Collective Confusion




by Joakim Larsen

December 2014


The case of Change and Modernity in Addis Abeba

Inspired by a lecture at the Goethe Institute in Addis Abeba.



Addis Abeba, capital of Ethiopia. The Amharic name translates into New Flower. Founded only 125 years ago, Addis is a young city and a young capital. Still it has grown to its present size with approx. 7.5 million citizens. And with growth comes change.


In fact the entire country is under-going rapid change these years. Since it began opening up some 15-20 years ago – after having kept itself isolated for around 1200 years – the current changes in Addis are large in scale, profound and happening very quickly.


Among the external drivers of change are the sudden exposure to Western culture and values and the seductive pop-culture. And due to the lack of time to reflect on whether it is good or bad, constructive or destructive, these external factors seem to be accepted and included without hesitation, especially among the youth. And on top of this globalization, the inescapable and all-penetrating reality of our time, is taking its turn.


The internal drivers of change are also large in scale; politically the country has, since the establishment of its present 1994 constitution been ever moving from military totalitarity towards democracy – although it would be fair to say that the democracy here is still in an immature state. Culturally we see in the younger generation a homogenization; access to the Internet and students now mixing freely across the traditionally closed cultural, regional and national boundaries, are some of the main contributors. Socially it may be argued that despite the increasing gab between the haves and the have-nots, Ethiopia is in fact heading towards an egalitarian society.


The demographic factor must also be taken into consideration: Today 50% of the population are under the age of 24 – that is more than 45 million Ethiopians! This enormous generation of youth represents a massive growth in population over a very short time span. And despite the fact that around 85% of the overall population is living in rural areas, Addis Abeba is currently experiencing a large growth in numbers as many are moving to the city in search of new and better opportunities. No wonder therefore that changes are happening at pace which may be mind-blowing to some and difficult for many others to deal with.



Some of the beautiful old houses in Piassa from the Italian occupation

that have survived through time.


Another central factor is the time span; as opposed to most Western cities, Addis and its culture span over hundreds of years. This should be understood in the way that you find highly privileged people living top-modern lives in top-modern facilities in central Addis. And down that same street in the very city center you see flocks of sheep and donkey trains with traditional low-tech agricultural produce and people living more or less the same ways as they have been for many years. The contrasts are big and visible.


Now… according to the discussion in the Goethe Institute, a city should be viewed as a collective house, a collective organism. In the ideal city everyone has the right to change and reformulate it; in this city architects are reading the dreams of society and are translating them into constructive contexts. This is the modern city and it cannot be overridden. In the context of architecture modernity may be defined as a transformative state of change which is happening somewhere between history - the past, rooted in local culture tradition and values - and the utopia, the dreams of the future.



Entoto, the hills above Addis Ababa -

Here just 10 kilometres outside people live as they have done for centuries,

some without the ordinary commodities that many of us take for granted.


In relation to architecture and the planned development of Addis, however, all of the above mentioned factors represent a huge challenge. For how can a city possibly contain such diversity and cope with these substantiel changes in such short time? And thus follows the discussion of modernity which is at the very center of the present discussion in the architectural environment in Addis.


Some architects criticize Addis for copying the West. For in order to absorb the large number of people and in the attempt to develop the not insignificant areas of slum, top-down political decisions have been made to construct large scale new condominiums around the city. And so Addis is growing rapidly, mostly vertically however - like Western cities - something which was never a tradition in Ethiopia. And it is argued that this change is not taking into account the Ethiopian context. For no forum is held for public discussion, where the needs and preferences of the citizens are heard and collected for the architects to translate them into designs that can embrace and sustain its people.


Furthermore high-rises have recently become the symbol of modernity in Ethiopia – both in Addis and in some of the smaller cities that are simply copying Addis, despite the fact that they have both the space and other resources at their disposition for the development of their own distinct architectural identity.


As designers and thinkers the architectural environment in Addis has not been and is still not prepared to understand all the new phenomena. So instead of teaching the students to dream the dreams that have not yet been dreamt, they are being taught how to attach a roof to the walls and to memorise the utopia of Western culture.



One of the many high-rises under construction in Addis.

Here Churchill Avenue close to Nigeria Rd.



Today Addis is not accommodative to everyone; the city cannot contain all the many peoples, the different needs and time zones. And it is argued that these needs and the dreams of the architects are being overridden by political decision-making and that this has basically led to a massive state of collective confusion. And to the extent that buildings shape the people, Addis is a sad case. For Addis is turning into a manifestation of a lost battle because the city is not guided by its good qualities; it was not prepared for the huge changes it has had to make in recent years. The population’s ownership of the city is lost and the city is losing its DNA: Addis is increasingly becoming a city for the rich and a city for the poor and so it is losing its health. This is the schism of Addis Abeba today. And so Addis should be viewed as a new city under fast development but not as a modern city.


The challenge is: how can you construct a city which at the same time can embrace not only the sudden massive change but also accommodate the needs of all its diverse people? And furthermore, how can the architectural environment in Addis educate its students to dare to dream those undreamt dreams, to challenge the students to come up with those ideas that truely support the needs of the citizens? Part of the solution may be to ensure that the students are well-grounded in Ethiopian history and culture and to teach them to critically approach external influencers. They must be provided with analytical tools that allow them to think freely and truely creatively. Furthermore parts of the architectural literature must be re-written in an Ethiopian context, for today most of the literature available is founded in Western culture traditions and values.


So Addis should not simply adopt modernity as it is already defined in the West. It must re-define the concept in a local context. All in all the cultural identity of Addis needs to be rediscovered - so there is a need for architects of transformation.


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