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Architect builds bridges between the Congo and Kansai

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Back in New York and, I confess, after reading Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” I became something of an architectural enthusiast. So when I arrived in Japan and observed a veritable bonanza of styles I’d never seen up-close before, I was ecstatic.

So it was with an otaku‘s giddiness that I spoke with Nsenda Lukumwena, an authority on Japanese buildings and one of the architects behind some of the structures seen here in Japan. The 61-year-old Lukumwena resides in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, but is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Which is not to be confused with the Republic of the Congo,” he says. “We’re neighbors. The R.C. was a French colony and the DRC was a Belgian colony. I’m from the DRC.”

Lukumwena explained that this colonization lasted from 1876 till 1960, and that the Congo suffered severely under Belgian King Leopold II. He bled the country of its resources — primarily rubber, ivory and precious metals — and was responsible for the death of 8-10 million Congolese. Those who survived were subject to a level of brutality and torture that would make a Nazi nauseous.

In 1960, the Belgian Congo (as it was known then) was finally freed from its colonial yoke thanks to the heroic efforts of resistance leaders like Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first democratically elected prime minister. But interference from Belgium, Briain and the U.S. soon led to what’s known as the Congo Crisis, a coup d’etat and Lumumba’s execution in 1961. (All three countries have since revealed their complicity.)

This crisis, spanning 1960-1965, began in Lukumwena’s childhood.

“I was born in the south, in Lubumbashi, a city of art and enterprise,” he remembers. “But after independence there was civil war, and I’d see people being shot in the head or decapitated with machetes, their heads put on batons and displayed in the city, stuff like that. It was terrible.”

The country eventually fell into the hands of the Belgium- and U.S.-backed despot Mobutu Sese Seko. Since at the time the Congo was America’s best source of uranium (including the material used to make the nuclear bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), Mobutu’s use of the country’s treasure and his countless human rights violations were condoned, as long as the madman condemned communism and aided in the effort to keep uranium out of Russian hands.

During the Congo Crisis, for safety’s sake, Lukumwena’s parents relocated the family to Europe, where they temporary lived in Belgium and then France. They returned to the Congo a few years later, but not to their home in Lubumbashi, instead settling in the capital, Kinshasa.

Lukumwena’s childhood was a relatively privileged one, living among and being schooled alongside European expats, and having an intimate understanding of them that most of his fellow Congolese could only imagine.

“I was essentially a minority in my own country,” says Lukumwena. “Not a racial minority but an economic one. My father was a teacher who got into business and eventually into politics so we had certain advantages. Growing up in that environment kind of offset some of the complexes I might have developed. Due to the colonization my country had undergone, many Africans looked to white people as role models, and the society judged you according to those white standards.”

As a young man with the luxury of options, and being inordinately intelligent and drawn to challenges, he initially contemplated going either into law or medicine. But then on a street in Kinshasa he saw something that informed him what direction his life should take.

“One day I saw a man driving a beautiful car,” Lukumwena says, “and he had some lovely young ladies riding around with him. I asked him what he did for a living and he told me he was an architect. That was the first time I ever thought about becoming an architect, ’cause these guys made out better than lawyers and doctors.

“But the decisive moment occurred one day when I had a chance to see some architectural drawings,” he says. “There were a lot of lines and symbols and it looked so complex and challenging. That was enough for me. I love a challenge.”

Lukumwena attended L’institut National du Batiment et des Travaux Publics (the National Institute of Buildings and Public Works) in Kinshasa, where he studied architecture for six years. Then he made his way to Japan with the intention of attending graduate school here.

He’d chosen Japan as the place to receive his advanced degrees (he achieved a master’s and a Ph.D. from Osaka University in urban design community and regional planning and development) after seeing a single picture of a building. He didn’t know anything about the building — where it was located, who built it, nothing — but it impressed him considerably. One of his professors informed him that the building was in Japan, so he began reading into Japanese architecture. What he learned once again stoked that fiery need to push himself.

“Here was architecture that would challenge me in a different language and within a different culture,” Lukumwena says. “Beyond that, Japan being a developed country which is not a Western country, I thought that I could gain some insight into how Africa could be developed without necessarily following the Western model.”

I was curious what he found to be unique about Japanese architecture.

“What you see in Japanese cities you can see in Paris or Hong Kong or elsewhere,” the 33-year resident of Japan says, “but when it comes to space utilization, Japan is very distinctive!

“To me architecture is all about light and spaces. The picture I mentioned was a photo taken from inside a home looking towards a garden. I found out that this was the thing. It’s the light! How the light is brought into the building. There’s plenty of light here in Japan but it’s filtered through the paper shoji and so on, so you get a really soft light inside. So you wind up with this trilogy of light, shade and shadow. This you would not find in many other countries.

“And spaces! Spaces are all about the people and the culture,” Lukumwena says. “Let me illustrate. Whenever we talk about beauty we’re comparing without necessarily being aware that we’re comparing. So if I ask you to name a beautiful person, whomever you choose you will have chosen in comparison to other human beings. But when it comes to animals — like a cow, for instance — if I ask about the beauty of a cow, people get a little lost because they wouldn’t know immediately how to compare.

“Our idea of beauty is an aggregation of images and ideas we absorb from the people we have known, the places we have lived, the culture we live within and so on, over the course of our lives. These we use as references when it comes to beauty.

“It’s similar when we talk about spaces,” Lukumwena continues. “We are drawn to spaces that somehow fit us, and these spaces are inspired by the culture in which they’re found. Architecture belongs in a culture. Japanese architecture belongs in this culture.”

After years of working for a number of Japanese architectural companies, Lukumwena started his own firm, Designatelier-Da Architects & Associates — in 2010. Since then he has designed and overseen the building of over 15 homes and numerous office buildings, retail shops and a hospital.

In addition to his architectural endeavors, he’s also a professor of urban planning at Kobe Institute of Computing, a lecturer at Kwansei Gakuin University and the founder of an annual event called “Afrika meets Kansai,” a social action group bringing African and Japanese businesspeople together for mutual benefit and cultural exchange.

“Africa has come to a point where it is no longer just a receiver,” Lukumwena explains. “It can be a true partner. So I thought it was time to ask what can we do for this country where we have been hosted for so many years.

“And one way to give back would be to create a platform,” Lukumwena says. “Culture would be the base, but business would be the goal. Because if we can recognize and respect one another’s culture, our differences and similarities, without judgment, then business would perform well.”

Lukumwena still has strong ties to the DRC and travels there regularly. He has designed and built a number of homes and a hotel in his homeland. He’s also involved in social activism there, helping alleviate the plight of street children, and has managed to get several Japanese companies to finance a truck that will act as a mobile power solution providing energy to families in the DRC.

“The Congo is slowly recovering,” Lukumwena says. “But it will take centuries to fully recover from colonization, regain our identity and be truly independent.

“I think Africans need to be deprogrammed and then re-programmed, because hundreds of years of colonization and contact with white people killed almost everything that was culturally African. But there’s a growing consciousness in the Congo among the younger generation today to embrace African culture, values and virtues.”

Black Eye usually appears in print on the third Monday of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com.