The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

The Amazing Architecture of Addis

Author - Arabella Stewart

The rapidly changing landscape and skyline of Addis and the escalating speed of this change is even taking its long-time residents by surprise...

Building site
Building site.
Photo © Arabella Stewart

Behind the ubiquitous yellow and green striped corrugated fences that are springing up all over the city, the urban ghettos are being cleared and removed. If you can produce a piece of paper laying claim to your house, then you will be paid some kind of market value - but it gives you no right to stay where you are. Usually, there is some stipulation that if you want to remain you must replace your existing abode and build a multi-storey (usually 3 or 4 floors at the least), but if this is inconceivable or not financially feasible, and you have a modest shack or even villa, it most definitely has to go. If you have no claim to the house you and your family may have lived in for years, then you will be moved into one of the many concrete condominium buildings that are being built in suburban Addis. You will probably have better facilities such as indoor plumbing but you will no longer have the community on ground level that you grew up with. No-one disputes, of course, that people should have better housing, but displacement has become part and parcel with this relocation on such a massive scale. There is indeed a huge population to resettle as bus loads of people coming in from the country continue to arrive - the rural poor still thinking that to be poor in the city will somehow be better for them, thus creating the need to house even more people. Not everyone wants to remain when they learn that the streets of Addis are not paved with gold, but most end up having no choice but to remain because they do not have the means to return to their original home.

New hotels and flats under construction
New hotels and flats under construction.
Photo © Arabella Stewart

In addition to this massive clearing, it is hard to keep up with the countless new hotels appearing (nor understand who is going to stay night after night in all these rooms!), some of which seem to spring up overnight. Many of them are literally built cheek by jowl to the next one. There are hotels so close to each other that you could probably converse or shake hands with the patron in the next hotel through your window! The one good thing it has to be said is that they do provide much badly needed employment for an ever expanding youth population - restaurants in Addis always seem to have more waiters and waitresses hovering around than actual customers and hotel dining rooms are no exception.

One of the many new villas
One of the many new villas.
Photo © Arabella Stewart

In addition to hotels, Ethiopians who have done well abroad are coming home and building huge villas, often incorporating an exotic and unique mix of architecture and style. Designs may be individual but the one thing that they all are is enormous! Many of these structures are influenced by time spent abroad and there is a distinct current trend coming from Dubai with many of these new houses being decorated both internally and externally in Dubai style. The once gracious old Italian-built villas, many of which have sadly been left in a terrible state after years of neglect, still remain my favourite style but they are definitely not as favoured as they once were.

Villa being built.
Photo © Arabella Stewart

Progress on all levels is, of course, both expected and accepted and Addis Ababa is keen to project this progression to its neighbours and international guests. The city plays host to many African delegate meetings and is the headquarters of the African Union. Its brand new silver skyscraper was inaugurated a few months ago; the gleaming and towering structure, which is now Addis Ababa's tallest building, was built and fully funded by the Chinese government at a reputed cost of a staggering $200 million. The building was a gift from China to Ethiopia and is said to signify the countries' strong ties.

Sadly, however, with this rapid expansion, some familiar old establishments are disappearing overnight for seemingly no reason. Readers who have visited Addis may recall the long-time restaurant called Blue Tops near Arat Kilo - an oasis in the heart of the city for both resident and visitor and enjoyed regularly by many people. It was a thriving business but had to close its doors within 30 days because a developer had bought the land and there was talk of another hotel - though nothing to date has yet replaced the blue roofed restaurant and the plot, as of a month ago, remained derelict since the demolition of the restaurant last year.

Another new villa.
Photo © Arabella Stewart

I still enjoy, and highly recommend, a visit to the almost forgotten Wabe Shebelle Hotel near Mexico Square - in my childhood it was the brand new gleaming skyscraper (built around 1969) and to this day I still think it offers one of the best surrounding views of Addis. There is a rooftop restaurant serving good standard fare and a balcony which allows you wonderful views of Addis from all vantage points. If this changing skyline is unnerving to observe, you always still have the mountains which remain as they always have been - as majestically imposing today as they were when I first came to Addis in 1963.

Editor's Note: Arabella went to school as a child in Ethiopia and has now returned to live and work in Addis. She has set up Project Pencil Case, a charity to help underprivileged students by equipping them with necessary school supplies. For further information:
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First Published in News File Spring 2012

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