The Making of Addis Ababa

Unlike African cities planned by colonialists, Addis Ababa is a city unique for its indigenous urbanization created out of natural necessities. The expedition to assimilate the south in the mid-1880s concluded with the emergence of a new capital. So, the first settlements of Addis Ababa were set up with a vision of reestablishing the country. These individual settlements known as ‘sefers’, were naturally conceptualized with a top-down hierarchy named after their own chiefs. Due to the understanding of European colonial interests by the ruling elites of the time, modernizing the nation was unequivocally believed to be the only option for defense. The battle of Adwa won recognition for Ethiopia among the European forces and diplomatic relationships begun soon after. It was after the battle that the settlements started to undergo an urban sophistication.

Foreigners began to pour into the city, bringing with them diverse architecture, design and even dining tastes. Such gestures influenced the urban and architectural spaces of the city. City architecture has refined itself, transforming from the simple rural town to the extent of creating its own architectural style in less than thirty years, namely the Addis Ababa style.

New urban identity and its spaces
As the city continues to progress morphologically and sociologically a fine cocktail of inherited experiences – indigenous and western –have begun to form a new urban identity peculiar to the extrovert city lifestyle, to the extent of creating the impression that urbanization is parallel to modernization.

Historically, its reputation as the seat of the Royal Court meant that Addis’ public spaces were used for public proclamations, ceremonies and festivals, and for a viewing of commercial, transportation and technological infrastructures. These brought new cultures and goods to create an accumulated identity in an urban society. Arada, a large public space known for its weekly market is one of the three urban infrastructures, along with the La Gare railway station and Emperor Menelik II Palace where the city started to develop horizontally.

Before and after the five-year Italian occupation, the educated elite were responsible for spearheading any remodeling changes – specifically modernization to catch up with the western world, in order to resist forthcoming fascist invasions, and to enlighten the society with science. Up to the time of the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie I, the urban elite were known for extensive discourse on how to assimilate persistent modernization without fundamentally changing one’s own identity.

Urban spaces have always played a critical role in the calls for modernization. Piazza spawned a community who pioneered urban culture. The former Haile Selassie I University (now Addis Ababa University) and its surroundings were prominent during the time of the student movement.

Collective urban identity
The 1973 revolution made urban spaces public domain– treating every organ of society with a singular label. Nationalization of private properties, mass domestic movements and war were used as pressures to camouflage diverse social classes and groups. Urban spaces played the role of displaying bold statements and executed opponents of the Derg government. Nevertheless, the labor movement contributed public spaces to Addis, defined in by the architectural master pieces such as the Tikur Anbesa Hospital.

After the eventual defeat of the Derg government in the 1990s free – market economy was introduced while power and wealth started to be decentralized and distributed. This started reestablishing social classes, and specifically brought the rural into the urban domain. The ethnic based decentralization excluded the urban culture that had been refined within the first seventy years of the city. This had its own catastrophic and constructive sides.

Public spaces severely suffered in the past two decades. The domestic emigrants literally invaded urban spaces with construction of private properties and informal markets. The city became a place of people who traced their identity to a particular node somewhere in the country and without any awareness of genuine urbanization – pushing the urban descendants out of the urban arena. Urbanization, in the lay understanding must promote an image of the planning and building industry, with reference to the global boom-markets of China or the UAE. As a result, the urban spaces of Addis today have become places that belong to no one. The way the emigrant dwellers integrated themselves can literally be interpreted as they ‘brought money downtown and sat on the city,’ disrupting the architectural language with demolished social structures, for the city to be famed as ‘a city without character.’ The segregation of social classes by gated communities was also introduced responsively in the urban culture.

On the other hand, an unprecedented opportunity for the city came about that intensified the economic, cultural and social ties with the rest of the country– opportunities to transform these virtues to suit urban culture. The new layer of urban space that truly reflects these new phenomena has not yet emerged.

Discourses on prospective urban spaces
It is important to distinguish urbanity from rurality. Who is the urbanite after all? And how does an individual properly and proficiently urbanize? For an individual or a group to urbanize, certain requirements must be met, other than being physically present in the city or using shared urban resources. Urbanity demands continuous intellectual openness to diverse and creative ways of thinking and day to day problem solving skills, without intending to interfere with the process of rationalizing outside oneself, but rather fundamentally communicating intentions and end-products. It is from such experiences that an individual starts to grow in urbanity, honest and loyal to one’s own cause, and moves to further modernizing without being caught up in the labyrinth of visualizing urban spaces as contesting spaces of one’s own racial identity with the other. Individuals possessing the above qualities are an urbanite. The urbanite of Addis is not someone who drives his/her belongingness by being present in the urban arena, but is an individual who qualitatively contributes to the collective existence.

The notion of visualizing public spaces as arenas of diversely embodied identities that strive for a recognized goal of urbanism has potential in reclaiming the public spaces of the city as incubators of urban culture; furthermore, into refining and progressing the discourses on contemporary modernity in every fashion.

Public spaces are the features that principally pronounce the city’s contemporary identity. A debate on the morality and rationality of each diverse approach that melts into or springs from the urban spaces inevitably embraces all vibrant classes of the urban society. In such cases urban spaces remain continuously forming and reforming– interacting pioneering ideas with traditional customs through critical outlooks that suit the times.

Modernity is the driving force that brings about urbanity. Urbanity maintains a perspective that it is an outcome of the collective modernization progresses. Post socialist urbanization did not necessarily bring about modernization as envisaged. Urbanity is a culture and a language in itself – a character of its own accord. It is an identity that authorities and people fail to comprehend in the early 21st century Addis Ababa.

7th Year • Oct.16 – Nov. 15 2018 • No. 67

Nahom Gedeon

is an architect. He can be reached at

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