A City Without Its Past

Addis Ababa’s Transformation Puts Heritage at Stake

Addis Ababa is undergoing a rapid transformation characterized by the demolition of heritage sites and reconstruction because of rapid urbanization. Unfortunately, this has come at a massive cost of erasing the city’s rich heritage. Heritage plays a vital role in defining a city, shaping its social fabric, preserving its history, and nurturing its cultural identity. Keeping the city’s urban heritage is often neglected or considered an inconvenience. The demolition of historic buildings and homes has sparked concerns among residents and preservationists alike. These structures hold immense architectural and historical value and serve as tangible connections to the past. The loss of these buildings deprives the city of its tangible heritage and diminishes its cultural character, writes EBR’s Eden Teshome. 

The bustling neighbourhood of Piazza in Addis Ababa’s old business district, specifically the side shops in the historical Arada building, has become the latest unfortunate victim of demolition. In a shocking turn of events last August, owners of 42 shops in the iconic building were abruptly instructed, through verbal communication, to vacate the space before the Ethiopian New Year. Surprisingly, no written notice reached the shop owners. They were informed to ‘pack and leave the place.’

Caught off guard, the shopkeepers claim to have received this news on August 19, 2023 and have since taken different measures, including approaching various Media and government offices to reverse the decision. However, as instant was the demolition action, no one was available to respond to their request. Their grievances are justified as they have been offered no alternative locations for their businesses, and they firmly believe that demolishing their cherished shops is entirely unnecessary. 38-year-old Bedilu Belay lives in the Piazza area. He claims he has memories of the structure dating back to his childhood and believes it to be an essential memorial treasure of the Piazza. “The demolition of that building is a backstabbing practice both to the city and the people who used to work there,” says a disappointed Bedilu. “Arada is a home to forty or so shops and a cafe and it’s a home to so many people who have families to feed with the business they have there.” The fate of Piazza’s vibrant commercial hub hangs in the balance as the community fights to preserve their livelihoods and the unique character of their beloved neighbourhood.

Another example of such demolition is the Ras Kebede Mengesha Atikem House, a mansion built 125 years ago, slated for demolition. The decision to tear down this historic structure, which reminds one of the generals of the Battle of Adwa, has sparked outrage and opposition from those who advocate for preserving Addis Ababa’s historical and architectural heritages.

The mansion of Asfaw Kebede (Dejazmatch), a member of Emperor Haile Selassie’s government, was another mansion demolished in early January 2021. It is an early 1900s edifice that was inspired by Indian as well as Ethiopian architecture. The building, found in the Gulele District and previously served as the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) Central Committee Office, was demolished without the knowledge of Addis Ababa’s conservation agency, the Culture and Tourism Bureau. The balance between preserving historic buildings and the construction of modern infrastructure place has now become the Head Office of the Oromia Police. It was one of the few remaining Menelik era-built heritage in the city.

Buffet de la Gare, a canteen that hosted Ethiopia’s musical legends in the 60s and 70s, was demolished because Earle Hills, a Dubai Real Estate Developer, wanted to include the plot in the areas designated to erect luxury apartments and commercial centres. Historic residential villas built in the 1930s with European, Middle-Eastern, and Asian influences, the Kazanchis Business District has also been lost in the past two decades under a high-rise development scheme.

Indeed, Kasanchis remains a significant area where cultural heritage loss because of demolition is incomparable. At the end of the 1990s, there used to be 17 cultural restaurants popularly known as Azemari Traditional Restaurants. The Azmari, itinerant poet-musicians, most of the time come from rural Ethiopia in the Amhara State. They improvise to the sound of the Masinqo, a harp-like single-string fiddle instrument whose leather body resonates with horsehair stretched over a wooden neck and rubbed by a bow. Today, the only place to find such a place in Kasanchis is Fendika, an Azmari bet turned into a culture centre in 2016 by the famous traditional dancer Melaku Belay. Fendika was indeed witnessing a danger of demolition last July. Thanks to the social media campaigns from across the globe, Ethiopian and foreign lovers of Fendika were able to garner tremendous attention, which made the City Government of Addis Ababa reverse the decision to level Fendika and hand the plot to a known business conglomerate.

Addis Ababa lost a significant cultural heritage earlier when Arat Kilo and Lideta, two major inner towns that were formed along the very establishment of the city, were demolished to build low-cost condominium houses, which never allowed the residents whose homes were destroyed to construct the condominiums to resettle back. They were scattered in over 30 condominium housing project sites, leaving their century-old social welfare institutions called Idir to break apart.

The dramatic changes in the past three decades and the demise of much historic architecture are not anomalies. A vast urban makeover is continuing with the potential of making Addis Ababa a city without its past. About eight percent of the heritage buildings listed by the Culture, Arts, and Tourism Bureau have already been demolished. At the same time, there needs to be a mechanism and institutional arrangement to stop the damage further.

Demolition of old urban spaces and redevelopment into a completely new urban look has become a common trend in Addis Ababa. This practice brings enormous collateral damage to the city’s heritage. Historic buildings play a vital role in showcasing a city’s history, culture, and identity. They serve as tangible reminders of the past and contribute to a city’s overall aesthetics and character. While urban development and modernization are essential for economic growth and progress, it is equally important to strike a balance between preserving historic buildings and constructing modern infrastructure.

According to Fasil Giorghis, the Chair of Conservation of Urban & Architectural Heritage at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture Building Construction & City Development at Addis Ababa University, a significant challenge we face is the need for awareness regarding the value of our heritage. He explains, “These old houses occupy large areas, and the administration often chooses to demolish them simply because they desire the land they sit on.” Fasil emphasizes that the real issue lies in the assumption that these buildings have no worth and lack knowledge on how to utilize them without demolition.

Several countries have successfully preserved their historic buildings while still developing modern cities. For instance, cities like Paris, Rome, and Prague have implemented strict regulations and preservation policies to protect their architectural heritage in Europe. These cities have designated historic districts where any renovations or new constructions must adhere to specific guidelines to maintain the overall historic character.

According to Fasil, preserving ancient buildings in our city demands immediate attention. He advocates for raising awareness as a crucial first step in intervention before implementing stringent policies that protect these precious landmarks, even from within the ranks of city officials. While some policies exist, Fasil emphasizes the need for better dissemination of information and clear consequences integrated into these regulations.

“We usually hear issues regarding the demolition of historic treasures once irreparable damages have been made.” says a senior expert at Addis Ababa Culture, Arts & Tourism Bureau. Even though we register heritages, we neither have the mechanism to protect them nor the power to stop their demolition.

Although a high emphasis on maintaining heritage in urban is gaining momentum globally, preserving treasures is a challenge everywhere. In the United States, cities such as New York and San Francisco have utilized adaptive reuse strategies to repurpose historic buildings. Instead of demolishing these structures, they transform them into new spaces for residential, commercial, or cultural purposes. This approach not only preserves the buildings’ architectural integrity but also contributes to sustainable development and revitalization of urban areas.

Singapore is another example of a city that has successfully integrated the preservation of historic buildings into its urban development plans. The city-state has implemented conservation programmes that identify and protect essential heritage buildings. Cities transform and repurpose them while maintaining their original architectural features.

Preservation efforts require a comprehensive approach that involves government support, community engagement, and collaboration with architectural and heritage experts. It is crucial to raise awareness about the value of historic buildings and promote a sense of pride and ownership among the public.

The spectre of demolition looms over Addis Ababa’s historic buildings, igniting fears of a vanishing cultural heritage and a deliberate erasure of the city’s past. Balancing the relentless march of progress with the imperative to safeguard architectural treasures is a universal challenge cities face worldwide.

In this critical juncture, Addis Ababa can draw inspiration from the triumphs and tribulations of other nations. Exploring innovative strategies like adaptive reuse, robust preservation regulations, and meaningful community involvement can ensure the city’s architectural legacy thrives amidst the winds of change. It’s a delicate dance between preservation and progress, where Addis Ababa can script its unique narrative of harmonizing tradition and modernization.

11th Year • September 2023 • No. 121 EBR

Eden Teshome

Editor-in-Chief of Ethiopian Business Review (EBR). She can be reached at eden.teshome@ethiopianbusinessreview.net

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