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Association and Dissociation - Relations around Monumental Architecture in Post-Independence Côte D'Ivoire:

Explored through the Basilica of our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro

Leonhard von Reinersdorff

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Illustration by Fawzeyah Alsabah, 2021.


When looking at Our Lady of Peace, most observers immediately think of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, because the image of St. Peter’s is so well known, and the parallels are clearly legible through the elements of the dome, colonnade, and baldachin. ‘This “legibility” […] plays a social role as well, as it embodies elements that lead to the emergence of collective memories and symbols.’[1] These collective memories and symbols in turn can be evoked by referencing architectural elements or using decorative apparatus like the Greco-Roman classical orders, which constitutes a semiotic language. Something we call an architectural ‘style.’ We therefore must see ‘“styles” as tools for delineating relationships and differences in design concepts and precedents,’[2] especially if they are so deliberately applied like in the Basilica’s case, which speaks a European architectural language and thereby references European civilisation’s Greco-Roman foundation, social order, and colonising imperative. Language has been a major point of discussion in the post-colonial period. Some demanded ‘to fend off all foreign domination of African culture,’[3] including colonial languages, seen as neither original nor authentic to Africa. ‘But not all African writers were in agreement that literature written in European languages by Africans is necessarily illegitimate and colonial. Some writers insisted that colonialism was a reality, that to critique it is to recognise it.’[4]

The Basilica is also caught up in this debate. Its style allows different interpretations. On one hand, ‘it differentiates the architectural taste, cultural orientation, and social affiliation of’ president Félix Houphouët-Boigny ‘who felt that he was fully assimilated into the French culture,’ distinct ‘from those who have not been fully assimilated.’[5] This viewpoint addresses the Eurocentric educational enculturation of the president and the West African elite, implying a cultural, economic, and political inferiority complex internalized through the colonial experience, which the monument is meant to compensate for. ‘It falls within the category of the discourse that Jean-Paul Sartre described as “anti-racist's racism,”’[6] against their own society. On the other hand, the Basilica fits into the narrative of ‘Sartre's thesis that the language of the colonialist could be used to overthrow the colonialist.’[7] Fakhoury’s comparative drawings emphasising the bigger scale of Yamoussoukro’s Basilica than three major European churches, can be seen in this framework of overcoming colonial Europe through its own architectural terms.

From a technical perspective, Fakhoury’s design is modern, but by placing itself in a historical line of succession with St. Peter’s in Rome and other ‘duomos,’[8] the Basilica leaves the boundaries of modernism, which it claimed to be free from history and ideology.[9] Because French colonial architecture in Côte d’Ivoire was mainly modernist, it is clear that the Basilica’s language therefore targeted a relationship with Catholicism, which – in Houphouët’s eyes – was Roman. With this strong focus on Roman Catholic architectural heritage, he produced an architecture that was more European than anything the colonisers had built in Côte d’Ivoire. But it is too simple to equate the Eurocentric historicism of the Basilica with neo-colonialism, while conversely ascribing ideas of independence, self-confidence and decoloniality to African post-independence modernism, represented by Spirito’s design. ‘In actual fact the architecture of [Late] Modernism was never neutral’ as it was practised by architects, trained in a foreign architectural canon. ‘Their builders truly believed themselves to be producing the antithesis of the colonial legacy, yet they tended to recoup all of the characteristics of the colonial projects.’[10] The Yamoussoukro masterplan by Cacoub is a great example. Theorists of multiple modernities add that modernity did not arise without the colonial encounter and was not something invented in Europe and then exported. Instead, modernity is a globally shaped phenomenon, formed in the local context within the framework of European imperialism and colonialism.

International relations that manifest through the Basilica, place the building, at the same time, outside and within the cultural economies of both Europe and Africa, making any binary judgement insufficient. Thinking of the building’s relationship with its own context, Elleh points out that ‘Fakhoury’s choice was not made because it was the necessary architectural design for a basilica in the Cote d'Ivoire.’[11] The building could have been designed in an Ivorian style; West Africa has its own architectural vocabulary. ‘The design outcome […] would have been considerably different if it had been intended for an African audience.’[12] Instead, the stained-glass windows, inspired by French gothic art, only include one African amongst many white figures, which looks distinctly like President Houphouët himself, underrepresenting the African in the depicted Biblical narratives.

This lack of representation leads to inaccessibility and lack of identification for the local. ‘This is one of the major fallacies of the Yamoussoukro monument: It identifies itself with the European Middle Ages and Renaissance, but it wants nothing to do with African history beyond its “wildlife and color.”’[13] Indeed, the oppression and negligence of African culture and identity is a central problem of coloniality continued by the Basilica. Frantz Fanon’s famous characterisation Black Skin, White Masks depicts how, through European dominance, education and assimilation strategies, Africa grew culturally alienated to itself. ‘Mask and skin, when taken together, suggest a tension, a duality of being. The mask covering the skin, a deceptive play of willed versus natural identity.’[14] The Basilica can be seen as such a white mask. But Partha Mitter reminds the Westerner to be careful not to apply a double-standard. From the Economist’s standpoint, Houphouët’s Basilica represents a ‘monumental symbol of his Europeanness,’[15] indicating a loss of self as an African, in contrast to ‘Picasso, whose use of African sources did not compromise his integrity as a European artist.’[16] In my understanding both the Basilica and Houphouët remain rooted in their historic, African context. We should not confuse the masked with the complete identity. Therefore, I argue that the intentions behind creating such a mask are much more meaningful than the image it portrays. In the case of Houphouët’s Basilica, the mask was not imposed but deliberate and intentional, as the rejection of the modernist design proves. These intentions are related firstly to the building’s reference and address, Europe, attracting tourists and representing personal and African ability, and secondly to its position, Africa, attracting pilgrims and giving a sense of dignity to Africans. I wish to highlight that Yamoussoukro and the Basilica were intended as ‘part of a network of tourist facilities that were to span across the country.’[17] A map showing the flight connections available from Abidjan shows Côte d’Ivoire suddenly at the centre of an international network. The cases of Abidjan and Yamoussoukro, and many other young African cities, exemplify how ‘through [airports, churches and] luxury hotels these countries strove for normalization and de-provincialization.’[18]

Overall, this dissertation shows how the basilica, with its foreign style and isolated monumentality, complicates a sense of belonging or ownership for local Ivorians. It also contributes to the Our Lady of Peace’s process of decolonisation.


[1] Zeynep Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations (Berkeley: University of California, 1997), p. 2.

[2] Nnamdi Elleh, Architecture and Power in Africa (Westport: Praeger, 2002), p. 12.

[3] Okwui Enwezor, ed., The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994 (Munich: Prestel, 2001), p. 13.

[4] Ibid., p. 14.

[5] Nnamdi Elleh, Architecture and Power in Africa (Westport: Praeger, 2002), p. 160.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, p. 237.

[8] Yann Arthus-Bertran, et al, La Basilique (Brussels: Mardage, 1993), p. 12.

[9] Cf. Manuel Herz, ‘The New Domain,’ in African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence: Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia, (Zurich: Park Books, 2015), p. 10.

[10] Nnambi Elleh, Architecture and Nationalism in Africa (Westport: Greenwood, 2002), p. 243.

[11] Ibid., p. 109.

[12] Ibid., pp. 109-10.

[13] Ibid, p. 122.

[14] Jonathan Noble, African Identity in Post-Apartheid Public Architecture, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), p. 7.

[15] ‘Le Vieux Est Mort: Côte d’Ivoire’, The Economist 329, no. 7841 (11 December 1993), p. 45.

[16] Partha Mitter, ‘Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery,’ in The Art Bulletin, v. 90, no. 4 (1 December 2008), p. 537.

[17] Manuel Herz, ‘Project of a Nation: The African Riviera and the Hôtel Ivoire’, in African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence: Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia (Zurich: Park Books, 2015), p. 387.

[18] Ibid., p. 387.

Copyright of image: © Fawzeyah Alsabah

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