Namugongo Museum: Uganda’s architecture too needs Martyrs

Namugongo Museum: Uganda’s architecture too needs Martyrs

For their refusal to renounce Christianity, thirty-two young men of the Catholic and Anglican faiths were – on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga II of Buganda – burned to death on June 3, 1886 at Namugongo. As a tribute to them, a shrine designed by Swiss architect Justus Dahinden was built – in 1973 – at the place the martyrs were killed. Namugongo martyrs’ shrine is a worthy tribute, an architectural land mark.

One thousand Nine hundred and fifty years earlier, many miles away, another man had been martyred – crucified upside down at his own request because he considered himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus. He was the man in whose regard Jesus had said “…on this rock I will build my church…” Peter (the rock) did indeed live up to this rhetoric, spreading Christianity far and wide and becoming the first pope– seeing Jesus’ church grow.

The old St. Peters’ church that was built at the site of St. Peters’ tomb in the 4th century was replaced by the current St. Peters’ Basilica whose construction began in 1506 and got completed in 1626. The church engaged exceptional renaissance architects like Donanto Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Madano and Giani Lorenzo Bernini who all contributed to the master piece that St. Peters’ Basilica is; a reflection of God’s glory and a manifestation of His work through man.

We see other imposing gothic church structures in England and France among other places. And we see the same gothic concept in many of our traditional churches here in Uganda. These churches –and for some reason they were mostly built on hill tops – announce the presence of God on approach and humble the worshipers, wheedling them into submission – ready to praise God almighty: A great feat of architecture.

Then along came the Pentecostal church with the famous revivalism. We started seeing revival church buildings, some built in wetlands, with lethargic architecture: Churches that at best give the impression of a casually designed auditorium and at worst appear like a slum cinema hall (kibanda). They hardly inspire humbleness; scarcely announce the presence of a magnificent God. But, as if by some miracle, the worshipers in there are always on fire and young people flock them.

The recent Uganda martyrs Namugongo – Anglican Church’s drive to construct a museum in commemoration of the 24 Anglican martyrs who died 128 years ago is a brilliant and opportune one; doubtless God-inspired. The church needs to showcase its historical greatness and highlight its contemporary relevance. For this important Museum project, it would have been best if the church organized a design competition to identify architectural work that would best inspire man and glorify God. What we have now, however, is a museum design which discredits man to whom we credit the architecture and decries God whom it is supposed to exalt.

To be fair, there sure is at least something 'museum' about the design: Like it deserves a prominent place in a secular museum showcasing the worst in architecture. On the Uganda Martyrs Museum Namugongo – church of Uganda website, there is a list of strategic alliances the project development committee has made. On that list, there are some reputable architects. They couldn’t have participated in the design of this museum. It would be most unbelievable, most mortifying if they did. But being amongst the chosen alliances; they can and should advise the church now and provide proper museum design options as offertory. It’s not too late.

And if the church won’t take neither their advice nor the offertory, these architects together with the entire Uganda Society of Architects (U.S.A) should stand together and pronounce, “It would have to be a cold day in hell before this Architecture-mocking Martyr-vilifying museum got built in our life time”… and then act. There’s no doubt that the patron saint of architects – St Thomas (yes, that very doubting Thomas) will bless this resolve. Uganda’s Architecture too, needs martyrs.

By Aaron Aroriza - a contractor and a Director on the Board of the Uganda National Association of Building and Civil Engineering Contractors (UNABCEC).

NewVision October 30, 2014.