In his 2000 diorama “Ville de Sète 3009,” Bodys Isek Kingelez imagined the French city on the Mediterranean as a future utopia. Electric lights glimmer by the orderly gardens and towering buildings, all constructed in buoyant colors and shapes, suggesting what he described as a “better, more prosperous world” than the one we have today. By setting that future a century from now, he also emphasized how much work must still be done to get there.
It’s one of the most sprawling of the over 30 “extreme maquettes,” as he called them, on view in Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan. Organized by Curator Sarah Suzuki with Curatorial Assistant Hillary Reder, the exhibition includes both cityscapes and single buildings, dating back to the 1980s.
Kingelez died in 2015, leaving behind three decades of these intricate models, optimistic visions based on his own hopes for his home country of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. As explored in the kaleidoscopic MoMA exhibition — its design of white rotating plinths and overlapping platforms created in collaboration with artist Carsten Höller — he started work on this visionary art after his country’s independence from Belgium in the 1960s. Despite the subsequent civil wars, fueled by the involvement of the Soviet Union and United States, he saw this freedom as a path to a harmonious tomorrow, not only for Zaire and Africa, but the whole world.
It is easy to be won over to this dream when looking at Kingelez’s maquettes, with their vibrant colors and inventive transformations of everyday materials into skyscrapers, stadiums, airports, and other buildings. Shafts from ballpoint pens, scraps of cardboard, aluminum foil, plastic straws, thumbtacks, and 35mm plastic slide mounts were some of his repurposed materials. He referenced Postmodernism, Japanese pagodas, Art Deco, Dutch gables, and other vernacular and modernist styles for a global fusion of architecture. Kingelez worked in Kinshasa as a restorer of traditional objects at the Institut des Museés Nationaux du Zaire, and his attention to detail is evident. Rather than hide the label from a cigarette carton or soda can, he let the commercial emblems be elevated as part of the design. Although you can identify the bottle caps, or the bent plastic spoons, that were formed into the tiny structures, they feel like realizable places, even if they didn’t exist at that moment.
His largest cityscape is “Ville Fantôme” from 1996, with its Space Age skyscrapers accented in metallic hues joined by thoughtful infrastructure such as public parking and a power plant. At MoMA, visitors can journey into its streets through virtual reality. He stated of the fictitious metropolis: “There is no police force in this city, to protect the city, there are no soldiers to defend it, no doctors to heal the sick. It’s a peaceful city where everybody is free. It’s a city that breathes nothing but joy, the beauty of life. It’s a melting pot of all races in the world. Here you live in a paradise, just like heaven.”
And like heaven, it seemed only death could get you there, with a “bridge of the dead” labeled with a skull connecting this fantastic world to another island with an airport. Amid all the optimism, there are these shadows that suggest Kingelez’s doubt about achieving this “paradise.” Many of his individual buildings address needs being overlooked by current urban planning, such as the 1991 “Scientific Center of Hospitalisation the SIDA,” a hospital specifically for the AIDS crisis which had hit Kinshasa particularly hard. The dynamic 1990 “Étoile Rouge Congolaise” with its spiky curves was envisioned as a “High Multicultural Court of Wisdom” for the Republic of the Congo, where the arts and education would be promoted as assets for well-being.
Kingelez was recognized for his ingenuity and craftsmanship in his lifetime — he was featured in the renowned Les Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1989 and MoMA’s 1997 Projects 59: Architecture as Metaphor — yet this is the first American retrospective of his work. The exhibition is inspiring not just in its miniature utopias, which argue for architecture’s power in addressing urban problems, but in how Kingelez turned what was basically trash into something extraordinary.
Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams continues through January 1, 2019 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown West, Manhattan).