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THE TOWER. A CONCRETE UTOPIA Notes on a video-installation by Sammy Baloji and Filip De Boeck (2015) Text: Filip De Boeck / Photos: Sammy Baloji THE TOWER The Tower stands in the middle of the industrial zone of Limete, one of the municipalities of the city of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Part skyscraper, part pyramid, part citadel, this unfinished and ragged twelve storey building strangely sits among the warehouses, industrial plants, railroad tracks and new houses under construction that constitute the built environment of Limete industriel. Towering high above this desultory landscape, defying gravitational laws and urban zoning rules, this uncommon architectural proposition forms one of the city’s strangest and enigmatic landmarks. A giant question mark, it begs for a profound reflection on the nature of the city, the heritage of its colonial modernist architecture, the dystopic nature of its infrastructure, and the capacity for utopian urban dreams and lines of flight that it nonetheless continues to generate. The proud owner and (together with his wife) the sole inhabitant of the Tower, is a middle-aged man, a medical doctor who specializes in ‘aeronautic and spatial medicine’. In 2003, ‘Docteur’ (as everybody calls him) bought a small plot of 13 m². Assisted by two architects, he set out to build a four storey building. But well before reaching that level, Doctor fired the architects and from there, without a clear plan, he became his own architect (and this is the norm rather than the exception in Kinshasa). Somewhere along the line, however, Doctor got carried away by his love for and preoccupation with the skies, and soon what had started as a modest and more regular housing construction evolved into an increasingly megalomanic vertical proposition, reaching ever higher into the sky, and eating up ever more cement and concrete. Sacrificing his own finances, health and peace of mind to realize his ‘vision’, Doctor thus gradually lost control over the building site. The Tower took over and started to impose its own unstoppable logic, building itself to its logical conclusion, while Doctor became the Tower’s hostage, its visionary martyr. The tower itself, so Doctor hopes, will be completed by ‘posterity’ (for he is very aware of the fact that he will probably not be able to fully achieve the Tower in his own life time). I would argue that the tower may be understood as an idiosyncratic but also programmatic, and even messianic, statement on the nature of a more ideal and livable future city. First of all, Doctor stresses the functionality of the building, even though that functional level 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 toilets that are planned on every floor has simply 84  KINSHASA been forgotten or omitted). But beyond the level of its material infrastructure, Mr. X envisages the – as yet unfinished – building as a city in itself, a humanistic project that transcends the city, while simultaneously 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. On the first and second floor a number of medical cabinets have already been installed. They turn the base of the building into a hospital and a site for the healing of bodily harms. Other floors are designed to become lawyer’s offices (on the third floor), a restaurant for all the future inhabitants of the Tower (on floor six), and even an entire aviation school (on the fourth floor). 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 building’s spire invites one to pray, but also to contemplate the beauty of the natural world, of the Congo River and of Kinshasa’s many 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. Thus situated at opposite ends of the Tower, the healing of body and soul bracket the whole idea of the Tower itself. Between ground floor and spire, the Tower offers a continuum between corporeal and mental matter. Architecturally, these two levels are connected by means of what Doctor refers to as an “ergonomic” flight of stairs, dangerously spiraling towards the top. The main function of the Tower is thus to turn the urban residents into better, more fully integrated, human subjects. In the Doctor’s vision, therefore, the Tower will 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. But the Tower does many other things as well. In Doctor’s own words, his tower is an attempt to “illuminate the hole”, to transcend the bare life and the mere level of survival that the city imposes upon its inhabitants, and to turn it into something else. It is, for example, a perfect structure for the visual observation and control of life on the ground level. The Tower is also a watchtower. It is a perfect vantage point to observe suspect movements and warn of imminent terrorist attacks in the city. And thanks to an intricate system of antennae that has not yet been put in place, the Tower, in the maker’s mind, will also operate as a control tower for air traffic: if for some reason, the infrastructure of Kinshasa’s international airport should not work, airplanes will be able to use the Tower as a beacon to make a safe landing. The Tower is also 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 (less far-fetched as it seems, perhaps, for those who, like most Kinois, believe in the possibility of an apocalyptic end time). 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 and thus protects neighboring homes. The fresh breeze that constantly blows through the Tower’s many rooms also


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