Addis Abeba Research

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(View from the rooftop of the Yiha commercial centre. On the left, looking towards south west. On the right, view towards west/north west. In the foreground, the LRT viaduct and the skyscrapers of Churchill Road)

This is a intermediate report of a research project about Streetscapes in Addis Abeba, in collaboration with EiABC, Ethiopia. Following last year’s Master Design Studio (www.internationalmasterofarchitecture.be), two students enrolled in this program, Lander Mentens and Matteo Paracchini,  spent 6 weeks past summer in Addis Abeba to conduct on site research as part of the Streetscape Territories Research Project, via a VLIR UOS scholarship.  Here are some findings and experiences. These results will be used to further develop a Master Dissertation project during spring 2015.

With this first reflection note we would like to propose our reading of the city, together with the first questions and partial answers.

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PROLOGUE: A TABLE IN THE PLANNING OFFICE
The planning office of Addis Ababa is placed in one of the commercial and office stocky tower that are appearing around the city. While from the outside it shows the usual look of blue reflective glass and white tiles, the office is a 60s-like office environment with cubicles and small corridors. When you enter one of the cubicles, you come into a demonstration of how much circulation is today the condition sine-qua-non of planning of an emerging city. On a table you find a 1:20000 plan of Addis, full of lines of new streets, and of LRT, and of BRT, and even a dotted line of a proposed subway network, that-we-don’t-know-exactly-when-it-will-be-built-but-we-put-it-in-the-plan-so-that-we-know-it.
Actually, now, to move within the city, you don’t use any of these lines.

THE VIEW FROM THE MINIBUS
The way in which you perceive a city is closely related to how you move within it. And in the contemporary city, transportation has became the language able to establish hierarchies, rhythms and new possibilities in the urban space.
So, as nineteenth century European intellectuals learned Italian in order to read Dante, and as English architecture critic Reyner Banham learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles, to read Addis Ababa we learned to use what today is the (more-or-less) fastest, cheapest and most popular form of public transport in Addis, the minibus.
The minibuses connect different sub-centers all around the city, following the main streets (roughly the ones with asphalt). The resulting network is extending all over Addis, from the Entoto mountain range in the north to the extreme south, and from the west to the recent eastern expansion, with a web of lines structured around these different centers, without a single major gravity point.
The minibuses aren’t therefore just the best way to experience the totality of the city, but actually their organization also reflects one of the most inherent characteristic of Addis Ababa: the absence of a main center.

minibus_piassa

(A figure-ground plan of minibuses around Piazza)

Even if we can’t deny the existence of some strong axis, aligned with public buildings or commercial activities, like Churchill Road, the world of sub-centers if far more wide and complex. Actually the sub-centers are a catalogue of completely different spatial and functional situation. They’re more or less dense, more or less commercial, more or less big, more or less infrastructure, more or less historical, linear, centripetal, etc…
Just by taking one of the possible trip with a minibus, you will start from the overcrowded and historical environment of Piazza, move then to the garden city qualities of the fascist housing neighborhood of Kazanchis, then to the shiny middle-class shopping malls of Edna (the only place until now where we find the public lighting turned on at night), to finish at the leftover space below the viaduct of the Ring Road in front of Bole Airport, transformed into an efficient informal transportation hub.
The place for the stop of the minibus in the centers is not formally organized. Rather, the minibuses place themselves along the side of the street for dozens of meters, and usually they flood into the streets all around the main crossing. Some mysterious rules assigns each side or part of these streets to a specific destination. This sort of terminal is fully integrated in the city, taking chance of the topographic and spatial condition of each center.

Considering the absence of street names, the sub-centers constitute the main way of orientation within Addis Ababa (intriguingly, if you take a contract taxi, shopping malls are the ordinary reference points) . In fact minibuses are so tied to the intrinsic structure of the city, that you don’t actually need a plan of the network in order to use it.

THE VIEW FROM THE LRT
On this existing circulation structure a new layer of transportation is going to be implemented, the LRT (light rail train). The system is crossing the city with a north-south axis and an east-west one. We think that this new transportation line will create new hierarchies and new possibilities in the way the inhabitants experience the city
Offered as a turnkey project by the Chinese government, this new layer of transportation landed on the city quite brutally. Obviously when something is conceived as the new skeleton of the city, once it is inserted in the flesh it’s not without troubles.

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(The LRT (in red) and the ring road)

Already from what is now its construction site you can grasp the LRT’s impact on Addis. Its reaction to the existing context is confined to a choice between viaduct, a trench or at level way to pass through the city.
For most of its path in the inner city the LRT flies on viaduct ten (or even more) meters above the street level. If with the minibus you’re moving within the city with the image of the city, but most of all the life, changing, from the LRT you’ll have a bird-eye view of the city. From being a participant of the city you’ll become an observer.

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(The LRT viaduct between Meskel Square and Lagare area)

This new circulation pattern embodies all the contradiction of the evolving structure of Addis Ababa. If the high viaduct in front of Lagare could be considered as a first step towards a vertical density, the deep extension of the lines into the suburbs (and even into the countryside, considering the expansion plan) is an affirmation of the horizontal dimension of Addis Ababa metropolitan growth.
The LRT is connecting and passing through the four main centers of the minibus network: Piazza in the north, Megenagna in the east, Gottera in the south and Mexico in the west. These are already important nodes during rush hours. with long waiting lines of people. Together with the end point of lines, connected with long-distance trains to the rest of Ethiopia (and Africa, according to the big plans), and with the sort of linear node created by the superposition of the two axis between Meskel and Mexico, they will probably be the main transportation spot around Addis
We assist here to a switch from the “organic” pattern of minibus, to a two fast axis structure, dividing the city into four “slow” quadrants. What will be interesting to see is how the network of minibus will react to this new situation. Is the minibus network so rooted that it will just continue to remain the characteristic mode of transportation in Addis, working as independent layer, or it will adapt itself to the LRT pattern? And, at the same time, will the LRT be colonized by the informal economy that nowadays is gathering around the main stops of the minibuses?
With this new two-layered transportation they will have to organize them differently. Indirectly, the LRT will have an influence on this situation, changing the economic activity on the ground.
‘A city built on transport’- leads us to a mere volatile understanding of the city, because Addis is much more complex than just its circulation system, but with the new implementation of different layers of transportation we cannot deny that Addis is now getting shaped by circulation project rather than its urban design, social bounds or any other specific characteristic.

A BORGES MAP FOR ADDIS
This reading is actually contrasting with the current urban plans for Addis Ababa, with the creation of a main center based on a Central Business District model at the bottom of Churchill Road. The term “creation” is quite ambiguous, since this center is both an upgrading of the existing situation (with some parts digressing into tabula rasa) and a projection of a new idea of the city. The actual plans are supported by the blind faith in the possibility of changing the totality of the city. The strategy displayed in the centre of the city,  with its sequence of destruction, restoration and reconstruction, reflects a sort of Piranesian attitude in which the future of the city is prepared through the meticulous removal of its present.. The consequence is that, even if Addis Ababa is not created “out of the blue”, the size and extension of the transformations are leading (unconsciously?) to the creation of a new city upon the existing city.
It is interesting to note the paradoxical contrast between the rhetoric of densification and vertical development connected to the introduction of a new central core, and the reality of a continuous horizontal expansion of city edges. The expansion of Addis Ababa has reached a point where if in the city’s history the only limit to expansion was the natural barrier of Entoto mountains in the North, today the further expansion city is becoming constricted by its own administrative boundaries, leading to political conflicts with the surrounding region of Oromia.
It is not clear whether in the mind of planners the new centre is considered as a way to counter further sprawl, or if it is just the rationalization a posteriori of a centrifugal urban sprawl, from a dense core to a light periphery. For sure is main “side effect” the displacement of low-income people towards the outskirts, loosing of all the social structure and means of subsistence attached to the original neighborhood, not to mention the increasing commuting time. The process of expansion is thus partially an effect of the creation of a new main center. We can say that is its “negative”, the other face of the same medal.

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(Leading the expansion of Addis Ababa. Distribution of Grand Housing Scheme blocks according to different radius from Meskel Square)

That’s for this reason that by following the LRT linear construction site we went to the eastern expansion at the foothills of Entoto, Addis, getting lost between suburban villas, huge developments, goats and mountain villages.
And for the same reason we printed a map of the whole Addis, where Churchill Road is shorter than a forearm. We had actually to search a bit for a room big enough to contain the entire map.

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(The big plan of Addis. We can go and have a walk in Churchill, then come back and lie down on Addis.)

TWO QUESTIONS
The two questions that we ask ourselves is, firstly, how to reinterpret the existing structure of the city, especially in the light of its new circulation patterns and its continuous sprawl, and, secondly, how to design the city not only though circulation, but also searching for a relationship between the finite scale of architecture and the larger dimension of the city, considering the ability of architectural form to influence the urban condition.

AN ANSWER IN FORM OF A PROPOSAL

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(PoliLotus Center billboard at CMC)

Our first way to answer to the first question will be in the form of a proposal, able to define a possible future path of more specific elaboration, and to introduce a strong reading of the city, in order to channel our further explorations into specific field of analysis.
We should turn the focus from the problem of urbanization – the further growth of the city – to the task limiting the city. The first step is to counter the idea of a city based on one main centre by proposing instead a city made of different balanced centres. Since its origin, the morphology of the city was a multi-centred one, based on historical and social bonds. For us the problems of the rapid expansion of Addis provides a strong chance to reinterpret this idea of a multi-centred city, believing that shrinking the city to points of urban density could be a way to counter the horizontal sprawl.
We will consider Addis Ababa as a composition of different parts, and all the distinct microclimates of the different centres will constitute the global picture of the city.
The mosaic of the existing image of the city is reflecting a dynamic city environment. In our proposal each centre should have a different character, not defined by a quest for phony identities, but as a result of a dialog with its local conditions. Its structure will be generic yet responsive to the existing structure. The aim of our proposal is not to provide every centre of all the possible qualities and functions and lifestyle and whatsoever. Rather it should be characterized by 1 or 2 main program (or even no program), depending on the existing structure of its surroundings. There is no prototype for a centre; there is no existence for a static city environment.
These points of urban density could not be circumscribed to the existing and more consolidated centres inside the perimeter of the ring-road, since they are unable to organize the whole new metropolitan dimension of Addis Ababa (it will be just an inflated version of the one-centre idea). At the same time, they cannot be reduced to the artificial injection of urban densities into almost-rural countryside, like at CMC, in the east of the city. However, these latter places will help us setting part of the challenges, while the more consolidated centres could tell us rich lesson that we should try to listen in order to adapt them to the new Addis condition.

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(Construction site at Kazanchis)

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(Create a centre through architectural masses. PoliLotus billboard at CMC)

From these centres we should learn which parameters a centre is based on. What defines a sub centre today? Just mobility, or also a specific spatial quality, based on public space, or social ties, or an informal/formal relation, or the presence of cultural or commercial activities or even a political orientation? In the continuous research we will try to grasp the soul of the different present sub centres and how they are structured.
The proximity between these new microclimates will be sufficient for a new circulation pattern. The concept of proximity becomes an important part of the design. With the city expanding the distance to the centre enlarges. Inhabitants of the slum areas, who get evicted from their home, get moved to the outskirts of the city. They don’t have the means nor the transportation to get to the city centre. Also many of the new construction sites have been shut down due to the lack of interested buyers. These fallow lands are now transferred into little market places where merchants store and display their goods. While the shell construction of the big supermarkets dozens of informal shops and businesses are beginning to settle along the streets. Located within walking distance, they offer residents of new develop areas outside the city centre an alternative to shop instead of using the car to drive up to the centre. We can’t underestimate the importance of proximity in the city.
We reinterpret the city for its urgent needs to provide for its inhabitants. The city of the future is neither a historical centre nor a suburban sprawl, but rather a multi-centred one.

ARCHITECTURE AND CIRCULATION
Regarding the second question, it seems to us that the current planning discourse on Addis Ababa, with its strong focus on circulation,  underestimates the power of architectural forms to influence the urban condition.
In the plans for Addis Ababa architecture’s urban qualities are reduced to the task of defining street facades, porticoes, or accommodating commercial activities, or imposing itself as a symbol (landmark).
Architecture is seen as a second step after urbanism, and not as something with a decisive role in forming ideas, concepts and paradigms through which the city has evolved.
The role of architecture in this framework is to give “guidelines” to urban development through simple and tangible rules. As strict as these rules may seem, presented as a way to maintain public interest, their role is, paradoxically, to leave market-driven urban development as free as possible.
We think that architecture is not just about building heights or gross surfaces. Architecture could be about strategies, as the possibility of integrating circulation into architecture.  This integration in the plans for Addis is only seen as a movement parallel to the street (arcades), or as a single point access (the entrance to a commercial gallery). The ability of architecture to create shortcuts, detours is forgotten.
And, of course, architecture is also about theories. We know obviously the mantra that there’s no time for theory in a booming city, but we would like to think that our project could be a theoretical statement on the city.

By Landers Mentens and Matteo Paracchini.

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