Sunday, January 16, 2011

The City of Douala and Water

By Berend van der Lans, Architecture plus

La Nouvelle Liberté by Joseph-Francis Sumégné, 2007

Doual’art plays an exceptional role in the city of Douala, by initiating and stimulating urban interventions by artists and public artwork at several locations at a variety of scales in the city. The non-governmental organization, headed by Princess Marilyn Douala-Bell, Didier Schaub and Paulin Tchuenbou, has influenced the image of Douala through their projects undertaken in the last two decades.

Since 2007, the activities and events undertaken by the organization are knitted together through triennial events. The second ‘Salon Urbaine de Douala’ (SUD2010), took place between 4 and 11 December 2010 and was related to the theme of Douala’s somehow troubled relationship with water.

The origin of the city of Douala is formed by a group of small settlements on the banks of the Wouri estuary, populated with fishermen. The Douala culture is hence strongly related to water, both in myths and customs.

Since the German settlers colonised Cameroon, the areas on the banks of the river were reserved for Europeans and later were fully used for harbour activities. For the people of Douala, direct access to the Wouri was nearly fully cut off, the city now seems to be positioned with its back turned to the river.

The harbour zone is blocking any contact between the city and the Wouri estuary
(image: Mauro Alessandro Lugaresi)

Douala is known as one of the places in the world with the highest amount of annual rain fall. The unplanned sprawl of the city has been frustrating the natural flow of the abundant seasonal streams of water, creating numerous problems in the densely inhabited city. Yearly floods result in destroyed housing, damaged private and public asset and in serious health threads to Douala’s inhabitants. Nonetheless, the abundant availability of water also creates chances.

In 2011 construction works start of a new deepwater port in Kribi. The idea is to shift part of the harbour activities of Douala to Kribi and Limbe, another town close to the ocean. In this way the continuous deepening of the Wouri to Douala for deepwater vessels can be avoided.

This results in challenges as well as threads for the largest and economically most active city of Cameroon. The banks of the Wouri will become accessible for the people of Douala once again, hopefully in such a way that the relationship between the Wouri and the Douala inhabitants is not only present in myths and the yearly Ngondo ceremony, but on a more firm basis.

On the other hand, the harbour offers a great direct and indirect economic driver for a large majority of the population of the Douala region. The shift of harbour activities will threaten the income positions of many families and stimulate them to follow the harbour bound companies. It remains to be seen, what impact this will have on the city. It seems obvious that any new plan for the gained harbour banks should include new economic developments to avoid an increase of poverty in the region.

While above and more issues were discussed during ‘conferences’ at the Doual’art premises, SUD2010 also offered presentations of many artworks, vernissages and performances at other locations in the city.

 Performance by Regina Geoger along the banks of the Wouri river,
attracting many harbor workers

Some of the work which was presented clearly developed a dialogue with the people of Douala, either at large or within specific areas.

At Bonamouti two projects were developed. Le jardin sonore by Lucas Grandin offers a vertical garden where the people of the neighbourhood can retreat and enjoy the sounds created by water drops dripping off the structure. Salifou Lindou, a painter and sculptor living in Bonamouti, created Face à l’Eau, an installation of five panels, offering privacy at a bathing site on the banks of the Wouri for the men of the area. 

Top: Le jardin sonore by Lucas Grandin at Bonamouti
Bottom: Face à l’Eau by Salifou Lindou
(photos from

In New Bell, another neighbourhood of the city, one of the oldest areas and with a high density, several artists created food for thought for the inhabitants. Hervé Yamguen developed Les Mots Écrits, a poetic approach for his home neighbourhood by involving 5 rappers into creating songs, of which certain lines were executed as wall sculptures at several spots of the area. The rap songs were performed during SUD2010 and recorded onto the CD Wash mes ways (to be downloaded via the SUD2010 website). Kamiel Verschuren explored a pragmatic approach with New Walk Ways New Bell, by developing timber covers for the open sewers of New Bell, once covered by concrete slabs but since long open. The execution of these covers, only at specific locations, created discussions amongst the inhabitants, that it would be good to also develop covers for the parts which are still open and continue to collect dirt and rubbish, thus blocking the stream and resulting in flooded streets with contaminated water.
Hervé Yamguen explaining one of the wall sculptures of Les Mots Écrits in New Bell

New Walk Ways New Bell by Kamiel Verschuren

The Dutch artist Ties ten Bosch settled for 2 months in Ndogpassi, a more recently developed neighbourhood. Many people living in this area did migrate from villages upcountry. The settlements have a more informal feel but by lack of authority are toughly managed by a chef and a committee of men. Via this communal organisational system, decisions on maintenance of public services are made, but also financial assistance for inhabitants who are in need for some help. Diving in deep by Ties Ten Bosch is rather a story than an art work in situ; he documented his stay in the area via video, bottles of water and images. Meanwhile he challenged his temporary neighbours in developing projects with sometimes smaller, sometimes as larger impact on the liveability of the area. While in full contact with the chef and the committee, he developed street names and signs for the main arteries of the neighbourhood. Daily water samples were showcased as a diary of the stream through the area. The force majeure was the construction of a bridge between Ndogpassi and the neighbouring area on the other side of the stream. Shortly after SUD2010 Ten Bosch returned home. The impact of his work remains to be seen, but the bridge is sturdy enough to survive many years of neglect.
The water bottle diary as part of Diving in deep by Ties ten Bosch in Ndogpassi

In the same area, at a beautiful location around and above a local source forming the heart of Ndogpassi, Philip Aguirre developed Source. The project, basically an amphitheatre following the existing shapes of the landscape, will be executed in 2011, but was presented to the chef, the committee and the neighbourhood with a celebrative ceremony during SUD2010. This ceremony proved that the location forms an excellent stage for similar events.

The presentation of Source by Philip Aguirre at Ndogpassi

Individually the impact of the above and other projects developed under the umbrella of Doual’art are minimal and it remains to be seen if these projects really do result in creating awareness of the people of Douala. On the other hand, taking into account the involvement of the people and the reaction on the projects, the positive, aesthetic but hands-on approach does work catching. It makes it useful to return to Douala on a regular basis. It is to be hoped that many Salons Urbains de Douala will follow.

SUD2010 is organised by Doual’art and supported by ICU art projects.
More info on

Underneath, you will find some more images taken by Berend van der Lans during SUD2010.

All well dressed and well registered during the Ngondo ceremony
Doual’art premises

Arrival of palm trunk for palm wine production, part of the full recycling program by 2012 Architects
Ties ten Bosch explains Diving in Deep in Ndogpassi
Intermezzo during the presentation of Source by Philip Aguire

Pont Source by Ties ten Bosch in Ndogpassi

La Colonne Pascale by Pascale Marthine Tayou (bottom left) at a mayor junction in New Bell
Vernissages with work from Boris Nzebo (top) and Alioum Moussa (bottom)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Raw Kick-start

Raw Foundation was invited to visit Douala during the SUD to kick-start a collaborative building project with 2012architects and ICU art projects. Part of the Doul'art centre will be transformed incrementally over the next couple of years, using salvaged, found and natural materials and using passive, low-tech techniques to create a comfortable internal climate. The latter is a great challenge, given the humidity levels and relatively stagnant air of Douala. Timber, for instance, does not dry naturally, but has to be mechanically treated. Could rainwater perhaps be harvested to increase the thermal mass and therefore cooling, as well as supplying an alternative to bottled water? How can this be done in a way that minimises maintenance? These are the questions that will be addressed during the project.
It took a while, but a certain feeling and vibe of the city of Douala gradually became sensible to the raw crew. Having absorbed the urban set-up, its materials-use and practices, mobility and its ever-changing nature, typical of a port city, emerged as a strong theme. The initial ideas for the project are inspired by this: the folding and unfolding of the city and its elements, on a daily basis; the rise and fall of the stalls of the street vendors; the roll-in and roll-out of wheels and mobile units. To let the movement speak of the use and function, to let the facade and building form react and play with the requirements of the current use, this is the inspiration. At the heart of all this, is the integration of programme and the creation of building climate, within a presumably restricted budget.

Raw builds using these materials, using these low-energy techniques and lastly, builds with a strong inclination to maximise the involvement of the surrounding community. This is achieved through a series of events, workshops, film screenings and various other stunts, using the buidling site as a temporary urban space.
A presentation on the  Saturday morning of the SUD festival stimulated a discussion on the merits of building with cheap and available materials and how to encourage locals to simulate, duplicate, replicate the methods that will be used. Through the use of the building site a a temporary podium  with workshops for skills transfer as well as events, a larger public will be drawn into the works and the enthusiasm for building with unconventional materials will, all going well, be contagious. Contacts with local groups working with youths to develop their life and DIY skills are already being made. It is promising to be a rather interesting project for 2011.
Local and international [resident] artists will be encouraged to get involved in the construction period. Their input in the eventual building will also be expected through the use of mobile walls, sleeping and working units, as well as facade elements.
In conjunction with 2012architects, the city and surrounding plantations/mangroves will be scoured for appropriate materials.
A desire for participation and interaction, on as many levels as possible, is at the heart of this project, alongside the propogation of low-energy and low-tech solutions to creating a pleasant internal building climate and creating a showcase of inexpensive materials with which one can build wonderful spaces.

There is, therefore, much to do and french to learn.
[BJ Hooft & Calanne Moroney]