Johan Lagae (Gent): “Sorry Congo !?” On the positionality of architectural history in dealing with Congo’s colonial past

In the last couple of years, the debate on “Decolonizing Belgium” has been thriving. It was triggered by several contestations of colonial monuments in various cities in Belgium, by the long-awaited re-opening in December 2018 of the renovated Africa Museum in Tervuren, and, more recently, the international restitution debate.


Having conducted scholarly research on architecture and urban history in Central Africa for over two decades, I want to address in this lecture the positionality of an architectural historian in such debates. In line with scholars like Zeynep Çelik or Anthony D. King, I will argue that the study of colonial architecture and urban form provide a powerful tool to unpack in a very palpable way the complexities and intricacies of colonial policies and practices. Steering away from the notion of “shared heritage” (ICOMOS), I advocate to take the evident, yet unsettling question “whose heritage?” more seriously. By drawing on my involvement as an architectural historian in two major Congo-related exhibitions, in several urban heritage projects in DRCongo, and in two editions of an art biennale in Lubumbashi, I intend to illustrate how much is to be gained by conducting in depth historical research on the built environment which explicitly engages with the messier aspects of colonial (urban) history. But I also want to make a strong case for stepping outside of the confines of academe and allowing a re-appropriation of our scholarly work by local stakeholders, who have their own stories on Congo’s colonial past to tell.

Johan Lagae is Full Professor at Ghent University, where he teaches 20th Century Architectural History with a focus on the non-European context. In 2007, he was a chercheur invité at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris and recently was a fellow at the Paris Institut des Etudes Avancées. He holds a PhD on colonial architecture in the former Belgian Congo and has published widely on the topic, as well as on 20th century architectural and urban history in Central-Africa, and on the notion of colonial built heritage. He co-authored two books on the built landscapes of the city of Kinshasa and (co-)curated several Congo-related exhibitions, such as Le mémoire du Congo. Le temps colonial (2005), Congo belge en images (2010), and more recently A chacun sa maison. Housing in the Belgian Congo 1945-1960 (2018). From 2010 till 2014 he co-chaired a European research community devoted to the theme “European Architecture beyond Europe” (COST-action IS0904), and he currently is co-editor of ABE-Journal, a peer reviewed, open access scholarly magazine devoted to 19th and 20th century architecture beyond Europe.

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