Emperor Haile Selassie’s vision and the present Addis Ababa; A capital of Africa!

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Sofonias Melesse

I could have written a fairly sorted book about this subject, Addis is the capital of Africa and the seat for United Nations Economic Commission for Africa after all. Yet I ended up composing this short article because I couldn’t let it dangle in my mind any longer without reaching fellow Addis Ababaians and lovers of Addis Ababa.

Currently, Living in Addis Ababa is like living in a giant construction site. Public open spaces, parks, plazas, play grounds, and pleasing pedestrian alleyways are nothing but a fairy tale to the city. Rather the city is decorated with construction vehicles, scaffolding, cranes, building fences and the ever brushed up road networks… Addis is on the constant run to become the capital it is intended to be. International franchise hotels are focused on investing in Addis more than ever, double digit skyscraper buildings are already under construction and its population is growing exponentially. Is this growth healthy though? Is it planned thoroughly?

The answer is a BIG, SAD “NO”.

Addis Ababa was a “Camp” at the begining

Founded in 1886 G.C by King Menelik II, Haile Selassie’s predecessor, in its first decades Addis Ababa consisted of a cluster of camps (sefers) that spread over the hills surrounding Menelik’s camp, positioned at the highest point. The Old Ghebi, as Menelik’s palace came to be known, Saint George’s Cathedral (consecrated in 1897G.C), and the adjacent Arada market were the nodal points around which the city developed.

Haile Selassie, then Crown Prince Taffari Mekonnen, had greater ambitions for the new capital, kindled by his 1924 tours of Paris, Brussels, Rome, London, Cairo, and Jerusalem.

Haile Selassie’s coronation on 2 November 1930 was the occasion for a series of “feverish, and largely cosmetic, interventions”. The less cosmetic interventions included Ethiopia’s first tarmac roads, which linked the Old Ghebi with Saint George’s Cathedral, and the installation of the country’s first electric streetlights.

Addis Ababa Under Emperor Haile Selassie – I

In the 1960s, Addis Ababa experiences a construction boom. Working closely with emperor Haile Selassie, expatriate architects played a major role in shaping the Ethiopian Capital as a symbol of an African modernity in continuity with tradition. Haile Selassie’s Imperial Modernity: Expatriate Architects and Shaping of Addis Ababa examines how a distinct Ethiopian modernity was negotiated through various borrowings from the past, including Italian colonial planning, both at the scale of the individual building and at the scale of the city. Focusing on public buildings designed by Italian Eritrean Arturo Mezzedimi, French Henri Chomette, and the partnership of Israeli Zalman Enav and Ethiopian Michael Tedros, Ayala Levin critically explores how international architects confronted the challenges of mediating Haile Selassie’s vision of Imperial Modernity.

Addis Ababa ‘NOW”

Addis Ababa is under a massive urban transformation presently. Perhaps more intense than the 1960s G.C. New road networks, new bus and city train routes, new malls, new sky scrapers, new stadiums, new hotels, new apartments are being designed, constructed and presented every day. The city is a living breathing and running being. But it is hard to find the harmony on those building elements of the city; I mean I can’t spot a single one. May be the lack of harmony is its beauty… or may be its wickedness…

Even though The Master Plan is still under revision (been that way for quite long now) there are heavenly projects on riverside, public space and park developments. A smart parking system is already in the picture, which will be completed and put to use in few months. But they all forgot “beauty”, which in the long run is most important aspect of all…

What shoould be done?

Many of the admirable and pleasing characters of the city date back to the 1950s G.C and the 1960s G.C. Italians laid the first footsteps; The Meskel Square, Piazza, Leghar and so on… Finfine Building on the corner of Meskel Square, The National Bank, The Addis Ababa City Administration on top of chrchill avenue, The National Theater built for the Emperors silver jubilee, The foreign affairs bureau are all souvenirs of the 1960s under Emperor Haile Selassie – I.

Sheger/Finfine/Addis Ababa/ needs room to breathe; more parks, more public spaces, more public buildings, more schools, and more souvenirs for the next generation. On the contrary, every tiny buffer space is being dominated by the new money making machines of the century; malls, commercial buildings and hotels… Buildings are built in Addis Ababa to make money… or to make even more money…

This is sad!

Life is not about the money, Life is about the Heritage!

After all our children and grandchildren will get to grow in the place we created…

Sofonias Melesse, Architect and concerned citizen