The Nabemba Tower rises up from the banks of the Congo River in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville. Built in the 1980s, the office skyscraper is the tallest building in the Republic of the Congo and one of the tallest in Central Africa.
Back in the 1980s, the Marxist government of the Republic of the Congo set out a five-year plan to redevelop the capital of Brazzaville. Bragging rights were at stake, particularly with neighboring Kinshasa, the more famous capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo located just across the river (despite the similarity in names, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire, is a different country).
Despite the general poverty of its populace, the oil-rich nation began to invest in modern structures rather than much-needed infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and roads. The centerpiece of this period of development was the Nabemba Tower, built between 1982 and 1986.
Designed by Jean Marie Legrand and built with oil money lent by the French oil company Elf Aquitaine (hence the building’s other name, the Elf Tower), the completed building consisted of 30 stories at a total height of 348 feet (106 meters). It became the tallest building in the Republic of the Congo, a title it still holds today and was named after Mont Nabemba, the highest mountain in the country.
The design of the building has garnered both praise and criticism in terms of its aesthetics. The bulk of the tower is a concave cylinder of alternate vertical strips of glass and white concrete, which accentuate the curvature of the structure. This sits on top of a rectangular pedestal, making the whole thing look somewhat precarious. For some, it’s one of the modern architectural marvels of Central Africa. For others, it’s one of the ugliest skyscrapers in the world.
Since its construction, the Nabemba Tower has been the focus of issues far more important than its simple artistic merits. In 1997, civil war tore its way through Brazzaville and the tower was riddled by gunfire and almost reduced to ruins. It was all but abandoned until 2001 when it was rebuilt and reopened at enormous cost. The total reconstruction effort cost more than $7.5 million, significantly more than it cost to build in the first place.
And then there are the ongoing maintenance costs, which for a relatively poor country are unsurprisingly controversial. Granted, the building houses the offices of some well-meaning groups including the African Self-Help Development Initiative, the New Partnership for African Development, and UNESCO. But with its annual running costs of around $3.8 million, it’s not hard to see why some critics see the Nabemba Tower as a costly folly, especially in a country with failing health, education and transport systems.
Despite much local pride in the towering structure, many people agree with local architect Norbert Mbila, who described the Nabemba Tower as “a strategic building that was built for prestige. It is neither appropriate nor efficient, and it requires a great deal of maintenance.”