In the 1960s, Addis Ababa experienced a construction boom, spurred by its new international stature as the seat of both the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the Organization of African Unity. 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 the 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 an imperial modernity.
On 13 December 1960, a military coup d'état shook Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. Although order was restored immediately upon Emperor Haile Selassie's (1892–1975) urgent return from a state visit to Brazil, the specter of the coup continued to haunt the city and had repercussions for its planning from that time until the regime's eventual downfall in the 1974 revolution.1 The abortive coup against the ancien régime came as a blow to Haile Selassie, who had returned to rule even stronger after the brief Italian colonization from 1936 to 1941. In the context of the Cold War race for development in decolonizing Africa, Haile Selassie's international prestige grew in tandem with Ethiopia's importance as an embodiment of African independence in the postwar years. Taking advantage of Ethiopia's strategic position near the Suez Canal, the emperor shrewdly played major donors, including the United States, the Soviet bloc, and nonaligned Yugoslavia, against each other. Addis Ababa's continental and international stature was consolidated when the city was chosen as the seat of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) headquarters in 1958 and of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, a development that stirred a construction boom that reached its apogee in the mid-1960s.2
Taking place at a moment when construction in the capital was increasing, the failed coup had lasting effects on the reorganization of the city. In its aftermath, Haile Selassie's ideology of modernization took on a more cautious “gradualist” turn. The emperor donated his Guenete Leul Palace, where the coup's instigators had entrenched themselves, for the construction of Haile Selassie I University (now Addis Ababa University). In this highly symbolic gesture, intended to contain and sublimate the revolutionary forces of the young intellectual elite, the university, one of the country's most modern institutions, was born. As I argue in this essay, this act of monarchical benevolence—a doubled-edged gift—epitomized Haile Selassie's approach to the modernization of the capital. Giving the palace to the students was not merely a symbolic gesture; it also served as a pretext for the reorientation of the city's development southward (Figure 1). In addition to containing the social ferment expressed by the coup, the emperor's action set in motion a series of institutional building and infrastructural projects around the Jubilee Palace (completed in 1955), where the emperor established his permanent residence following the coup. In addition to Africa Hall, where the UNECA and OAU meetings took place, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Mapping and Geography Institute—both critical for maintaining Ethiopia's imperial holdings—were located next to the palace on Menelik II Avenue, a newly built boulevard (Figure 2). Together, these buildings constituted a new power nexus south of the Old Ghebi (old palace), thus symbolically cutting off the parliament in the north.
Foreign architects played a significant role in shaping Haile Selassie's Addis Ababa. Offering a lucrative building market that was unencumbered by the legacy of colonial-era monopolies, the city attracted an influx of architects, including the Italian Eritrean Arturo Mezzedimi; the French Henri Chomette; the Israeli Zalman Enav, who partnered with Ethiopian repatriate Michael Tedros, who was born and raised in England; and the Yugoslavian Zdravko Kovačević and Ivan Štraus. Also drawn to Addis Ababa were contractors such as the Norwegian Norconsult and Israeli Solel Boneh.3 Operating closely with the emperor, these actors were given charge of projects that intersected with the many contradictions embedded in Haile Selassie's modernization program. While his government acted as a symbol of African independence, it also acted as an imperial force that sought modernization without social reform. By focusing in this essay on public buildings designed by the firms of Mezzedimi, Chomette, and Enav and Tedros, whose prolific work left an indelible mark on the city, I critically explore how international architects confronted these challenges in mediating Haile Selassie's vision of an imperial modernity.
The dialectic between modernization as a technological and economic project and modernity as a sociopolitical and cultural program took form in the fragmented physical restructuring of Addis Ababa, where the emperor sought to shape the Ethiopian capital so that it embodied African modernity while simultaneously representing an ostensibly uninterrupted continuity with tradition. I examine the kinds of borrowing from the past, recent or remote, at play in the construction of a distinct Ethiopian modernity, both at the scale of the single building—specifically, the relationships between ornaments and structure—and at the scale of the city plan and urban patterns of growth. Thanks to its brief colonial history, Addis Ababa offers a unique opportunity to link postcolonial development with the modernization efforts of the precolonial and colonial past. My argument follows the provocative and complementary propositions made by philosopher Olúfémi Táíwò and historian J. F. Ade Ajayi. Táíwò argues that Africa was already becoming modern before European colonialism, and Ade Ajayi contends that colonialism should be treated as an episode rather than as the determining factor in African history.4 I demonstrate that rather than making a clean break with the Italian colonial period, Haile Selassie used Italian planning to further modernization plans for the capital that he had cultivated since the 1920s. Although Italian colonial planners introduced profound changes to Addis Ababa, I believe their interventions should be placed on a continuum with the city's precolonial and postcolonial history. In this account, I also examine how foreign expertise was employed after the colonial period in service of Haile Selassie's vision of a modern imperial Ethiopia.5
From Camps to City
Founded in 1886 by King Menelik II, Haile Selassie's predecessor, in its first decades Addis Ababa consisted of a cluster of camps (safars) 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 1897), and the adjacent Arada market were the nodal points around which the city developed (Figure 3).6 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.7 According to historian Shimelis Bonsa Gulema, Haile Selassie's coronation on 2 November 1930, to which many international dignitaries and reporters were invited, was the occasion for a series of “feverish, and largely cosmetic, interventions.”8 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.9 Alongside these infrastructural changes, however, other measures in the spirit of Potemkin village façadism were hastily implemented; for example, canvas and plywood triumphal arches were erected, city police and soldiers were outfitted with khaki uniforms, and the fronts of houses facing the streets were whitewashed.10
In the postcolonial period, three major events reignited the momentum for modernization of the city: the Silver Jubilee commemorating Haile Sellasie's coronation in 1955, the choice of Addis Ababa as the seat for the UNECA in 1958, and the choice of the city as the seat of the OAU in 1963. These occasions advanced growth of the city to the south, resulting in far more than cosmetic changes (see Figure 1). While the 1930 coronation had prompted the paving of roads connecting the city's three primary nodal points, for the 1955 celebrations the Jubilee Palace was erected as a new nodal point to the south of the Old Ghebi.11 This extension to the south, via the creation of a new nodal point, continued Italian colonial methods of urban planning: identifying existing nodal points of the market, the church, and the palace; clearing grounds for roads and piazzas between and around them; and adding new buildings in relation to existing structures as a basis for further urban development.12 Creating a new nodal point to the south of the old palace followed a plan by Italian colonial planners Ignazio Guidi and Cesare Valle that designated the area as the new political center of Italy's East African capital.13
Other governmental buildings soon punctuated the southern part of this imperial-governmental-educational axis, which visibly expressed Haile Selassie's efforts to transform Addis Ababa into an international center. Facing the Jubilee Palace, which became the emperor's prime residence after the 1960 coup, Africa Hall was constructed by Arturo Mezzedimi immediately after the coup (Figure 4).14
The single most important building to mark Ethiopia's political stature on the continent, Africa Hall was the stage for the performance of pan-African political and economic alliances. During the 1960s, the new Menelik II Avenue was completed with the 82 Apartment Building, designed to house the personnel of the adjacent UNECA headquarters (Figure 5); the Mapping and Geography Institute opposite; and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (relocated from its previous position next to the Guenete Leul Palace) across Yohanis Street to the north of the Jubilee Palace. All of these buildings were designed by the Israeli–Ethiopian partnership Zalman Enav and Michael Tedros. The parliament house, built in the 1930s in conjunction with Haile Selassie's coronation and the introduction of a new Ethiopian constitution, was symbolically disconnected from this new nexus of power. Located north of the Old Ghebi, it was associated with prewar reforms rather than with Ethiopia's new postcolonial continental leadership, encapsulated in the triangulation of the Jubilee Palace, Africa Hall, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (see Figures 1 and 2).15
In parallel with the isolation of the parliament from this power triangle, new buildings for ministries in charge of domestic affairs, such as the Ministry of Telecommunication (designed by Kovačević and Štraus), were relegated to a separate north–south axis, already constructed by the Italians who had named it Viale Mussolini (see Figure 1). Renamed Churchill Avenue upon independence, it stretched from Mezzedimi's City Hall in the north to the Djibouti–Addis Ababa train station (1917–37) in the south. Designed in conjunction with Africa Hall, City Hall (1961–64) was located in the original site designated for it during Menelik's reign, next to Saint George's Cathedral and the busy commercial area that came to be known as the Piazza during the Italian occupation (Figures 6 and 7). Along the Churchill Avenue axis, on Adwa Square, Haile Selassie I Theater (renamed the National Theater after the revolution) was another civil monument; construction of the theater began during Italian colonial rule and was completed in the mid-1950s by Henri Chomette.
In the early twentieth century, the railway line had stimulated the city's development southward. Similarly, in the postcolonial period, new transportation nodes assisted the extension of the imperial-governmental-educational axis. The reorientation that began in 1937 with the railway continued in 1946 with the inauguration of Ethiopian Airlines and the launch of its international service from an airfield inherited from the Italian occupation, located in Lideta in the southwest of the city (see Figure 1). Refurbished from 1958 to 1960 by Mezzedimi, the Lideta airfield constituted an important nodal point. During the 1950s the Princess Tsahai Memorial Hospital and the Ethio-Swedish Building College were located on Smuts Street, which led to the airfield.16 By 1963, however, a new international airport constructed to the southeast diminished the importance of Lideta and became the main entry point into the city. Named Haile Selassie I International Airport, it spurred construction to the southeast alongside Africa Road (known as Bole Road), which fed directly into Menelik II Avenue through Masqal (Cross) Square (see Figure 1).17 The new airport was the most significant in a series of airfields constructed around the country by American and Israeli companies.18 Ethiopian Airlines flights were staffed by Ethiopian crews, and the air hostesses dressed in festive habeshema kemis, the traditional Ethiopian dress. Numerous photographs from this period portray Haile Selassie at the airport welcoming international guests, with the modern control tower dominating the background.
An Italo-Ethiopian City
Italy's brief occupation of Ethiopia and Haile Selassie's return to power after World War II present a complex case of an intercultural encounter whose reciprocal acts of translation and appropriation demonstrate unstable dynamics of power. In the case of Italian colonialism, however, this model of cultural revivalism resonated more with the efforts Italian architects invested in Italy's North African colonies than with their efforts in East African colonies, including Ethiopia. In a compelling comparison, cultural anthropologist Mia Fuller argues that in Ethiopia, Italy asserted a clear racial boundary. Unlike in its North African colonies, where it presumed a shared Roman past and cultural affinity, Italy based its legitimacy in Ethiopia on civilizational hierarchy rather than cultural continuity.19 Informed by Italy's historical failure to conquer Ethiopia in the 1896 Battle of Adwa, the dynamics of intercultural encounters were more charged in Ethiopia than they were in the Italian North African colonies. Like no other colony, Ethiopia disturbed Italy's pride, being the only African country that had defeated a European army. This bitter memory fed into Italy's insecurities about its own modernity and racial superiority in relation to other European colonial powers. The stakes were particularly high in the Ethiopian capital, since Mussolini could declare Italy an empire only after it had conquered Addis Ababa.
Despite Ethiopia's status outside Italy's classical heritage, it nonetheless had emblems of power the Italian occupiers could easily recognize, such as the fort in Gondar, constructed by Portuguese builders in the thirteenth century, and the nodal points of the palace, market, and church, which resembled those in Italian towns.20 The occupiers’ victory was tainted by painful reminders of defeat, however, as many of these structures had been built by Italian prisoners of war captured during the Battle of Adwa, or by Italian builders hired by Ethiopian patrons.21 Addis Ababa was both strange and familiar because of its monumental structures. The Italians initially intended to raze the city completely and build it anew. Lack of resources, however, led the planners to resort to urban practices based on both the Fascists’ reconstruction of excavated and cleared monuments in Rome and the Renaissance tradition of gaining legitimacy through the appropriation of the buildings of the preceding government.22 Preserving Ethiopians’ symbols of power, such as the palace, was a way to subsume them to the Italian colonial regime and return Italian achievements to their proper attribution.23
When Haile Selassie, in turn, incorporated Italian-built piazzas, monuments, and grand avenues, he reasserted his ability to employ Western expertise in the service of his empire. His regime did not hesitate to appropriate Italian development, such as the road network, airfield, and even civic monuments such as the theater, just as it had incorporated foreign technical aid into Ethiopia's modernization program earlier in the century.24 Whereas Italian troops’ arrival in Addis Ababa in 1936 brought massive destruction, after the city was liberated in 1941 few Italian colonial monuments were taken down under Haile Selassie's second regime.25 The government could not afford to reverse the development the Italians had set in motion, so it sought instead to reclaim the colonizer's achievements; in this way, the imprint of the Italian occupation could be incorporated seamlessly into the city's fabric and reduced to merely a passing episode in its history.
This challenge was even more pronounced in respect to neighboring Eritrea, where a longer period of Italian colonization had effected considerable modernization of industry and architecture.26 Annexed by Ethiopia in 1941, Eritrea raised the stakes for the modernization of Ethiopia because the latter had to prove to United Nations observers that it could maintain control over Eritrea—or, in other words, that it was “modern enough” to colonize a territory that was arguably more developed. As Gulema explains, modernization served as a propaganda tool to exhibit to the UN observers that Ethiopia “was civilized and capable enough to take over and administer modern, albeit colonized, ex-territories like Eritrea.”27 Rather than rejecting the colonizer's achievements, Ethiopia appropriated Italian colonial symbols and planning to assert its own modernity and imperial prowess. From this perspective, the brief Italian occupation of Ethiopia served Haile Selassie's purposes, as he could use its planning to jump-start his imperial ambitions for the capital and the taste for monumentality he had developed after his 1924 tour.
The opportunity to take advantage of Italian planning presented a double challenge to postliberation Ethiopia, however, since the planning was based on an Italian colonial land reform program that undercut the Ethiopian monarchy's economic base of legitimacy.28 Haile Selassie's appropriation of Italian colonial governance through the physical ordering of Addis Ababa at the same time that he was undoing Italian land reform and reversing its modern economic base can be interpreted as “colonial mimicry” or, as some historians contended, as “façade modernism.”29 In this case, however, the relationship between colonizer and colonized presents a complex dynamic that can be characterized as what literary theorist Shaden Tageldin calls “translational seduction.”30 From the perspective of the colonized, Tageldin argues, cultural imperialism's workings are more an “attractive proposition” than a “willful imposition”—a proposition that suggests the possibility of the reversibility of power between colonizer and colonized. She asks, “What happens when a ‘native’ signifier binds to a ‘foreign’—especially a colonizing—signifier to shore up the power of the native through the power of the foreign?”31 Although Tageldin refers to literature, the question she raises is particularly pertinent in the field of architecture, where the incorporation of vernacular motifs into Western models has been a common feature of colonial design.
The short history of a sculpture erected in a formal garden facing the former Guenete Leul Palace succinctly encapsulates this relationship (Figure 8). During the Italian occupation, the palace served as the residence and official seat of the viceroy of Italian East Africa. During that time, the Italians erected a vertical staircase sculpture in the garden, with the number of steps representing the years of Fascist rule in Italy and its colonies. Upon Haile Selassie's return to the palace, he did not remove the sculpture. Instead, by the simple gesture of topping it with the Lion of Judah, the emblem of Haile Selassie's regime, he reclaimed it as an Ethiopian symbol.32 Both the Italian occupation and Haile Selassie's postoccupation regime appropriated monuments rather than destroying them. This recalls Tageldin's conceptualization of cultural imperialism “as a politics that lures the colonized to seek power through empire rather than against it, to translate their cultures into an empowered ‘equivalence’ with those of their dominators and thereby repress the inequalities between those dominators and themselves.”33 In the Italian–Ethiopian case, city planning was a medium for reversing power and producing a seemingly harmonious continuity from the precolonial to the colonial and the postcolonial regimes.
The Emperor's Benevolent Entrepreneurship
The colonial Italian plan for Addis Ababa served as the basic guide for Haile Selassie's pragmatic and strategic interventions within the city, but British and French planners also created a series of plans commissioned by the Ethiopian government.34 In 1946, under the patronage of its British “liberators,” the Ethiopian government approached the eminent Sir Leslie Patrick Abercrombie, author of the recently completed Greater London Plan, to draft a plan for the capital.35 Characteristically unmonumental, Abercrombie's plan consisted of neighborhood units (supposed to correspond to the existing safar system), green parkways, a greenbelt, satellite towns, a hierarchical street system that retained the existing governmental sector, and a network of radial and ring roads (Figure 9).36
Despite the fact that this plan did not conform to Haile Selassie's tastes and ambitions, Abercrombie's commission was renewed in 1954 in preparation for a town planning exhibition and the publication of the country's First Five Year Development Plan in 1957.37
Abercrombie's plan was eventually rejected, partly because of the massive resources required for such a comprehensive urban transformation.38 However, the landed aristocracy's opposition, which led to the abandonment of this plan, shows that availability of public funds was only a small part of the problem.39 Even had there been a genuine desire on the part of the government and the city to implement this and other plans, the existing land tenure system, in which around 90 percent of urban land was controlled by less than 10 percent of the population (the aristocracy and the monarchy), precluded such attempts. The emerging middle class, consisting of bureaucrats, military personnel, and merchants, did not present an alternative patron, since it was absorbed into the imperial system through land grants allocated from 1942 through the 1960s.40 As the existing system supported the monarchy's legitimacy and its elected parliament, any land reform would have threatened to undermine the imperial regime.41 Haile Selassie's strategy of maintaining political stability by keeping the landed aristocracy pacified was complemented by the fact that the government and the municipality did not have the statutory power to implement Abercrombie's plan. When combined with financial shortages, technical deficiencies, and a crippled bureaucracy, this lack of power meant that the chances of implementing any of the plans drafted in the following decade were close to nil.
Acting as the city's planning consultant and chief architect in the 1950s, Henri Chomette grew wary of the applicability of master plans and zoning in African cities. Rather than serving as a prohibiting force, he argued, planners should take initiative and promote construction. Similarly, he argued against contemporary dismissal of construction in African cities as the mere expression of their leaders’ personal prestige. As in Europe, he explained, monuments and the spaces around them are essential for the formation of national and civic consciousness.42 Spurring construction through monuments also had financial objectives, as the city tried to increase revenue through taxation and private investment.43 Agreeing with Chomette regarding the need for proactive intervention, the emperor pursued these political and economic objectives through scattered projects built around the city.44 Governmental and commercial-cultural centers developed ad hoc with little or no regard for the city's master plans. For example, Enav and Tedros designed the Classroom Building (1965) at the Haile Selassie I University campus as a temporary solution while the American firm McLeod and Ferrara drafted the university's master plan (Figure 10).
In a context in which there was no statutory power to implement projects, the government accelerated modernization through fragmented interventions within the cityscape. Setting precedents for the private sector, government projects encouraged investment to counter the tendency of owners to exploit their plots passively by subdividing them to maximize rent profit.45
Addressing both domestic and international audiences, Haile Selassie's construction works attempted to eradicate generations of economic stagnation and spur the landowning class into more dynamic and risk-taking economic behavior. Haile Selassie preached to his nation the principles of Anglo-American economics: “Use your savings where it will pay you the most. The hoarding of money does not yield dividends!”46 With his actions, he demonstrated how entrepreneurship could turn into development. In a conversation with architect Mezzedimi in 1959, the emperor laid out his urban economic agenda:
It is necessary to show people that it is possible to construct grand buildings here too, by erecting a couple of high-profile structures. It is not their complexity or size that matter, but the maximum possible use of home-produced materials, in order to shake our wealthy middle class (which keeps its money under the mattress) from the inactivity that also binds it in the field of construction, and stimulate it to invest its assets also in building to make this “great village” a city and a true great capital.47
A few of these capitalist-minded people would be trained at the American-run College of Business Administration at Haile Selassie I University. The rest would be exposed to new patterns of consumption in department stores such as Mosvold's New Department Store on Haile Selassie I Avenue, where 80 percent of the luxury furniture sold was produced locally.48 Significantly, in touting the “maximum possible use of home-produced materials,” the emperor was referring not to local craft products but to industrialized production. Modern buildings could be constructed with cement made in factories set up in Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, and Massawa, which produced 180,000 tons of cement a year, and with cement pipe and tile made in seven factories around the country.49
By taking the lead with governmental projects, pedagogical speeches, and private endeavors, Haile Selassie perpetuated the monarch's traditional role of providing the people with guidance, even in matters of modernization.50 As art historian Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis explains, by the 1920s Ethiopian modernity had already been conflated with imperial ideology and the idea of the sacred nation: “Modernity was hence part of a transcendent kingly moral insight that shaped the vision of the ideal society that had to be realized.”51 To cultivate his image as an enlightened visionary of Ethiopian modernity while precluding any political reform, the emperor dissociated himself from the ineffectual government, which then took the blame for the country's political stagnation.52
In an emphatic defense of Haile Selassie against Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński's documentary novel The Emperor, architect Arturo Mezzedimi revealed how the emperor conveyed this power hierarchy to his foreign confidants, who were often participants like Mezzedimi who benefited from the emperor's direct patronage.53 Reporting on a meeting between the emperor and the ministers of finance and public works, Mezzedimi described the emperor's frustration with his subordinates, whose pettiness and lack of vision, according to the emperor, stood in the way of his forward-thinking modernization schemes.54 From the architect's perspective, the emperor managed to implement his vision despite the government rather than because of it. As historian Bahru Zewde has succinctly put it, Haile Selassie positioned himself above class and politics: “The good was invariably attributed to him, whereas the bad was blamed on his subordinates.”55 Upon the completion of successful projects the emperor often dismissed the contributions of others. When marble plaques were placed in Africa Hall, for example, the emperor ordered the removal of “the names of the minister and chief officials of the Ministry of Public Works responsible for the bureaucratic aspects of the project, with the phrase ‘Qu'est-ce qu'ils ont fait?’ [What have they done?].”56 He left Mezzedimi's name as the sole creator alongside his, as Ethiopia's benevolent patron. Such plaques adorned many of the public institutions constructed during that time as well as a number of the structures named after the emperor, such as the stadium constructed by the Israeli contractor Solel Boneh to host the Africa Cup (1962).57
An Ethiopian Modernity
Haile Selassie often took a keen interest in the design of new buildings and, as in other spheres under his purview, had the final say on them.58 Like Mezzedimi, Enav and Tedros gained the emperor's trust and used it to bypass senior bureaucrats. This was the case with their design of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Figures 11 and 12).
To the architects’ frustration, the minister of finance insisted that the design follow the lines of the United Nations building in New York.59 Although we can only speculate what the minister visualized when he made this request, it seems he was more attracted to the corporate monumentality of the Secretariat Building of the New York headquarters than to its low-rise horizontal General Assembly auditorium. Expressing what was probably a popular view at that time, a writer for the Addis Reporter stressed that the way to achieve “a modern capital of a 3,000-year-old country” was by punctuating Addis Ababa's skyline with “as many skyscrapers as possible.”60 Perhaps the minister had in mind Chomette's contemporaneous National and Commercial Bank project, which consisted of an eleven-story building—the tallest to be erected in Addis Ababa up to that time—and an adjacent domed circular structure, resembling the volumetric divide of the United Nations complex between the Secretariat tower and the horizontal General Assembly (Figure 13).
Enav and Tedros wanted to design an “Ethiopian building” for the most prestigious public commission they had so far received, and they had envisioned a completely different structure. After they presented to the emperor their idea for a diamond-shaped courtyard building with a hexagonal lattice façade, they received his blessing and no longer had to answer to the disgruntled minister (see Figure 11).61
Enav and Tedros's desire to design an “Ethiopian building” that would also be modern aligned with the emperor's postcoup reformist doctrine of modernization. Earlier in his career Haile Selassie had compared Ethiopia to a sleeping beauty awaking from her deep slumber. “In order not to overwhelm her with changes, we should be full of care now,” he warned.62 While accelerated modernization—backed by U.S. president Harry Truman's Point Four program, which sent millions of dollars in American technical assistance to so-called developing nations—was his priority in the 1950s, the 1960 coup brought Haile Selassie back to his precolonial approach of gradual reform.63
A 1962 governmental review of the First Five Year Development Plan (1957–61) stressed that although it had aimed to accelerate the socioeconomic development process in Ethiopia, the plan was transitional and demanded patience—modernization could not be completed with the establishment of a few factories and institutions. Since Ethiopia “comprises its own traditional patterns of economic and social life, as well as new ones,” the review explained, “the path of development and the planning approach and techniques employed should reflect Ethiopian traits which link together national traditions and scientific, cultural, and technological achievements of the modern world.”64 This linking was the crux of Halie Selassie's approach: modernization, including social progress, could occur only with traditional Ethiopian social and political structures as their basis. “We believe in a progress that builds on a sound foundation and not on shifting sands,” the emperor pronounced the same year. “We believe in the adaptation of modern economic and social theories to local conditions and customs rather than in the imposition on Ethiopia's social and economic structure of systems which are largely alien to it and which [it] is not equipped to absorb or cope with.”65
While calling for an adaptation of modernization to local conditions and customs, Haile Selassie did not mean that the latter were immutable. In a November 1964 address introducing television services, the emperor explained that the purpose of these services was to “move the Ethiopian people progressively on their road to their maximum cultural development.”66 His objective of “maximum cultural development” implied comprehensive growth, not the passive following of the scripts of Westernization. In addition to changing the economic habits of the people, the emperor called for a fundamental psychological and mental change. He sought to constitute a dynamic culture with a sound enough traditional basis to absorb technological shock. With such a basis, technology would not only serve the traditional system but also be the means of its sustained development. In the prewar years both Menelik and Haile Selassie drew inspiration from Japanese modernization as a model for keeping culture intact while utilizing Western technology.67 After the abortive coup, however, it became clear to Haile Selassie that such a separation was no longer viable.
In order to secure his regime, he had to address conflicting temporalities, the clash between the desire to accelerate history and the desire to maintain Ethiopian traditions and culture. In this respect, high-rises conveyed modernity, but they had little to offer in terms of tradition. Moreover, they could endanger the delicate balance between the two by presenting a too-radical discrepancy between technology and the traditional institutions that undergirded the monarchy. Enav, too, perceived this conflict as a dilemma for architecture in Ethiopia. In an essay in the first issue of Zede, the journal of the Ethiopian Association of Architects and Engineers, Enav criticized what he perceived as false modernity in Addis Ababa's contemporary architecture:
Aesthetically many of the commercial buildings one sees around suffer from a basic fault. They are what is supposed to be modern without being so in the true sense. The true sense of modern buildings I have in mind are buildings which convey, with contemporary methods and materials, a country's cultural heritage. They should be designed to be at the service of the people and to conform with the country's economic and social progress and capacity.68
By defining modern architecture in Ethiopia as a dialectic between contemporary methods and materials and the country's cultural heritage, Enav sought to create a language that would bring the two into a harmonized whole, where technology and culture would be synchronized and the tensions between them at least sublimated, if not solved.
Enav and other architects working in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa did not simply reject modernist abstraction in favor of more sculptural-expressive forms. They adapted models for reconciling technology and cultural identity.69 In their work, the modernist separation of function gave way to the articulation of differentiated ornamental programs. In Addis Ababa, Chomette's National and Commercial Bank juxtaposed an eleven-story rectangular block and a lower round hall that evoked traditional Ethiopian structures such as the mud tukul and the round monastic churches found in the islands of Lake Tana (see Figure 13). While the taller wing was a standard corporate modern concrete block, the circular hall bore a symbolic function, with its concrete blind arcade covering a glass curtain wall and its cutout dome. As in the case of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the circular hall's reference to traditional Ethiopian structures had to be negotiated with the authorities. The director of the bank was convinced only after the architect referred to the domed structure of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.70
In a similar manner, Chomette's design for the Ethiopian Pavilion at the 1967 International and Universal Exposition (Expo 67) in Montreal extended the symbolism of the bank's circular structure (Figure 14).
Separate from Africa Place, a pavilion that housed all of the other fifteen African countries represented at the fair, the Ethiopian Pavilion was the first to represent the country as a sovereign nation in an international exhibition.71 Chomette's Ethiopian Pavilion consisted of a red cone tent reminiscent of Ethiopian royal camp structures; the tent, 30 meters in height, stretched from a crown-like base similar to the National and Commercial Bank's circular hall. This spectacular structure used the royal crown as a literal base for the vertical structure, symbolizing progress.
Mezzedimi's Africa Hall represents another attempt to link symbolic form and structure. Its symmetrical axial plan consisted of two interconnected volumes: an assembly hall and a secretariat (Figure 15).
The design followed a study of buildings housing international organizations, including the Palace of Nations in Geneva (designed originally as the headquarters of the League of Nations, 1929–38), UNESCO in Paris, and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization building in Rome, which—fitting with the reversal of power described earlier—was originally designed in 1937 to house the Ministry of Italian Africa following the conquest of Addis Ababa.72 Considerably less daring than Chomette's National and Commercial Bank and Expo 67 pavilion, Africa Hall's ornamental program was reserved mainly for the interiors of the assembly hall, which welcomed visitors with a figurative stained glass triptych designed by prominent Ethiopian artist Afewerk Tekle (1932–2012). On the exterior, occasional cladding of colored tiles, an importation of Italian craftsmanship traditions, served as the only element of distinctly local character. In contrast with the National and Commercial Bank, the secretariat building's main ornamental feature was reserved for the façade. Two vertical strips covered with a geometric pattern adorned the center of the façade symmetrically, marking the central axis where the two volumes met (Figure 16).73 Reminiscent of the epitrachelion (a liturgical vestment) worn by priests in the Ethiopian church, the pattern was based on a style of embroidery ubiquitous in traditional Ethiopian dress. At the National and Commercial Bank the symbolic function of the institution was expressed structurally as well as ornamentally in the domed structure, while the office tower maintained an anonymous corporate identity. In Africa Hall the two functions were conflated in the secretariat building, but rather than expressing any structural logic, the geometric pattern was simply attached to the building almost as an afterthought.74
In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, structure and ornament were effortlessly fused into one representational building. Given its elongated gridded homogeneous façade, the building seems at first glance like a modernist horizontal rectangular block. Yet a closer look reveals that its symmetrical wings recede slightly from the entrance plaza to form an elongated diamond shape (see Figures 11 and 12). While the façade's pentagonal concrete lattice is suggestive of the building's plan, its full symbolic function is revealed only when the building is lit at night, when the pentagonal pattern transforms into an emblem within the badge of the Order of the Queen of Sheba (Figure 17).75
Images of public buildings lit at night were a favorite photographic trope in media representations of Addis Ababa during the 1960s. They highlighted the spectacle of electric light through the dematerialization of modern construction. Photos of Africa Hall, for example, gave precedence to its concrete-and-glass structure, making the ornamental pattern hardly discernible (Figure 18).
Enav and Tedros, the designers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the other hand, took electric lighting into account in their conception of the ornamental grid. Similarly, photos of Chomette's Commercial Bank employed the effect of dematerialization to dramatize the symbolic form of the bank, so that the arcade seemed to hover over the ground majestically like a crown (Figure 19). Chomette also utilized daylight to create ornamental effects by fracturing the bank's dome with petallike cutouts that reflected shimmering flakes of light on the floor (Figure 20).76
The designs for both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National and Commercial Bank abstracted symbolic forms into geometric patterns, but the metaphoric fields from which these forms were drawn differed. Chomette's bank referred to Addis Ababa's name, which means “new flower.” This secular yet local reference drew attention to Addis Ababa's modern origins as the site chosen for the capital at the end of the nineteenth century. Enav and Tedros's choice of a pentagonal motif in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs signified the ancient origins of the monarchy and its ties to Israel.77 Compared to Chomette's and Mezzedimi's more literal and immediate references to the city, the monarchy, and the Ethiopian church, the allusion to the ancient Queen of Sheba recalled an Ethiopian heritage that extended beyond territorial and religious boundaries. This reference must have appealed to both the emperor's ambition that Ethiopia be an international symbol of African sovereignty and his imperial claims to the territories of Eritrea and Somalia.
Patterning Addis Ababa
Enav placed prime significance on the structural qualities of the pentagonal form he and Tedros employed to represent Ethiopian identity.78 Its structural and spatial qualities served to differentiate it from two-dimensional or literal references to Ethiopia's ancient tradition, such as those found on Africa Hall or the Hilton hotel built across the avenue from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1968–71. The Hilton, designed by the American firm Warner, Burns, Toan, and Lunde, incorporated massive ornament inspired by the ancient obelisks of Axum (a town in northern Ethiopia dating to the fourth century BC) into the façade and the interior design. With a pool shaped like the plan of the Church of Saint George in Lalibela, the Hilton's ornamental program simulated Ethiopia's built heritage and provided a touristic spectacle that did not necessitate travel outside the capital.79
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in contrast, referred to an ancient origin, but the abstract pentagonal pattern on its façade was neither distinctly modern nor traditional. The combination of its formal qualities, ostensibly deriving from a local grammar, and its structural viability rendered it both timeless and mutable. Enav's use of a form derived from the badge of the Order of the Queen of Sheba relates to what anthropologist Ruth Benedict called “unconscious canons of choice that develop within the culture,” in her 1934 seminal work Patterns of Culture.80 There is no direct evidence that Enav knew Benedict's work, but he may have been exposed to her theories during his studies at the Architectural Association in London, through Team 10 member Aldo van Eyck's writings and his Amsterdam Orphanage project.81 According to Benedict, “A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action.… The form that these acts take we can understand only by understanding first the emotional and intellectual mainsprings of that society.” Drawing from nineteenth-century art history theories of the development of style, Benedict explained: “If we are interested in cultural processes, the only way in which we can know the significance of the selected detail of behaviour is against the background of the motives and emotions and values that are institutionalized in that culture.”82 Employing similar terminology, Enav argued that for architecture to be expressive of society, the architect should study man's “intellectual, emotional and physical pattern of behavior” as “an essential background for design.”83 Benedict's emphasis on “cultural processes” rather than fixed cultural traits enabled a dynamic approach to cultural expression and, by extension, to architectural intervention. If cultural expression is part of cultural formation, Enav asserted, then physical patterns, as they were affected by needs and scale, constituted a visual vocabulary whose interplay changed over time.84 Intricately linked to deep structures of society while also expressive of historical processes, these patterns offered Enav a rich repository to draw from, while their historicity legitimated his intervention in their becoming.
Enav and Tedros developed a pattern-based approach at the Filwoha Thermal Baths (1959–64), a mineral springs bathing facility that Haile Selassie dedicated to the urban population of Addis Ababa. Conceived as a series of domed hexagonal pavilions connected by covered walkways, the Filwoha Baths complex formed a semienclosed compound similar to those of the indigenous settlements Enav found in Ethiopia (Figures 21 and 22).85
The truly public nature of the baths—giving access to the urbanite poor to enjoy the city's mineral springs—may have motivated Enav and Tedros to experiment with what they perceived as vernacular Ethiopian forms, and with labor-intensive construction techniques (Figure 23). Yet these domed hexagonal pavilions with their pierced skylights resembled Turkish baths more than they did any Ethiopian vernacular reference (Figure 24).
In addition to Van Eyck's Amsterdam Orphanage, the domes might have been inspired by Louis Kahn's Trenton Bath House (1954–55), on which he was working around the time Tedros studied under him at the University of Pennsylvania.86 Such cross-cultural borrowing allowed Enav and Tedros to introduce changes within the pattern of their works as an evolutionary progression from ornament to structure, which can be seen in the change from the pentagonal lattice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the structural hexagon in the Filwoha Baths.
The progress from ornament to structure suggests continuity between different scales, from the single module through the building structure to the city at large. Enav developed sensitivity to scale in his student work at the Architectural Association's Department of Tropical Architecture, where he designed a project for Basra employing his concept of modular-holistic continuity “from the mud brick to the city.”87 In Addis Ababa, the use of modular scale and cellular composition allowed Enav and Tedros to create structures that defied the predominant tendency to design buildings as “isolated statements” in the cityscape, as Enav characterized them critically in his Zede article.88 Citing “close-knit groups” and “cellular or cluster development” as counterstrategies, Enav and Tedros used their commissions to suggest potential connectivity outside the isolated site through patterning. The horizontal continuity of many of Enav and Tedros's projects give them the potential for expansion at an urban scale. At the Filwoha Baths, the links between the hexagonal units suggest the possibility of adding further units, following a beehive structure (see Figure 21). The unraveled edges of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in plan evoke this open-endedness, if only suggestively (see Figure 12). Patterning also appears at the level of details, such as railings and tiles repeated in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the 82 Apartment Building, and the Mapping and Geography Institute.
The strategy of patterning enabled the architects to subvert Haile Selassie's emphasis on individual monuments and gave a sense of continuity to their buildings as an ensemble in the city. Since the Filwoha Baths were tucked away from any representational avenue, the relationship between the complex and the street was not a prime consideration. Of the buildings facing Menelik II Avenue, the slightly receding angle in the plan of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was repeated and fully articulated in the 82 Apartment Building plan (Figure 25).
As the plan suggests, the constructed block was supposed to be one of a series of blocks connected linearly in parallel to the avenue. Enav and Tedros's intervention in this avenue offered a break from the monumental approach taken in the rest of Addis Ababa.
Enav and Tedros used traditional symbols of imperial power in their individual buildings, but their site planning suggests a new method of ordering based on pattern and repetition. Growth and change could become the subject of holistic patterning, rather than centralized planning, carving a symbolic order from disparate fragments within the city instead of superimposing a grand order on it. Based on strategic extension of fragments, Enav and Tedros's projects could bypass the ineffectual bureaucracy of the regime and take advantage of individual initiative and entrepreneurship under the patronage of the emperor, the benevolent paternal figure of Ethiopia's modernization.
Addis Ababa's modernization under Haile Selassie's rule does not fall easily into clear-cut dichotomies such as modern versus traditional, foreign versus local, or progressive versus oppressive. The bursts of intense construction in the history of Addis Ababa, of which the brief colonial period was only a fraction, created a dense urban palimpsest that was shaped by shifting power dynamics and various transnational forces.89
Even before the brief period of Italian occupation, Addis Ababa's construction had benefited from transnational exchange, mediated by foreign visitors, missions, and migration of skilled labor and augmented by Ethiopian elites’ travels abroad in search of appropriate models for emulation and adaptation.90 For this reason, when the Italian colonial planners approached the planning of the capital, and despite initial desire to raze the city and plan it anew, they could identify elements of urbanity that helped them orient their plan. Similarly, when the Italian occupation was over, Haile Selassie could continue from where the Italians had left off, using their construction to shore up his vision for an Ethiopian imperial capital that would lead the entire continent into its postcolonial era.
The conflict between Ethiopia's monarchical structure and imperial objectives on the one hand and its ambition to become a leader in African decolonization on the other has led historians to criticize Haile Selassie's modernization as false modernity. The transformations of Addis Ababa, they argue, were mainly a façade intended to impress foreign visitors, while the majority of the population lived in dire conditions. However, the fragmented nature of construction in the city had concrete ramifications for Addis Ababa's overall structure and growth. Furthermore, I submit that this modernization process cannot be reduced to binary terms of true versus false modernity. As Addis Ababa's patterns of growth suggest, Haile Selassie's image of modernity was based on the images projected by the European colonial powers. Like Italy, which sought to boost its status among more modernized nations via its colonial holdings, Haile Selassie equated modernity with colonialism, and he understood African independence in these geopolitical terms.91
Moreover, the works of the architects involved did not serve as mere displays of power, or as empty vessels of false modernity. As foreigners and professional experts, the architects occupied a privileged position in relation to the monarch. Acting under his direct patronage, they were largely immune from the internal politics of his regime. As a matter of professional survival in the local market, they had to be attuned to the emperor's ambitions to modernize as well as to his anxieties over growing social unrest. Perhaps unaware of their differential treatment, the architects acted in good faith while turning a blind eye to discrepancies between the emperor's statements and his practice, particularly in his approach to the modernization of the economy while maintaining the traditional land tenure. The design autonomy they enjoyed, especially in the absence of an enforceable master plan, allowed them to exercise relative agency in matters of city planning, which resulted in a range of approaches, from axial monumentality to Team 10–inspired patterning. Similarly, the negotiation between modernity and tradition took on multiple forms, as the references the architects employed to signify tradition and cultural identity varied from Addis Ababa's modern history to the Ethiopian church, ancient and medieval monuments, and the nation's mythological origins. Despite the architects’ autonomy, their attempts cannot be defined unequivocally as either complacent or subversive, as they all conformed to the emperor's gradualist agenda. If anything, their approach can be characterized as “constructive opportunism,” as can be Haile Selassie's and the Italian planners’ approach vis-à-vis each other's urban inheritance.
Addis Ababa under Haile Selassie presented foreign architects, still early in their careers, with an experimental ground unparalleled in their countries of origin. The clashing temporalities of modernity and tradition opened a space for ahistorical cross-cultural borrowings and experimentation with forms. For this reason, even if the architectural profession was only beginning to be developed locally, these cases cannot be defined as unidirectional exportation of professional expertise. The historical patterns of Addis Ababa's development, as well as Haile Selassie's gradualist approach, not only enabled but also affected the architects’ design decisions.
Haile Selassie's meld of capitalist entrepreneurship and monarchical benevolence, however, was short-lived. Enav may have sensed its impending end when he decided to leave in 1966, the same year that student protests against the regime took a decisive turn.92 Chomette too had by then departed, having launched a career in French West Africa.93 Mezzedimi, whose ties to the country were deeper, owing to the three decades he spent in Eritrea and Ethiopia, was the last to leave in 1975, following the revolution. Although the 1974 revolution brought profound changes to Ethiopian society, particularly through land reform, the urban pattern set by Haile Selassie's regime has continued to inform the city's construction, which has intensified since the revolutionary regime's downfall in 1991. The buildings designed by Mezzedimi, Chomette, and Enav and Tedros continue to dominate the cityscape and function in their original capacities, albeit without the grandeur and ambition bestowed by their patron. It is perhaps only through this lens, as the city has long divested its imperial aura, that one can recognize it as modern.
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Ayala Levin researches architectural knowledge production as part of North–South and South–South exchange. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the export of Israeli architectural and planning models to Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, and Ethiopia in the 1960s and 1970s. (http://arc-hum.princeton.edu/people/ayala-levin)
- 1.↵The research for this article was supported by the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life at Columbia University and the Social Science Research Council. I wish to thank the editor and the anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments and suggestions, as well as Felicity Scott, Reinhold Martin, Gwendolyn Wright, Mary McLeod, and Gabriella Szalay for generously reading and commenting on the article in various stages of its writing. I am grateful to Zalman Enav, Martha and Marcello Mezzedimi, and Pierre Chomette for kindly permitting the reproduction of images from their private collections.According to historian Bahru Zewde, the 1960 coup represented the most serious challenge to Haile Selassie's regime between 1941 and 1974. Two brothers organized the coup, Brigadier General Mangestu Neway and Garmame Neway. The latter, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University, was the moving spirit behind the coup. Comparing Ethiopia's backwardness with the social and economic development of newly independent African states, the brothers presented a populist agenda, promising the building of schools and factories and an increase in agricultural production. The student population supported the rebels and continued the resistance underground and, from the mid-1960s, openly with protests. See Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855–1991 (Oxford: James Curry; Athens: Ohio University Press; Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press, 2001), 211–15.