Western research institutions, development aid agencies or global construction and engineering firms all trying to get involved in the new African market. Following the expansion of the network, research into appropriate building materials grew exponentially. Continuing developments from the late colonial era, low-cost, low-energy and “low-skill” building materials became the latest craze.53 In the Overseas Building Notes, another article was published titled “The Production and Use of Lime in the Developing Countries,” written by G. E. Bessey, an engineer employed by the “Overseas Division” of the British “Building Research Establishment.” This time, the article included directions on how to build “simple kilns” suitable “for use in development countries, where small-scale production is required.”54 Ironically, the main argument—once again—is how the lime burning technique—already in use for decades on the African continent—could be “implemented” in African “developing countries,” at least if Europeans could come up with “simple” kilns, which could be operated by “unskilled” Africans.

  • 55  Zeynep Çelik, “Cultural Intersections: Re-Visioning Architecture and the City in the Twentieth Cen (...)

26This brief review of publications from the Building Notes on cement and lime shows how the shifting value judgments towards local materials can be traced back to the colonial period. In the post-colonial era, this shift towards “local” materials was further propagated by various Western institutes and spurred on by Western investments. Yet, the new appreciation for local materials was an uneasy one: rather than documenting or disseminating local knowledge, these institutes sought to “improve” local building techniques and materials through Western science. Once again, traditional skill was thereby subjugated to supposedly universal Western knowledge. Hence, interpreting this turn to local, “appropriate” materials as a postcolonial turn away from Western doctrines might be too short-sighted. Such a critique has already been formulated with regard to the “authentic” African architecture regarding figures like Hassan Fathy. Positioning Fathy within a longer tradition of modernist architectural fascination with the African vernacular and highlighting his intellectual ties to Europe, Zeynep Çelik argued as early as in 1998 how rather than putting forth a truly postcolonial architecture, Fathy “ended up creating a hallmark which he wishes to be national, but which is strangely reminiscent of exoticism.”55 A focus on materials can further substantiate this critique. For instance, on how the simplistic division between “traditional” and “modern” materials that lived on in these architectural practices was in fact a deeply colonial construct.

  • 56  Robby Fivez, “A Concrete State: Constructing Materials and Building Ambitions in the (Belgian) Con (...)
  • 57  One often cited reason for the shift is an economic one: in the context of the global energy crisi (...)

27In my historical research, I argued how the colonial division between “traditional” and “modern” building materials was mainly inspired by racist views on African architecture, even if56 other political and economic motivations also existed. The very political project of colonialism, for instance, hinged on the idea of helping other countries onto their “path to modernity.” Since the belief that concrete can lead to “modernity” persists to this day, it is not hard to see the importance of convincing others of this political project. Similar machinations probably lie behind the shift in value judgments between “traditional” and “modern” in late-colonial and post-colonial times.57 Yet, identifying the continuity of binary material oppositions in the discourse is perhaps more important than fully understanding the intrigues behind this shift. Although the post-colonial approach seems at first radically different, valuing materials oppsosite to the way they were in the colonial period, the colonial distinction between “local” and “modern” materials remains firmly ever-present. As I will show in the last section, thinking with cement, one can easily challenge this opposition. Nowadays, cement is ubiquitous in any Congolese, Burundian or Rwandan city, and advertised in the Democratic Republic of Congo with the slogan Mabele Ya Mboka! [From the soil of our country!]. Thus, I would argue, it is as much a “local” as it is a “modern” material.

Conclusion

  • 58  Bruno Latour, “Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?,” Isis, 98, 2007, p. 139.
  • 59  Ibid., p. 141.

28In the introduction to his essay, “Can we get our materialism back, please?,” sociologist Bruno Latour wages war against “the isotopic space invented by the long history of geometry, still-life painting and technical drawing.”58 In particular, the exploded view is criticized. Such representations, Latour argues, “draw the object as if it were open to inspection and mastery,” while in fact hiding “the elementary mode of existence of technical artifacts.”59 Latour’s iconoclastic personal analysis of the misleading comprehensiveness of these drawings conceals rather than reveals the intricate web of actants gathering in technical artifacts, thus endowing them with a natural simplicity and a misleading innocence. Borrowing freely from anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Latour suggests leaving such “thin representations” behind in favor of “thick descriptions”:

  • 60  Ibid., p. 140.

doing what Gabrielle Hecht and Wiebe Bijker and Ken Alder have done for “their” uranium rocks, dams, and lie detectors: that is, first prodigiously extend the number of parts necessary for the gathering [of the artifact] and then multiply the number of assembling principles that gather them together in a functioning whole.60

29The way to “thicken the plot,” according to Latour, is to take such assemblages seriously as the subject of our research, and to unpack artifacts until we start to grasp every single part of the gathering.

  • 61  Robby Fivez, “The Rubble in the Jungle: A Fragmented Biography of Lukala’s Cementscape, DR Congo,” (...)
  • 62  See, for example: Nasser Abourahme, “Assembling and Spilling-Over: Towards an ‘Ethnography of Ceme (...)
  • 63  Kali Rubaii, “Cement, War, and Toxicity: The Materialities of Displacement in Iraq,” Environment i (...)
  • 64  For instance, in the seminal work of Adrian Forty, Concrete and Culture, cement is considered “a g (...)
  • 65  When cement is hydrated, and therefore hardens, it forms ettringite rods. Microscopic imagery of t (...)

30Influenced by these Latourian ideas, my own research sought to unpack the cement produced in Lukala, a town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I followed the life of this Congolese cement from its beginnings as lime burnt in makeshift kilns, through the early production of an exceptional Super-Cement burnt in treacherous vertical kilns, to its standardization as Portland cement.61 While, to my knowledge, no similar histories of cement exist, some anthropologists have started to explore the material’s present-day entanglements.62 One of them is Kali Rubaii, an anthropologist at Purdue University, who recently explored the Bazian valley—an Iraqi valley stretching from Dukan lake to the artificial Darbandikhan lake, near the Iranian border.63 Because its limestone substrate is ideal for cement production, the valley—now nicknamed “Cement Valley”is lined with cement factories. In her work, Rubaii reveals how the cement industry has redrawn the valley’s landscape; how its wastewater poisons the river running through; how the numerous limestone quarries excavate land that had been used for centuries for livestock; and how a poisonous cement dust covers the area. Despite the obvious shortcomings of my own anthropological ventures, my fieldwork in Lukala revealed a similar contemporary complexity of cement production, suggesting that cement’s biography—largely limited in my work to the precolonial and colonial periods—could easily be continued into the present. The destructive impact of the cement plant, which is still in operation, was everywhere: the causticity of cement destroyed laborers’ lungs; huge swaths of land were dug away for the limestone quarry; industrial ruins were scattered throughout the landscape; the segregated structure of the town now reflected the company’s hierarchy; and deforestation—the result of the historic production process—was still painfully visible (Fig. 6, 7 and 8). Comparing the devastation of the cement industry to a slow explosion, Rubaii shows how understanding cement as a static and universal commodity is a privilege of those confronted only with the final step of the commodity chain.64 Unintentionally, this metaphor of the slow explosion also provides an evocative alternative to Latour’s vilified exploded view: a careful untangling of all the actants affected by cement’s ever-expanding rhizomatic structure.65

Figure 6. Lukala’s “Cementscape”: Flooded limestone quarry

Figure 6. Lukala’s “Cementscape”: Flooded limestone quarry

Photos: Robby Fivez

Figure 7. Lukala’s “Cementscape”: Burnt down colonial cement kiln

Figure 7. Lukala’s “Cementscape”: Burnt down colonial cement kiln

Photos: Robby Fivez

Figure 8. Lukala’s “Cementscape”: Company’s swimming pool

Figure 8. Lukala’s “Cementscape”: Company’s swimming pool

Photos: Robby Fivez

  • 66  Moreover, besides these local consequences, cement production’s impact on climate change is now a (...)

31Although the irony of denying Africa access to cement—after it being used almost obligatorily throughout the colonial era—and of replacing it with “appropriate” materials in post-colonial times should be clear from the two parts above, this article is by no means a plea for the continued use of cement and concrete across Africa. As I have seen, felt and experienced in Lukala, there are many reasons to put an end to this.66 Instead, I hope that this article has raised awareness of the denominators that are often used to categorize building materials. In this sense, Gabriel Arboleda’s warning on “sustainability” is extremely valuable:

  • 67  Gabriel Arboleda, Sustainability and Privilege, op. cit.

My goal is to offer a word of caution regarding the fact that because sustainability is such a powerful, hegemonic paradigm, its invocation makes it easy for designers to engage, intentionally or not, in strategies of oppression. Thus, I propose that we as social designers be cautious when embracing sustainability as our goal and that we view sustainability as a socio-political product, rather than as an unqualified and universal truth.67

32Though Arboleda rightly identified sustainability as the hegemonic paradigm today, this historical perspective shows how quickly and easily such denominators can shift. Moreover, the example of lime and cement shows how these seemingly scientific denominators are not the result of intrinsic material properties, but rather are politically, culturally and economically motivated. The colonial notion of durable, for instance, had little to do with the actual durability of a material and a lot to do with colonial feelings of superiority over others. Therefore, I believe a “meta-word of caution” is in order: a warning to move beyond such binary categorizations of building materials, whether it be those of the past, the present and the future.

  • 68  Kelvin W. Willoughby, Technology Choice: A Critique of the Appropriate Technology Movement, London (...)
  • 69  Bruno Latour, “Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?,” op. cit.

33In a sharp critique of the appropriate technology movement of the 1980s, Kelvin Willoughby offers an elegant alternative to such binary thinking, proposing to understand appropriate technology, “not as a particular collection of technologies, such as solar cookers or methane generators [or rammed earth], but as a mode of technology-practice.”68 In this technology-practice, he continues, the concept of “technology choice” should be central. Drawing explicitly on STS scholarship, Willoughby argues that we ought to harmoniously integrate technical-empirical, socio-political and ethical-personal considerations in choosing which technologies qualify as “appropriate.” Such a concerned choice, I would argue, should also be central to our approach to building materials. As these socio-political, ethical-personal and technical-empirical considerations are in constant flux, highly local, and temporally defined, there are no definite or ready-made answers to the question: which are the good building materials? Only a careful explosion of a material can inform this concerned choice and any hastily formulated answer, under whichever moniker, should be approached with great suspicion. This historical case should be read as a warning against such readily available answers and a clear call for adding (historical) complexity. In the African context, understanding the political dimensions of building materials, direct tools of colonial and neo-colonial power structures, is even more urgent. If Latour’s question, “Can we get our materialism back, please?” can become a central guide for any future architectural practice, for those operating in Africa, the “our” in the question should get other semantic layers.69

Haut de page

Bibliographie

Nasser Abourahme, “Assembling and Spilling-Over: Towards an ‘Ethnography of Cement’ in a Palestinian Refugee Camp,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39, 2014, p. 200-217.

Gabriel Arboleda, Sustainability and Privilege: A Critique of Social Design Practice, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2022.

Vandana Baweja, “Sustainability and the Architectural History Survey,” Enquiry. The ARCC Journal for Architectural Research, 11/1, 2014, p. 40-51.

BC Architects & Studies and Pauline Lefebvre, The Act of Building, Antwerp, Flanders Architecture Institute, 2018.

Laurens Bekemans, My Invisible Friend. Laurens Bekemans on “BC Architects & Studies” and a Foreman, Montréal, Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), 2019.

Zeynep Çelik, “Cultural Intersections: Re-Visioning Architecture and the City in the Twentieth Century,” in Russel Ferguson (ed.), At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture, Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998, p. 190-227.

Jiat-Hwee Chang, A Geneaology of Tropical Architecture. Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience, New York, Routledge, 2016.

Armelle Choplin, Matière grise de l’urbain. La vie du ciment en Afrique, Genève, Métis Presses, 2020.

Robby Fivez, “A Concrete State: Constructing Materials and Building Ambitions in the (Belgian) Congo,” PhD, Ghent University, 2023.

Robby Fivez, “The Rubble in the Jungle: A Fragmented Biography of Lukala’s Cementscape, DR Congo,” Journal of Landscape Architecture, 1, 2020, p. 78-87.

Robby Fivez, Simon De Nys-Ketels, and Katie Lloyd Thomas, “Historicizing Material Properties: Between Technological and Cultural History,” in Mateus Mascarenhas and Paula Pires (eds.), History of Construction Cultures, Leiden, CRC Press, 2012.

Robby Fivez and Monika Motylinska. “Cement as Weapon: Meta-Infrastructure in the ‘World’s Last Cement Frontier’,” in Josep Heathcott (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Infrastructure Design: Global Perspectives from Architectural History, New York, Routledge, 2022.

Antoni Folkers, Modern Architecture in Africa, Amsterdam, SUN, 2010.

Adrian Forty, Concrete and Culture. A Material History, London, Reaktion Books, 2012.

Allyn Gaestel, “Things fall apart,” The Atavist Magazine, 76, 2018.

Naigzy Gebremedhin, “Vernacular Sustainability: Examples from Ethiopia and Eritrea,” in Philipp Meuser and Adil Dalbai (eds.), Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa, Berlin, Dom Publishers, 2021, p. 169-171.

Nina Gribat and Sandra Meireis, “A critique of the new ‘social architecture’ debate. Moving beyond localism, developmentalism and aesthetics,” City, 21/6, 2017, p. 779-788.

Sandra Harding, Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities, Durham/London, Duke University Press, 2008.

Mariam Kamara, “Othering Africa: The Trouble with ‘African Architecture’,” in Philipp Meuser and Adil Dalbai (eds.), Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa, Berlin, Dom Publishers, 2021, p. 187-188.

Johan Lagae, “History Matters: Authenticity and Cultural Guardianship,” in Philipp Meuser et Adil Dalbai (eds.), Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa, Berlin, Dom Publishers, 2021, p. 138-143.

Bruno Latour, “Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?,” Isis, 98, 2007, p. 138-142.

Andres Lepik, Small scale big change. New architecture of social engagement, New York/Basel, The Museum of Modern Art/ Birkhäuser, 2010.

Kali Rubaii, Cement, War, and Toxicity: The Materialities of Displacement in Iraq,” Environment in Context podcast, 2020, [online] [https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/41244], consulted on 27/02/2024.

Ola Uduku, “Affording Authenticity: Thoughts on African Architecture,” in Philipp Meuser and Adil Dalbai (eds.), Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa, Berlin, Dom Publishers, 2021, p. 188-189.

Kelvin W. Willoughby, Technology Choice: A Critique of the Appropriate Technology Movement, London, Westview Press, 1990.

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Notes

1  Pedro Guedes, “Learning from the ‘Other’: Early Modern Emulation and Trans-Imperial Exchange of ‘Native’ Building Technologies,” in Ine Wouters et al. (eds.), Building Knowledge, Constructing Histories, London, Taylor and Francis Group, 2018, p. 299–306.

2  “L’Habitation du noir,” La Belgique Coloniale, 5, 1896, p. 52.

3  “L’Habitation européenne I,” Le Congo Illustré, 2/23, 1893, p. 178.

4  Following the consensus in the field of postcolonial theory, I use post-colonial (with hyphen) to point to the period that chronologically came after colonialism, whereas I use postcolonial (without hyphen) to refer to the more critical body of theory, that signals and contests the continuity of colonial logics.

5  Together with Katie Lloyd-Thomas and Simon De Nys-Ketels, I organized a thematic session on material characteristics at the 7th International Conference on Construction History. See: Robby Fivez, Simon De Nys-Ketels, and Katie Lloyd Thomas, “Historicizing Material Properties: Between Technological and Cultural History,” in Mateus Mascarenhas and Paula Pires (eds.), History of Construction Cultures, Leiden, CRC Press, 2012.

6  For a good entry into postcolonial STS, see: Sandra Harding, “Beyond Postcolonial Theory: Two Undertheorized Perspectives on Science and Technology,” in Sandra Harding (ed.) The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2011; Sandra Harding, Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2008.

7  Laurens Bekemans, My Invisible Friend. Laurens Bekemans on “BC Architects & Studies” and a foreman, Montréal, Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), 2019. [online] [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rES-aTmyoxU], consulted on 13/09/2023.

8  In the book Modern Architecture in Africa, Antoni Folkers writes from an insider’s perspective about the work he did for the Institut für Tropenbau, one of the many research institutes devoted to building in the tropics. In his book, he rather uncritically adopts the term “inno-native” building materials — originally coined by Ghanese architect Joe Osae-Addo — to talk about these experiments to “upgrade” and “innovate” native building materials. Antoni Folkers, Modern architecture in Africa, Amsterdam, SUN, 2010.

9  Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 6.

10  Ibid.

11  Laurens Bekemans, My Invisible Friend, op. cit.

12  BC Architects & Studies and Pauline Lefebvre, The Act of Building, Antwerp, Flanders Architecture Institute, 2018.

13  Ibid.

14  BC Architects, “Library of Muyinga,” C-File, [online] [https://cfileonline.org/architecture-bc-architects-library-muyinga] consulted on 01/01/2023.

15  BC Architects & Studies and Pauline Lefebvre, The Act of Building, op. cit.

16  Ibid.

17  Ibid.

18  Social design is a form of activist architecture that hopes to engage meaningfully with impoverished societies, mainly in the non-West, and aims to “do something” through architecture. The awarding of the Pritzker prize to Diébédo Francis Kéré is a primary example of the importance given to this architectural idiom. However, this is only the latest feat in a longer tradition of such social design practices gaining primacy in the Western discourse on architecture in Africa. Another turning point would be the 2011 MoMa exhibition Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement. See: Andres Lepik, Small Scale Big Change. New Architecture of Social Engagement, New York/Basel, The Museum of Modern Art/Birkhäuser, 2010.

19  For a critical approach to the Makoko school, see: Allyn Gaestel, “Things Fall Apart”, The Atavist Magazine, 76, 2018.

20  BC Architects & Studies and Pauline Lefebvre, The Act of Building, op. cit.

21  For a discussion of the figure of the ‘expert’ in non-European settings see: Johan Lagae, “Editorial: Global Experts ‘Off Radar’”, ABE journal, 4, 2013.

22  For recent books celebrating “vernacular” building materials and connecting them to the notion of “sustainability,” see for instance: Salma Samar Damluji and Viola Bertini, Hassan Fathy: Earth & Utopia, London, Laurence King Publishing, 2018; C. Mileto et al. (eds.), Vernacular Architecture: Towards a Sustainable Future, London, CRC Press, 2015.

23  Nina Gribat and Sandra Meireis, “A Critique of the New ‘Social Architecture’ Debate. Moving Beyond Localism, Developmentalism and Aesthetics,” City, 21/6, 2017, p. 783.

24  Mariam Kamara, “Othering Africa: The Trouble with ‘African Architecture’,” in Philipp Meuser and Adil Dalbai (eds.), Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa, Berlin, Dom Publishers, 2021.

25  Ola Uduku, “Affording Authenticity: thoughts on African Architecture,” in ibid.

26  Naigzy Gebremedhin, “Vernacular Sustainability: Examples from Ethiopia and Eritrea,” in ibid.

27  Gabriel Arboleda, Sustainability and Privilege: A Critique of Social Design Practice, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2022, p. 24-25.

28  Vandana Baweja, “Sustainability and the Architectural History Survey,” Enquiry. The ARCC Journal for Architectural Research, 11/1, 2014.

29  Johan Lagae, “History Matters: Authenticity and Cultural Guardianship,” in Philipp Meuser and Adil Dalbai (eds.), Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa, Berlin, Dom Publishers, 2021.

30  Egide-Jean Devroey and Eudore De Backer, La Réglementation sur les constructions au Congo belge, Brussels, Institut Royal Colonial Belge, 1942.

31  Octave Louwers, Charles Kuck, and Léon Pétillon, Codes et lois du Congo belge, Brussels, M. Weissenbruch, 1934.

32  This law can be connected to an earlier urban planning law that aimed to segregate Africans from Europeans in the town of Boma. Remarkably, these segregationist intentions were cloaked as a law on building materials as well. Though the head of the Public Works Department later stated that the law did not fulfill its segregationist intentions, the idea was to bar Africans from the city center of Boma by prohibiting the use of local building materials. See: Devroey and De Backer, La Réglementation sur les Constructions au Congo belge, op. cit., p. 182.

33  Here, “off-the-record,” refers to the absence of the use of local materials in the official discourse. This absence in the discourse is also reflected in the archival records: the continued reliance on local building materials and techniques is barely documented.

34  Jiat-Hwee Chang, A Geneaology of Tropical Architecture. Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience, New York, Routledge, 2016.

35  The “Colonial Liaison Unit” of the “British Building Research Station,” led by George Atkinson, was crucial in the formation of this network; not only because several research laboratories existed in the British colonial territories, but also because Atkinson actively tried to bring together and disseminate knowledge about building in the tropics, even beyond imperial boundaries. One of the instruments of this dissemination was the Colonial Building Notes (1948-1958). By the end of the colonial era, the name was conveniently changed to Overseas Building Notes (1958-1994). Before this official publication, Atkinson already sent out Colonial Building Circular Letters to numerous colonial public works departments and laboratories, including those in the Belgian Congo.

36  Stephanie Van de Voorde and Rika Devos, “The Scientification of Reinforced Concrete in Belgium During the Interwar Period: Development and Dissemination of Scientific, Theoretical and Technical Knowledge,” in Nuts & Bolts of Construction History: Culture, Technology and Society, Paris, Picard, 2012.

37  “Les super-ciments et leur adaptabilité d’emploi aux bétons exécutés en pays chauds,” Le Ciment, 9, 1932.

38  Robby Fivez and Monika Motylinska, “Cement as Weapon: Meta-Infrastructure in the ‘World’s Last Cement Frontier’,” in Joseph Heathcott (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Infrastructure Design: Global Perspectives from Architectural History, New York, Routledge, 2022.

39  Fernand Nisot, “La Fabrication du ciment Portland artificiel au Bas-Congo,” Congo. Revue Générale de la Colonie belge, 1/1, 1929.

40  Colonial Geological Surveys Mineral Resources Division, “Cement in the Colonial Territories: A Review,” Colonial Geology and Mineral Resources, 3/3, 1953, reprinted in Colonial Building Notes, 22, 1953.

41  Ibid.

42  “The Thermal Expansion of Concrete,” Colonial Building Notes, 5, 1951.

43  “Aerated Concrete,” Colonial Building Notes, 5, 1951.

44  Neville Nettleton, “Hurricanes: Details of Building Construction,” Colonial Building Notes, 9, 1953.

45  “No-Fines Concrete: Its Use for Low-Cost Housing in Southern Rhodesia,” Colonial Building Notes, 4, 1951.

46  “Housing in Kenya: A Novel Form of Concrete Rondavel House,” Colonial Building Notes, 24, 1954.

47  Betty Spence, “Prefabricated Houses for Africans,” Colonial Building Circular Letter, 49/4, 1949. For a thorough historization of the figure of Betty Spence, see: Rixt Woudstra et Hannah Leroux, “‘Build Your Own House’: Betty Spence’s Design-Research in 1950s South Africa,” Architectural Theory Review, 26/3, 2022.

48  “Mortar Plasticizers: Their Use in Cement-Sand Mortars, External Renderings and Internal Plasters,” Colonial Building Notes, 30, 1955.

49  “Concrete Building Blocks: Their Manufacture and Use,” Colonial Building Notes, 34, 1956.

50  George Atkinson, “Building Research and the Problems of Building in Tropical Africa,” Colonial Building Circular Letter, E 181, 1949, p. 9.

51  Alfred Edward Savige Alcock, “‘Swishcrete’: Notes on Stabilised Cement-Earth Building in the Gold Coast,” Colonial Building Notes, 16, 1953.

52  Archaeological research has shown how lime burning was a technique used in the Bas-Congo region. See: Bernard Clist, Pierre de Maret and Koen Bostoen (ed.), Une archéologie des provinces septentrionales du royaume Kongo, Oxford, Archaeopress Publishing Ltd, 2018; Bernard Clist et al., “African-European Contacts in the Kongo Kingdom (Sixteenth-Eighteenth Centuries): New Archaeological Insights from Ngongo Mbata (Lower Congo, DRC),” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 19, 2015. Other archival and archaeological traces even suggest how this suggested technology transfer from India to Africa indeed happened much earlier in history, with shells — used for lime burning — traded between India, Zanzibar and the African East-Coast.

53  The archival and library collection of the Institüt für Tropenbau, one of the research institutes of the postcolonial era, was recently acquired by the Canadian Centre for Architecture. The collection, housed at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, is an important source for investigating this discursive shift, holding numerous publications on “alternative” materials, “appropriate” materials, and construction techniques “for export to developing countries,” from the late 1950s onward.

54  G. E. Bessey, “Production and Use of Lime in the Developing Countries,” Overseas Building Notes, 161, 1975.

55  Zeynep Çelik, “Cultural Intersections: Re-Visioning Architecture and the City in the Twentieth Century,” in Russell Ferguson (ed.), At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture, Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998, p. 205.

56  Robby Fivez, “A Concrete State: Constructing Materials and Building Ambitions in the (Belgian) Congo”, PhD, Ghent University, 2023.

57  One often cited reason for the shift is an economic one: in the context of the global energy crisis of the 1970s, European economists massively started to declare the energy—and capital—intensive technologies unfit for an African context. In his tendentiously titled work, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, the German economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher — one of the driving forces behind this discursive shift — propagated the use of “intermediate technologies”: “I believe, therefore, that the best way to make contact with the essential problem is by speaking of technology: economic development in poverty-stricken areas can be fruitful only on the basis of what I have called ‘intermediate technology’. In the end, intermediate technology will be ‘labour-intensive’ and will lend itself to use in small-scale establishments.” E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, London, Blond and Briggs, 1973.

58  Bruno Latour, “Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?,” Isis, 98, 2007, p. 139.

59  Ibid., p. 141.

60  Ibid., p. 140.

61  Robby Fivez, “The Rubble in the Jungle: A Fragmented Biography of Lukala’s Cementscape, DR Congo,” Journal of Landscape Architecture, 1, 2020. The biographic approach to commodities, in this case cement, is borrowed from: Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

62  See, for example: Nasser Abourahme, “Assembling and Spilling-Over: Towards an ‘Ethnography of Cement’ in a Palestinian Refugee Camp,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39, 2014; Armelle Choplin, Matière grise de l’urbain. La vie du ciment en Afrique, Genève, Métis Presses, 2020; Rachel Harkness, Cristián Simonetti and Judith Winter, “Liquid Rock: Gathering, Flattening, Curing,” Parallax, 21/3, 2015.

63  Kali Rubaii, “Cement, War, and Toxicity: The Materialities of Displacement in Iraq,” Environment in Context podcast, 2020, [online] [https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/41244], consulted on 27/02/2024.

64  For instance, in the seminal work of Adrian Forty, Concrete and Culture, cement is considered “a global commodity” that relied on its “absolute uniformity and consistency,” a “standardized product” without “distinctive regional qualities.” Adrian Forty, Concrete and Culture. A Material History, London, Reaktion Books, 2012, p. 101.

65  When cement is hydrated, and therefore hardens, it forms ettringite rods. Microscopic imagery of the process shows how these rods entangle and grasp the surrounding grains of sand and aggregates.

66  Moreover, besides these local consequences, cement production’s impact on climate change is now a well-known problem, with arguably the most devastating effects on the African continent.

67  Gabriel Arboleda, Sustainability and Privilege, op. cit.

68  Kelvin W. Willoughby, Technology Choice: A Critique of the Appropriate Technology Movement, London, Westview Press, 1990, p. 335.

69  Bruno Latour, “Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?,” op. cit.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Rehabilitated Terstaram Press, used in the construction of the hospital of Bawa (DRC)
Légende The photograph suggests that these Terstaram presses were also shipped to the DRC in similar 1980s development aid schemes. The construction of this particular hospital was funded by the Belgian development aid agency Memisa.
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/craup/docannexe/image/14603/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 1,3M
Titre Figure 2. Cover of a 1986 publication on Soil Block Presses, published by the German Appropriate Technology Exchange
Crédits © Kiran Mukerji, Soil Block Presses, German Appropriate Technology Exchange, 1986.
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/craup/docannexe/image/14603/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 211k
Titre Figure 3. Adobe block press advertising
Crédits Image: “Partout: Bâtir est un plaisir avec le TASSPARCHOC à LEVIER,” 1959. © Onatra Archives, Kinshasa.
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/craup/docannexe/image/14603/img-3.png
Fichier image/png, 174k
Titre Figure 4. Interior view of a European house in the Congo, completely built of local materials
Crédits Carlo Lamote (Inforcongo), Interior view of a house entirely built out of local building materials, close to Mushenge [“Vue intérieure d'une maison entièrement construite en matériaux locaux, près de Mushenge”], 1956.Collection “Anciennes Photos”, HP.1956.15.5212 © KMMA Tervuren
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/craup/docannexe/image/14603/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 613k
Titre Figure 5. Eternit asbestos cement commercial
Crédits ETERNIT, “Le matériau idéal pour le Congo,” in Le Matériel colonial. Bulletin de l’Association pour l’étude du matériel colonial, 30/2, 1939.
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/craup/docannexe/image/14603/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 154k
Titre Figure 6. Lukala’s “Cementscape”: Flooded limestone quarry
Crédits Photos: Robby Fivez
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/craup/docannexe/image/14603/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 203k
Titre Figure 7. Lukala’s “Cementscape”: Burnt down colonial cement kiln
Crédits Photos: Robby Fivez
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/craup/docannexe/image/14603/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 208k
Titre Figure 8. Lukala’s “Cementscape”: Company’s swimming pool
Crédits Photos: Robby Fivez
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/craup/docannexe/image/14603/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 462k
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Référence électronique

Robby Fivez, « Resisting Material Binaries: Unpacking persisting dichotomies of building materials in Central Africa »Les Cahiers de la recherche architecturale urbaine et paysagère [En ligne], 20 | 2024, mis en ligne le 17 mai 2024, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/craup/14603 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/11pax

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Auteur

Robby Fivez

Robby Fivez is a post-doctoral researcher affiliated with Vrije Universiteit Brussel. His research—at the intersection of colonial and construction history and with a geographic focus on Central Africa—is driven by a fascination with the material processes of construction and their broader societal implications. His PhD dissertation, A Concrete State, aimed to debunk the persistent myth of potent empire builders through detailed accounts of limited mastery over the self-proclaimed ultimate building material of colonialism: concrete. His current research, part of the EOS-research project “Construction History: Above and Beyond,” explores how methods and themes from colonial history can help to redefine the field of construction history. While, for instance, the colonial context puts into sharp relief how the construction industry relied on varieties of “cheap labor” and “cheap nature,” these insights can be transferred to other geographic and temporal settings. So far, his research has resulted in participation in international conferences and in publications such as research papers, book chapters, articles and more in the ABE journal and in the Journal of Landscape Architecture.

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