By Winta Assefa
I have a theory about cities. But since I haven’t thought it through and through, you’re invited to challenge me: I believe that a city is at it’s best when it’s as close to resembling its inhabitants’ forms as possible. Just as prosthetics are using more silicone for lighter, more ‘flesh-like’ limbs, we should try to produce cities that can act as an extension of the human body.
Now, I’m approaching this idea mainly from the perspective of the capital city I moved into around six years ago. I like that Addis Ababa looks the way it does: messy and broken. I think the old patched-up and stitched-together feel that the city has is one of the main reasons it’s so resilient. Over the years, the city was occupied by rival tribes from different parts of the country and the world: Armenian immigrants, Arab traders, rural migrants, and many more. All of those people formed clusters of homes in various parts of the city, leaving different types of architectural qualities and flavors to the sections they inhabited. Over the years, many of those settlements grew and merged organically. That was before the Italian invasion and later civil wars, which forced a lot of immigrants and Ethiopians alike to flee.
The capital city had taken decades to recover-and grow- following those conflicts. So, many of the city’s housing, water, and electrical services hadn’t caught up to the growing population’s demands.
Now how do we provide affordable and adequate housing for the majority of these citizens? How do we preserve the places and qualities people care about, while the city goes through radical changes? How do we make such a booming city pedestrian-friendly and welcoming while following investors’ and land owners’ interests? Those are the questions we keep coming back to in the building college I study in.
Now, it may sound like I’m romanticizing the broken systems that are ruining so many people’s routines—after all, there’s nothing poetic about traffic-disrupting potholes and the disappearance of the water supply from a university dorm.
But the place we inhabit now also happens to be the most accurate reflection of our current state.
So, the bumpy trains, rickety buses, and pothole-laden roads that fill our landscape are a visible reminder of our own flawed forms.
The bodies which transport us and form our landscape are a continuity of our own. The rotting, eroding, and falling apart that we see outside foreshadows something we know too well. Both earth bodies and metal bodies will feed something new. Mine will probably return to the earth and feed those at the beginning of the animal food chain. Older buildings will keep falling apart, forming the building blocks for new structures.
So, in that aspect, I think no fortress city or rigid masterplan can represent humanity as accurately as cities like Addis Ababa could. One emperor brought his enemies here to live close to him, and the settlement expanded long after he was gone.
And they continue to grow today, just as a healthy child does: slowly but steadily. It’ll falter-and fall-along the way, but it’ll get up every time and keep going.
By: @wintaassefa1 (Instagram, Facebook, Telegram)