Sunday, June 17, 2012


The recent posts about Hophouët-Boigny and his grand architectural project in Abidjan reminded me that I wrote the post below for my architecture blog in April 2011 and never reprinted it on this blog. So here it is: the story of Yamoussoukro.


In the Spring of 2011, numerous reports described increasingly awful fighting in Côte D'Ivoire with forces battling in many parts of the country, including urban warfare in the country's main city, Abidjan. For months, the internationally-recognized winner of last year's election, Alassane Ouattara, tried to begin his term from the confines of a faded luxury hotel at the edge of the city's lagoon. Recently, the other man claiming to have won the election, incumbent strong-man Laurent Gbagbo, is now fortified in a subterranean bunker beneath the Presidential Palace in the plateau section of the city, refusing to accept defeat.

Despite the presence of two presidents in the city, as well the national legislature, ministries, courts, and foreign embassies, Abidjan has not been the capital of Côte D'Ivoire for nearly thirty years. Officially, the capital of the republic has been in the center the country some 250-km to the northwest, in the city of Yamoussoukro.

Yamoussoukro may at first appear to be the country's Abuja, its Canberra, its Brasilia--a modern, purpose-built capital near the geographic center of the country. Yet Yamoussoukro was neither chosen to unify a multiethnic nation on neutral turf, nor remove the bureaucrats from a colonial cosmopolis to better administer the people's work.

Distant Yamoussoukro has a far more peculiar origin than any of these cities, with far less democratic intentions behind its transformation from rural village to capital city. In reading a recent summary of the modern history of the Ivory Coast, I was reminded of the country's odd post-independence history, which is in many ways manifested strikingly in this bizarre creation, what has been called an African Versailles.

The Wikipedia entry gives the broad outlines of Yamoussoukro's history. It was an unimportant chieftan's village for most of existence, and was so at the time of the birth of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who would become a member of the French Assembly, and later Cote D'Ivoire's post-colonial president, sometimes referred to as the father of the Ivory Coast.

After several decades of rule from the fast-growing littoral metropolis of Abidjan, its gleaming skyline and clover-leafed expressways a marvel of West Africa, the already long-ruling President declared that he would bequeath his vast plantation holdings in his birthplace to the state, in order to transform his remote home town into a new national capital. Flush coffers of a state-controlled cocoa and coffee commodities boom through the 1970s facilitated the realization of the President's commandments, and the capital officially transferred in 1983.

As with many African countries, Cote D'Ivoire's perennial, systematic problems are rooted not only in its colonial invention as an artificial territory of administration, but also in their post-colonial dysfunction, autocratically governed by a cult of personality, with its rampant, jaw-dropping corruption.

Yamoussoukro is the built embodiment of this monarchical despotism and gentlemanly kleptomania, of which Houphouët-Boigny is not unique and which is not endemic to post-colonial Africa. This phenomenon results in the imperial president, as an absolute ruler over a one-party state, exploiting the entire country as his personal property, not only syphoning the state's resources to his personal comfort, but employing state apparatus to both conceal and facilitate this graft, while undertaking the memorialization his own egoism.

©Google Earth.

A classic example of this, Yamoussoukro is a museum of massive monuments of the state and the glory of its leader, while at the same time well-located and internally arranged to facilitate and conceal the nefarious accumulation of power and resources. In relocating the capital from the colonial port to his ancestral hinterland, Houphouët-Boigny performed a political act of geographic nepotism, as described by the eminent scholar of African architecture, Nnamdi Elleh, in his essay on Yamoussoukro.

Similar to Canberra and Brasilia, Yamoussoukro's center features an artificial lagoon, which makes a peninsula out of the what appears to be the center of the city, separating the market town, called Habitat from the presidential compound.

©Google Earth.

The water feature is shaped like the open jaws of a crocodile, appearing from above to swallow the central market district. In fact, this body of water is known as les Lacs du Caïmans, as the President, perhaps inspired by contemporaneous James Bond villians, had sacred crocodiles bred in the lake--the feeding of which is featured as a major tourist attraction for visitors to the city. Previously, the village neither had a lagoon, nor crocodiles, and there is no specific precedent among the area's traditional beliefs for crocodiles to be considered sacred, or to be captive totems. This carnivorous theater is described at the beginning of a wonderful short story about Yamoussoukro by V.S. Naipaul: The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro.

Foreign tourists viewing the feeding of the sacred crocodiles.

If there is a tourist attraction of truly global renown in Yamoussoukro, inarguably it is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, which is considered to be the largest church in the world. To underscore this: the largest Christian temple on the planet is in the middle of the West African bush, in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Image courtesy Matthias Offodile.

This cathedral might be worth a separate essay all on its own, as its Pierre Fakhoury (sounds like fakery) design is reported to have cost US$300million to construct, the impact of this outlay on the Republic's fiscal health has never been officially ascertained. Built in the model of St. Peter's in Rome, only larger in a gesture of scale that would foretell the simulacra of Dubai and China in later decades. The church, visible for many miles in all directions, lies at the far southwestern edge of the capital.

Image courtesy Matthias Offodile

The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro.

Indeed, all the monumental architecture of Yamoussoukro is on the periphery of the city, surrounded on all other sides by vacant fields, and forest. These acres themselves are often sliced by straight, unpaved tracks and half-finished divided boulevards, interrupted by empty roundabouts, some of which terminate at still more construction sites of undetermined purpose.These are, or were, also the agricultural plantations of the President's family, which, recall, were supposedly donated to the state by the grace of the founding father for the purposes of constructing the new capital. But just like Louis XIV, the Sun King at Versailles, it is difficult to determine the dividing line between Boigny and Core D'Ivoire.

Image courtesy this website.

While many of these imposing landmarks tend to be strictly axial within themselves and their grounds, often with manicured lawns and gardens, they are not arranged together or in relation to each other in any organized visual or symbolic logic that governs Washington, Brasilia, Canberra, or even Abuja or Astana. While beaux-arts alignment of Versailles or the Vatican is alluded to within each construction, there is no larger relationship between these buildings.

Image courtesy this website.

According to Nnamdi Elleh's anaylsis of the capital's formation, Yamoussoukro's plan was intended not to convey democratic unity and balances of institutional power, and was not intended to be urban, but was intended instead to retain the rural character of the original, ancestral village, with the addition of a series of isolated villas, creating a sort of idyllic monumentality that is nearer to a Roman, pre-modern manifestation of imperial power.

It is therefore not the humungous Basilica that is most special, but the Presidential Residence. Surrounded by high walls and guarded by sacred reptiles, the multi-acre presidential compound is on the northwestern edge of the town and is strictly off-limits. The estate has actually swallowed up Houphouët-Boigny's ancestral village itself, architecturally consuming the origins of the state like the crocodiles in the pond. It is unknown if the village has been preserved as a type of historic diorama inside its walls.

A foyer in the Palace of Hosts, the Presidential apartments. ©District of Yamoussoukro

Today the citadel is centered on a modernist block known as the Palais des Hôtes, the grounds of the Présidence is asymmetrial, with the axis of the palace not itself aligned with the half-hearted tapis vert of the lawn down to Les Lacs du Caïmans.

The Western side of the capital, showing the lagoon at center, the Basilica at lower left, and the presidential compound at upper left. This and below ©Google Earth

Neither aligns with any street grid or landmark beyond, and the entrance of the estate is in the rear. Even the Basilica, itself so pristinely arranged, does not relate in any way to the Presidential compound nearby, from which it is visually blocked by a jumbled quadrant of structures on the western auto-route out of town toward the airport.

The Basilica is only the most impressive of the city's monumental edifices. The north side of the city includes the sizable Lyceé Scientifique, and far out of town is yet another astoundingly large university, this of the Institute Nationale Polytechnique Felix Houphouët-Boigny (INP-HB), a futuristic campus which houses a number of former universities which were merged into one under the president's name.

The INP-HB Campus courtesy Google Earth. The rigid plan of the campus's partial octagon is juxtaposed to the informal community on the left-side of the auto-route. Likely home university employees and even some students.

Various details of the massive INP-HB. Images courtesy Matthias Offodile.

Also on the north side of town is a rather tinny, forlorn communications tower, another element to pierce the gently-rolling hillsides of the region.

The forlorn Telecom tower, on the city's northern edge, near the polytechnique.
top ©Google Earth, bottom courtesy Matthias Offodile.

Aside from these religious, presidential, and educational constructions, the southeastern quadrant of the city, where the auto-route from Abidjan enters the capital, has been more recently arranged with a number of grands projets, which together seek to position the city not as the national capital but as an international conference destination.

The City's Southeast, showing the Golf Course, the Hotel Président, the Fondation FHB,
the Palais du Congrès and the auto-route to Abidjan, right.
Map and Satellite ©Google Earth.

Coming into town on this road, visitors will see on a golf course to the left, with a luxurious club house, and the sprawling complex of the Hôtel Président, which seems to have its own multi-winged conference center.

The Hotel Président complex. Image Courtesy This Website.

Across a large lagoon piscine sits the accommodation itself: a 14-story tower of 250-rooms, capped by an oversized, flying-saucer panoramic restaurant, undoubtedly serving French cuisine and forming the third element of the city's skyline. This hospitality compound was according to Naipaul at least for a time operated by the French Sofitel group.

Le Hotel Président, formerly a Sofitel. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Far more opulent and imposing is the nearby Fondation Félix Houphouët-Boigny, in which the assets of the citizenry have constructed an institution to remember the President as a great statesman. Referred to as 'peace research' house, it seems to be mostly a marble-clad conference center.

The central axis of the Fondation's pile oozes out into a wide frontal parking lot, which is then picked up by a minor residential street, only to die unceremoniously at the block containing the city's tourist office, which bars this axial connect to the main autoroute at an account angle. Nearby, the parallel central axis of the Palais du Congrès is likewise blocked from meeting the auto-route by an unkempt field.

Fondation Felix Houphouët-Boigny, a peace research institute. ©2003 District de Yamoussoukro.

Adjacent to this is the Palais de Congrès, which was originally built as thMaison du PDCI-RDA, the headquarters of the President's political party, the only one legal in the country during his reign. Lest it be misconstrued by name or function to have any democratic legislative purpose, the Congrès in the name seems to refer to its function largely as an additional conference facility.

Some distance northeast of here, across the auto-route's bend into the city, is one of the more recent constructions, La Maison des Députés, an impressively hulking pink pyramid, surrounded by several acres of gardens and swimming pools. This was built by the Chinese in 2006 to house delegates to the Group of 77 meeting, which includes 300 rooms, including ten presidential suites. It seems it may be intended to, in the future, serve as extended-stay hotel for the country's representatives.

Maison des Députés, Yamoussoukro's most recent monument.
Purpose-built to house international delegates to the Group of 77 meeting.
Images courtesy Matthias Offodile.

Its quite amazing to note the priority here, in that it seems that an international convention was provided with luxurious hotel rooms before any dedicated building for the Assemblé Nationale was constructed (or converted from the city's several immense conference halls).

There is no legislative house in the city at present, just as there is nothing housing or representing the judiciary, no diplomatic representation, and not even ministerial buildings of the executive branch. There is only the Presidency, its assets and its memorials, and indeed the website of the City celebrates the southwestern zone of the city as a full-service destination for G-level international summits.

This would be astonishing for the capital of any country purporting democratic ideals. It is all the more shocking to consider that these half-dozen underused or vacant edifices sit in the center of a country and region with massive poverty and unmet housing demand.

The architect credited with this creation is the Tunisian-French Olivier Clément Cacoub, who made a career of almost exclusively realizing the derangement of African despots, as a sort of African Albert Speer. This oeuvre includes an exercise quite similar to that of Yamoussoukro: the transformation of Zairian kleptocrat Mobutu Sésé-Seko's riverside home village of Gbadolite into a sort of despotic Disneyland, with multiple palaces and a private airport, famously designed to accept the Concorde, which the dictator liked to charter. This Versailles of the Jungle, as it was named, is now sinking back into a forlorn forest carrefour, Mobutu's palaces looted and burned, being swallowed up by the swamps.

Yamoussoukro's airport was likewise said to be built with this specification, although this may be apocryphal, as lots of African airports could have accommodated the supersonic airliner. At present, there is not even scheduled commercial service within the country, due to the decade-0ld civil war. However, it does seem that when the Basilica was consecrated, Pope John Paul II flew from Rome to perform the ceremony. Naturally, a multi-story, largely windowless palace was built to host him, in an event that must have seen the city at near capacity. That event was followed less than five years later by the death of Houphouët-Boigny in 1994, an event reportedly attended by at least 27 heads of state, including François Mitterand.

The House of the Pope. Image Courtesy Matthias Offodile.

The airport likely saw a flurry of activity again in 2006, during the Group of 77 meeting, when landing strip thick with the private jets of foreign dignitaries, and the whole city was bustling with the various delegations. This institution is dominated by the Chinese, who, its safe to speculate, built the Maison des Députés for the meeting. This took place during a lull in the civil war, which saw the country effectively divided into two zones, with the frontier not far north of Yamoussoukro.

Since the conflict heated up again in 2011, the focus of the action has entirely been on Abidjan, where all political and government activity takes place. In trying to legitimize their respective claims to power, neither Gbagbo nor Ouattara attempted to occupy any buildings in Yamoussoukro or administer the country from there. Instead, the pair played a chess match from across a coastal lagoon. When fighting broke out, Pro-Ouattara rebels quickly moved from the far west across the country, easily occupying towns. On March 30th, forces loyal to Ouattara marched into Yamoussoukro, effortlessly capturing the capital, but pausing only a short time on their march southeast to the main prize: Abidjan, the center of power.

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