Habemus Cella


The Moment Before

Volume 7, Issue 01
September 20, 2021

*Borrowed from the holy Latin phrase ‘Habemus Papam’.
definition: ‘we have a Pope’. It is usually pronounced by a Cardinal at the end of a Papal conclave, from the central balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, in order to announce to the whole world, the identity of the newly elected Pontiff.

‘Cella’ means ‘room’ in Latin.

On a large dry plot in the suburbs of Yamoussoukro in Ivory Coast, sits the 30,000 square meter ‘Basilica of Our Lady of Peace’. This ambitious project is an almost exact replica of the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It was commissioned by Houphouët-Boigny, the first President of the Ivory Coast, in power from 1960 to 1993, in his hometown. The Basilica was built between 1985 and 1989 by Lebanese architect Pierre Fakhoury. The Yamoussoukro Basilica has not had the same history as the ‘original’ Saint Peter’s Basilica, and its story is ‘yet to come’.

In an attempt to better understand the 7,508 kilometers that separate these two sites - the Vatican City and Yamoussoukro - this short essay will draw on the text of Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe “The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original through its Facsimiles’1 . The authors argue that the production of facsimile (meaning ‘make similar’) paintings using digital 3D tools creates a quasi-legitimate output. The authors dissect our obsession for the “original” version. Latour explains that ‘a well accounted for original, may continue to enhance its originality and to trigger new copies’. This ‘fecundity’ (meaning reproductive quality) of the original is visible when looking at the current Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. In 349 CE2 Constantine, the first Christian Emperor in Rome, oversaw the completion of the Basilica over the (believed) burial place of Saint Peter. The Basilica began to ‘fall into ruin’ around the middle of the fifteenth century. The walls were ‘leaning, and collapse was inevitable3 . Pope Julius , years later, decided to ‘completely rebuild’ the Basilica4 at the same location. This new construction is now referred to as the original old Saint Peter’s Basilica. The architect Donato Bramante, first began construction in 1506 using a tactic of building from the inside out. This sculpting of the Basilica allowed him to experiment with the design of the dome but also the floor layout, which changed ‘back and forth from a Greek cross layout to a Latin cross layout’5 . These relentless Latourian ‘de- then re-materialization of the Basilica have been abstracted in the Yamoussoukro Basilica, it does not embody the historical intersections that lead to the current state of the Vatican Basilica. The main architectural focus in both Basilicas is still the light ascending from the cupola and the surrounding windows that look up to the heavens. In both, there is the capacity for thousands of visitors to gather for communion each week.

Latour describes a feeling which we as admirers of artworks often recognize: that ‘only the original possesses an aura ‘, and the copy is de facto aura-less. But the architecture of both Basilicas does in fact have the ability to make you feel transported - almost transcended in time and space. This is precisely one of the architectural intentions seen in the most enchanting religious constructs. In many churches, for instance, this is done through the use of light entering the space through stained glass windows, proportions beyond human scale, the use of holy relics. In this sense, both Basilicas can have an aura, a ‘distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to be generated by a place’.

Yet the different contexts and geographic locations of the two Basilicas may alter or accentuate this feeling of ‘aura’. A ‘copy’, Latour reminds us, derives etymologically from ‘copious’, and thus ‘designates a source of abundance’. The Yamoussoukro copy is thus a site of abundance in a context of poverty, unemployment, and unachieved promises. In the close-by district of Yakro for instance, 750 hectares were intended to accommodate companies that work in the agri-food sector making the city ‘the epicenter of the industrialization’6 . Instead, the immense Basilica, an unmissable symbol of the city, remains the only very well-maintained part of the city for the few thousands of tourists who pass there each year. The replica Basilica stands as a veneer and an archive of these conflicting realities.

Annexed to the Yamoussoukro Basilica, a papal villa was designed for the speculative trip of the Pope and in the hopes of hosting his holiness in his usual bedroom setting. The room has ever since been empty. In 1990, during his African Tour, Pope John Paul II consecrated this Basilica and did a sermon there, asking the Ivory Coast President to build hospitals around the edifice. Curiously, the Pope did not stay for the night and instead returned to the Vatican City that evening. This architectural edifice still lives today in a constant state of ‘yet to come.

The Yamoussoukro Basilica and the Papal visit reflect the larger entanglement of geopolitics and architecture in a transnational display of power, pride, and faith. The architect of the Yamoussoukro Basilica explains his work as translating the faith of the President into a ‘magnificent edifice’7 , he also describes the capacity of architecture to go beyond what exists. In this race for highest-tallest-shiniest, the ‘trajectory’ of a copy can perform as a ‘trompe l’oeil’ (meaning visual illusion) and lose part of its meaning. It is this ‘cognitive dissonance’ that we as active diplomat architects should transcend and instead identify ways to reproduce such titanesque projects using more responsible and contextual modes of production. The Yamoussoukro Basilica is seen by many as the ‘Saint Peter’s of the Savannah’, but the only real manifestation of a ‘savannah’, is the shadow it casts on the close-by fields of cocoa.

In a final attempt, one might use speculation as a tool to think of the futurities of the Yamoussoukro edifice, in a way for it to better suit its context and local needs, whilst constantly ‘fecundating’ its aura. The Basilica could host within it, a hospital structure on one end and at the other a museum annex with part of the Vatican’s impressive collection of artifacts from across the world (but 7,508 kilometers away from Vatican City). The surrounding of the Basilica can be the site of regenerative agriculture with Baobab trees, that with time, could go even higher than both Saint Peter’s Basilica and ascend to the promised heavens.

  1. Latour, Bruno and Adam Lowe. “The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original Through Its Facsimiles.” Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts. Eds: Thomas Bartscherer, Roderick Coover. Chicago: Chicago UP (2011) ↩︎
  2. E. Howard and M. Howard ↩︎
  3. Hauser ↩︎
  4. Bosman ↩︎
  5. Scotti ↩︎
  6. ‘Yamoussoukro, capitale endormie de la Côte d’Ivoire’ by Youenn Gourlay, Le Monde, https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2020/07/20/yamoussoukro-capitale-endormie-de-la-cote-d-ivoire_6046762_3212.html (2020) ↩︎
  7. Interview of Pierre Fakhoury ↩︎

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Volume 7, Issue 01
September 20, 2021