MasterBuild Africa

Tales of Addis Ababa’s modernism

Posted on

Addis Ababa would have been one of the most ruthlessly planned cities of the twentieth century if Le Corbusier’s sketch for the city had been realized. On the 19th of August 1936, Le Corbusier wrote to Mussolini to offer his technical services and to comment on the appropriate design for the new cities of Africa Orientale Italiana, the Italian colonial empire. The design, which accompanied the letter, would show “how a city for modern times is born”, as the famous architect put it.

Like other Italian architects occupied with the designs for the new empire, Le Corbusier considered Ethiopia to be an architectural playground. Addis Ababa had been the capital of the Ethiopian empire since 1889 and was a full-grown city concentrated around the imperial palace of Menelik II.  The idea of Ethiopia as a tabula rasa(a blank slate) was omnipresent in the writings of architects and urban planners occupied with the designs of the colonial capital between 1936 and 1939, who considered the country devoid of any structures of architectural significance.

Aerial view of Addis Ababa before Italian conquest

It is, however, important to emphasize that Le Corbusier did not have any notion of the standing structures in Addis Ababa as is evident by the inscription written on the sketch: “solution théorique en absence complete de documentation regionale”.  Perhaps these quick sketches must not be considered as a product of deep thinking and analytical observation, but rather as a testimony of the architects feeling of Ethiopia as an empty land – a sketch mirroring an aerial view devoid of any circumstantial pollution.

A model of the plan for Addis Ababa

Ironically, several months after work began, the British army entered Ethiopia and put an end to the construction of the new Italian city. The archives of the Ministry of Italian Africa show besides endless bureaucratic exchanges of letters about designs, deep concerns with the situation on the ground. In fact, due to a lack of appropriate building material very little was built. Most of it remained paper architecture. In 1940, one rapport reveals that in Addis Ababa, 153 apartments were build by the housing corporation, 64 were build directly, 123 houses were taken from indigenous people, and 66 were rented from indigenous inhabitants. To compare: the regime constructed over 5000 farmhouses in Libya in the year 1940.

Although Italian Addis Ababa gradually changed from a futuristic utopia into a tedious town in the hands of the Italians, this story on Le Corbusier’s involvement urges us to rethink the idea of (Italian) colonial planning as an isolated phenomenon. Clearly, the debate on the plans for Addis Ababa was closely intertwined with the general European debate on architecture in the 1930′s. As Le Corbusier’s ideas on functional zoning, rigid lines, and three-dimensional urbanism were often too radical and futuristic to be realized on the European mainland, the colony was the ultimate laboratory to realize these concepts.

culled from HERE

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *