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Can Addis Ababa stop its architectural gems being hidden under high-rises?

Only rubble remains of the former home of Dejazmatch Asfaw Kebede, a member of Emperor Haile Selassie’s government. Built in the early 1900s, and inspired by Indian as well as Ethiopian architecture, the building was demolished in early January without the knowledge of Addis Ababa’s conservation agency, the Culture and Tourism Bureau.

Demolition and reconstruction are now the most common sights along Addis Ababa’s unrecognisably altered skeleton skyline. The collateral damage is the city’s heritage.

While tourist organisations boast that Ethiopia is the cradle of humanity, the capital is being stripped of its past. Heritage defines a city and shapes it socially, historically and culturally. It is impossible to imagine Athens without the Parthenon, Cairo without the pyramids, Rome without the Colosseum. While Ethiopia’s national heritage of dramatic, ancient sites is valued and mostly protected, conserving urban heritage appears to be at best an afterthought, and at worst an inconvenience.

Buffet de la Gare, a canteen that hosted Ethiopia’s musical legends in the 60s and 70s, was levelled to erect a Gulf-style luxury development. Meskel Square, the city’s most important public space, is like a building site, in complete upheaval. The 1930s villas in Kazanchis, less than a mile from Meskel Square, have been lost under a high-rise development scheme.

The dramatic changes of the past 20 years and demise of much historic architecture are not anomalies. A vast urban makeover is continuing. Of the heritage buildings listed by the Culture and Tourism Bureau, about 8% have been demolished.

The bulldozing has sparked outcry from some of the city’s most prominent architects and planners. Fasil Giorghis, chair of conservation of urban and architectural heritage at Addis Ababa University, has argued that the destruction reflects a fundamental “lack of consciousness, lack of awareness of the value of heritage”.

As a former empire, Ethiopia has a long history of centralised planning. Now, an absence of community engagement and growth in profit-driven development means heritage concerns are disregarded. It’s often argued that preserving urban heritage hinders economic growth. However, the opposite is true. The recently opened Unity Park, constructed at the grand palace of Emperor Menelik II, shows that urban conservation can open up vital tourism opportunities. Sadly, such developments are, for now, exceptions to the rule.

“Addis Ababa is beginning to look like an imitation of some other city,” says Esther Sellassie Antohin, founder and director of Heritage Watch, which advocates for the restoration of urban heritage in Ethiopia. “There’s a hollowness, there are disconnections, a disjointedness that presents a problem.”

Statues glorify, but heritage buildings expose historical nuances and complexities. They offer a physical window into the lives of those who came before us. It is not merely the brick, the concrete, the plaster, the hours of sweat and labour, and the endless economic investments that are lost when heritage is razed – pillaging architectural history fosters collective amnesia.

Architect Medhanie Teklemariam, who was instrumental in making Asmara, Eritrea a Unesco world heritage site, says: “Destroying heritage buildings means destroying your history. The destruction of any part of it leaves us poorer.”

Giorghis adds: “Any society has to have a healthy relationship with what is the past, the present and its future. Otherwise, what we do to our historic buildings, the next generation will do to our buildings.”

Indeed. Contemporary architecture might be felled by future regimes, continuing the cycle of architectural impermanence.

As Ethiopia’s largest city, Addis Ababa is experiencing a surge in urbanisation as young people move in from rural areas in search of jobs. This shift demands investment in housing, transport and sanitation systems. However, the city is constrained in spreading outwards, after the debacle of the “master plan” for expansion. The plan, unveiled in 2014, resulted in waves of social unrest and conflict with the surrounding Oromia regional administration and was abandoned in 2016. So Addis Ababa must grow upwards, requiring high-rises and inner-city renewal.

The way we become “modern” is not by negating our past and severing ourselves from all that has made us with flashy Dubai and Hong Kong-inspired aesthetics. There is much to learn from traditional architecture and design, which reflects culture and patterns of collective behaviour, in informing how we build communities.

Some within the city administration understand the importance of maintaining collective memories. Heritage buildings in the neighbourhoods of Arada and Beherawi are being refurbished to become public spaces for urban tourism, showing development and conservation need not be in conflict.

“It is not to say that development should stop,” says Giorghis. “It is to say that we have a different kind of development. A development that gives some respect and consideration to the existing urban fabric.”

As waves of migration point to an urban future for Ethiopia, a fresh look at city development is desperately needed, one that designs and builds not on top of, but among layers of the past.

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