The Collège du Saint-Esprit, designed by Belgian architect Roger Bastin, was built between 1952 and 1961 in Bujumbura, Burundi. This impressive complex is situated atop a truncated hill and dominates this city on Lake Tanganyika like an acropolis.
The college shines like a beacon of modernity in this African 'Land of a Thousand Hills'. According to the colonial and missionary propaganda of the time, the 'modern, light and airy' architecture was meant to reflect an innovative educational experiment :
the Collège du Saint-Esprit was the first 'interracial' institution where the elite of then-Belgian Africa was educated and where white and black students were taught side by side. The Jesuits in charge of the institution introduced a school curriculum that could compete with the best programmes in the mother country but also, according to the film Espoirs d'Afrique ('African Hopes', 1961) by Jesuit Jacques Gabin, combined the best of two humanist traditions – Western and African.
The Collège du Saint-Esprit, says the official history of the complex, is an open space, with neither boundaries nor closed-off horizons. The specific location, a plateau accessible by a single road and surrounded by steep hills, 5 km from the city centre, nevertheless created significant isolation, a secluded world in which students could be sheltered from the African city, which, with its many bars and uncensored cinemas, was still considered by Jesuits in the early 1960s to be a den of temptation and perdition. Depending on one's sympathy toward the institution, as one of its head teachers once said, one could view the Collège du Saint- Esprit as a serene environment for study, worthy of a cloister, or as a fortified citadel or 'alcazar'. In this regard, the Collège du Saint-Esprit, despite its 'open' aspect, is not so very different from the imposing Jesuit colleges in the mother country, with their usual severe, enclosed architectonic aspect.
Within the sprawling configuration of the complex, suited to the climatic conditions in the tropics, its various functional elements (the classroom buildings, the dormitory wings, the science block, the dispensary, the sports accommodations, the study halls, the centrally situated chapel, the Fathers' residence, the service block with refectories, kitchens, laundries and storage facilities) are linked by a network of covered galleries.
The complex is deliberately designed from the point of view of the moving spectator. At every turn it offers changing vistas onto the colourful architecture and the impressive landscape of hills. Simultaneously, the numerous through-views, the variations in levels, the terraces cut into building volumes and the sun-screening devices that typify this tropical modernist complex also facilitate discrete forms of oversight and control required by the disciplining school regime.
In the Collège du Saint-Esprit, the panoptic gaze is never far off. 'Shortly after sunrise,' writes Albert Russo in a passage about the college in his novel Eclipse sur le lac Tanganyika (Eclipse on Lake Tanganyika, 1994), 'the students could be seen going about under the watchful eye of the Fathers, immaculately dressed in their white cassocks.'
Historian Betty Eggermont once dubbed the ideal of the simultaneous, ritual movements of students that typifies the school regime the 'choreography of schooling' :
standing in rows when the school bell rings, entering the school interior in silence, taking their assigned seats in the classroom, raising their hands before answering . . . The 'cinematic' architecture of the Collège du Saint-Esprit at times stages this choreography in a very striking way : the covered galleries frame the movement of rows of students, the open stairwells slice vistas out of the surrounding landscape but simultaneously record climbing the stairs as a series of snapshots, the panoramic terraces provide space for gymnastics lessons that, with their tight, quasi-military precision, celebrate the principle of mens sana in corpore sano.
The ample banks of steps that line the playing fields and serve as stands during public gymnastics demonstrations, however, also provide room for play, allowing the students to break free, if only for a moment, of the restrictions of the choreography and appropriate the space of the school. For a school is never absolutely standardised or disciplined. It also remains, as Eggermont notes, a 'site for struggle
'Note : This text is based on a study of the Collège du Saint-Esprit conducted as part of doctoral research. See Johan Lagae, 'Kongo zoals het is' : Three architecture stories from Belgian colonial history (1920-1960), doctoral thesis (University of Ghent, 2002). For an official history of the college, see Maurice Pilette, 'Le Collège Interracial du Saint-Esprit à Usumbura', in Alain Deneef (ed.), Les Jésuites au Congo : Cent ans d'épopée (Brussels, 1995), 130-138. The notion of the 'Choreography of Schooling' is borrowed from Betty Eggermont, 'The Choreography of Schooling as a Site for Struggle : Belgian Primary Schools 1880-1940', History of Education, no.2 (2001), 129-140.
Translation : Pierre Bouvier