A Modern Capital in the Making
The 1960s architectural legacy of Addis Ababa.
Living in Addis Ababa at the moment is like living amid an overgrown building site. Instead of airy parks, lush gardens or pleasant pedestrian alleyways, the city feels as though it is filled with cranes, scaffolding, diggers, building fences and piles upon piles of rubble. The shuffling of mechanical earth and beating of metal on metal have become the city’s dominant sounds, and not a single area or street is spared by the construction frenzy. Addis has turned itself upside down to create the new New Flower.
Many see this building craze as unprecedented, with new tower blocks getting off the ground, neighborhoods undergoing development, and a modern light railway now running above city streets. But the current urban transformation is not as novel as is often perceived. In Addis Ababa’s 130 years of existence, the capital city has certainly known other periods of intense construction and urban change, even if not on exactly the same scale. In fact, beneath the façade of today’s development lie many prominent 1960s-era buildings, which together tell a tale of the capital’s modern ascendance.
Laying the foundation
It all started in 1886, when Emperor Menelik II — one of the most revered in Ethiopia’s history — moved his seat of power from the hills of Entoto to the nearby plain of Finfinne. His decision was dictated by necessity: He wanted to build a railway to link his country to the port of Djibouti, but the engineers working on it advised him that the way to Entoto was too steep for the steam engine to reach. Empress Taitu, who particularly enjoyed the hot springs in Finfinne, had already built a house there; later, when confronted with the railway dilemma, she persuaded the emperor to join her.
Menelik consequently built his own quarters next to his wife’s, thus laying the foundation stone of what would later become a major African metropolis. From that small nucleus, known today as Old Gebi, Addis Ababa (“New Flower” in Amharic) began to expand.
Half a century later, during the Italian Fascist occupation of the late 1930s, Mussolini plotted grand plans to recreate Addis. Many government architects busied themselves in Rome drawing plans for a new capital city, and even internationally-renowned Le Corbusier tried to put his hat in the ring — presenting plans to build in Ethiopia the experimental contemporary city of which he dreamt.
As tensions mounted in Europe leading into World War II, all creative projects were put on hold. The ousted Emperor Haile Selassie — Menelik II’s successor — was sent off to exile in the U.K. as the Allied Forces fought the territorial advances of Hitler’s Germany. But even though the Italians didn’t end up staying long enough in Ethiopia to transform the capital, they did contribute to its urban layout by developing the areas of Piassa, Mercato and Kasanchis, and building new roads to link them together.
It took Haile Selassie some 15 years after triumphantly returning to his country in 1941 before he could start rethinking about building the capital. The world around him, slowly recovering from the scars of the ravaging war, entered back into construction mode. Everything had to be rebuilt — not only the destroyed cities themselves, but also a new world order in which Africa would be a sovereign and independent continent. The spirit of decolonization spread fast from East to West, leading to the creation of the Organisation of African Unity — the very first Pan-African institution.
Emperor Selassie, a great supporter of Pan-Africanism, proposed to host the new African organization in Addis Ababa. For many, the fact that Ethiopia had never been colonized made it a symbolic choice, but for the emperor, that wasn’t enough; he wanted Addis to become a modern African city recognized on the global map, with architectural designs that would make his country proud.
In the period that followed over the late 1950s and early 1960s, Addis went through a massive urban makeover that proved extremely prolific architecturally. The all-powerful emperor attracted some well-known international architects to help realize his dream of presenting Addis as the capital of a united Africa. In his memoirs, Italian architect Arturo Mezzedimi — who worked very closely with the emperor for some 23 years — quoted him as saying: “It is necessary to show people that it is possible to construct grand buildings here, too, by erecting a couple of high-profile structures, with the maximum possible use of home-produced material.”
The 1960s architectural boom
It was thus the architects of the ‘60s who were entrusted to build the city of the future, and to give Addis a true international dimension. With many novel projects commissioned, including government buildings, health and education centers, residential apartment blocks, industrial facilities and tourism infrastructure, the center of gravity moved to Meskel Square, where it remains today. In a very short period of time, the face of Addis changed; the New Flower became a modern city with a unique architectural harmony.
“What is so special about the 1960s buildings in Addis is that, together, they represent a large variety of [the era’s] approaches to modern architecture,” explained Nikolaus Knebel, a visiting professor of architectural design and heritage at Addis Ababa University, and the author of Addis Modern: Re-discovering the 1960s architecture of Africa’s capital city. “Not in many places can such a variety of influences be found.”
In particular, some architects of the time began to question the so-called International Style or modern movement that had dominated since the 1920s. The movement — represented mainly by the works of Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright — prescribed simple, rectilinear forms; a focus on functionality (with open interior space and a lack of ornamentation); and the use of modern materials, such as glass, steel and reinforced concrete. In opposition to the modernists, the younger generation of architects again looked at local context and specificities for their structures, as well as for style and decoration.
In Addis, the architectural shift started in 1959, with the construction of Africa Hall — one of Addis’ landmark buildings and the first seat of the Organisation of African Unity (later renamed the African Union). The building was designed by Mezzedimi, the first international architect to work in Addis. Having studied futurist architecture in Europe, Mezzedimi was already working in the Horn of Africa, where his designs for an indoor swimming pool in Asmara, Eritrea, drew notice. With Africa Hall, he created an over-imposing building to reflect the perceived importance of the nascent OUA, while still applying some of the geometric principles of the modern movement. Today, the building is the seat of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. It is also renowned for its colorful stained-glass triptych windows, created by the great Ethiopian artist Afewerk Tekle to represent the sorrows of Africa’s past, the struggles of the present and the hopes for its future.
Mezzedimi likewise designed the Addis Ababa City Hall, which dominates the whole city center from its height on top of Churchill Road. With two massive wings and a central clock tower, it may not be the most elegant of buildings, but it is certainly memorable in terms of scale and location. Together with Africa Hall, it’s often been labeled by critics as a “work of the regime.” To defend his position, Mezzedimi wrote that his intention had been to make a strong impression on public opinion, showing that it is indeed possible to erect striking buildings in Ethiopia.
Emergence of modern Addis Ababa
The architectural fever across Addis continued well into the mid-1960s, with more landmark structures being raised across the city. The Hilton Hotel and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, located opposite one another, stand out as prime examples of innovative designs that attempted to chart a new architectural path.
The Hilton — designed by American architect Charles Warner — has a classic hotel layout, with an open ground floor surrounded by restaurant, reception and bar areas, and upstairs guestrooms aligned along a central corridor. It does not, however, appear as an abstract and geometric box, as was held dear by modernists, but instead is full of references to the local context.
“This strategy was in line with the Hilton Group’s general approach at that time to break away from the International Style and integrate contextual features into their design,” says Professor Knebel. Many references are made to the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, one of Ethiopia’s most important heritage sites. The entrance canopy and the swimming pool in the shape of a cross are reminiscent of Beta Giorgis, while the decoration on the main façade recalls the narrow windows of the other Lalibela churches.
Israeli architect Zalmann Enav followed a different strategy for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Enav, who worked on the project with Ethiopian architect Michael Tewodros (himself a pupil of Louis Kahn, one of the most creative architects of the second half of the 20th century), used the geometry of a symbol as part of the building’s structure, as opposed to its decoration. However, both Enav and Warner applied the same principle of using local materials, such as stone and glass, and mixing them with concrete. It can be hard to see today, but some of these buildings reflected a great technical achievement at a time when finding quality concrete in Ethiopia proved difficult.
Many other noteworthy buildings across the capital trace their origins to the same period — from the Finfinne building on the corner of Meskel Square, to the National Bank on Churchill Avenue, to the Lycée Guebre-Mariam and more. “Even if they are not all masterpieces,” says Professor Knebel, “the city has a rare collection of buildings that embodies the complexity and contradictions of the time. Not in many places can this be found.”
With the current urban transformation underway, many of these precious buildings and others like them will be eclipsed by much taller towers — making us forget that they once embodied modernity in Addis. Their aesthetic quality and originality will remain, however, even as the new New Flower continues to bloom and grow well into the 21st century.