The Reporter (Addis Ababa)

15 February 2014

Ethiopia: Revitalizing Addis and the City Within a City

Innocent Okpanum (Ph.D.) is renowned as an architect throughout Africa, and his firm "Ngonyama Okpanum & Associates" has offices in South Africa, Nigeria and Italy. With experience stretching over 27 years, Innocent is turning his attention to three major initiatives in Ethiopia.

In South Africa he has designed six hospitals worth some USD 12 billion, and has been involved in designing train stations, stadiums and numerous buildings. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter met Innocent to find out the architect's vision for Addis Ababa. Excerpts: The Reporter: Tells us about your visit to the capital? Innocent Okpanum: My friend Tien (a Vietnam-born Canadian citizen, in charge of the project) and I have been in Addis to observe the city.

In fact for Tien it is the first time, but I have been to Addis on more than twenty occasions. The level of architecture and design is a bit shocking, and Africans generally give little emphasis to design. Design is an intellectual exercise. Without focusing on the intellectuality of our life towards ideas and creation, the outcome follows and we lag behind. For instance, Dubai started in the 1980s, and before that it was a desert, almost uninhabitable. However, in the later years of 2000 it transformed into a world-class city. How did this happen? If you ask, the UAE has received more than ten million tourists, for a population of two million. What are we doing to capture this market? So are you saying the architecture environment is poor here?

There is no environment here. Yes, nature gave Ethiopia one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world; climatically you have superb conditions. But the human intervention in this natural setting is destructive to say the least. It has become cannibalized. The architecture around here is cannibalizing the God-gifted setting. This is true for many African countries, yet this is a capital of Africa and should be the training center for other African countries.

Addis should be used as the test case, and when the heads of state come here they should say, 'I want to do better than what Ethiopia has done'. They might arrange for someone to come here and meet the architects for assistance and advice. However, this is not the case. I don't like complaining. I am pragmatic in getting problems solved. Actually, what we see in Addis is the opportunity to transform the city into a world-class setting. What exactly is missing in terms of design, building environment etc compared with your country?

The first gap is the lack of pavilions, plazas and public squares which we call place-making. Even in South Africa this is a total failure. You cannot find good squares, apart from a very few. Currently, Johannesburg is not a livable city. Yes, there are good buildings, good architecture, and good infrastructure, yet it lacks in terms of human interaction. The only place you can see is the malls and it is not a city where you can interact easily. A good example in Addis is the small area around Bole Medhanialem, in front of Edna Mall. You see something happening there. Though lacking in terms of articulation and design, you can see people interact. Architecture is very important, as good places and buildings attract people spontaneously.

This needs to be reinforced. There is articulation in some places, but we can use certain elements to enhance the vibrancy. What we are talking about is that the good soul of Addis attracts many, and one plus point is that there are no walls. Most buildings are street facing; little intervention can create an environment that people have the desire to be around. There are lots of advantages in making cities like that, including political for those looking for votes. When human interaction is eased, cultural activities like carnivals, cycling, and marathon races can take place comfortably in the city, if it is designed to host such activities. Most important of all is economics, and if you can design cities that can be navigated without needing to drive.

The Americans have recently recognized that the designs of their cities are failures. I recommend that everybody looks into Richard Jackson, an American medical-psychologist who reasoned about the failures of urban design principles, as they focus on vehicles rather than human interaction. Italians are better in that regard. Do not forget that we are human beings; we do not live by isolation. Whenever we go out, there is a way of stealing someone's money in a very polite manner. It's all about the pretty something that you may buy for your family or yourself in a shop, and inevitably you buy something, even if it's out of your budget. You spend money on something that keeps a business alive, helping to employ many people. Seeing the amount of people hopeless and helpless in the streets is scary, and we architects are responsible for this.

They should be the leaders in any society they belong to. As Winston Churchill said, the way we design our cities is the way we live in our cities. The reason Africans keep leaving the continent is that for most it is not a good place to live. If opportunities are in place, who would leave their countries? We are not creating opportunities because we neglect design. It is everything. Unfortunately, there is no single African city that is livable. Lagos and Abuja are cities full of walls, with billions or trillions of dollars spent walling people off from interacting with their cities. Such failure of design inflicts crime. Cameras or walls do not prevent crime, the best security is making sure the buildings interface with the environment. Ethiopia has a fantastic climatic condition and you don't need artificial ventilation. What is your major reason for being here?

My main mission here in Addis is to see how we can create things in a better way. We will see how to design and create better places to use as pilot projects. We don't want the government funding us for what we do, and we are putting some mechanisms in place to raise funds. Once we have set the good example, it is certain that people will follow suit. We invited five graduating class students from Addis Ababa University to see the building environment in South Africa. They visited Johannesburg and Cape Town, staying for six days with their instructor, who was also from Addis. From now on, every year, we will send around five students around the world to study different architecture. And the two top scoring students will be offered a yearlong paid internship, to learn the high-class knowhow. After a year they will be expected to return home and contribute, based on the knowledge they have gained. Last year we interviewed an architect from Barcelona, Spain. He said that the glass and steel structures of the new buildings does not belong to Ethiopia's culture.

The modern construction methods are a concern for many in Ethiopia, how do you see it? In terms of the materiality or texturing of buildings, as we call it, in the early 1980s, when I was in Italy, I asked myself this question. There is a certain battle you have to fight at times. I always say that we would love to entrench an architectural vernacular into our environment, because Africa has got millions of cultures. It's a culturally endowed continent, yet to date this has been neglected. For instance, Indians have only got five cultures, but they have capitalized on this limited amount. They have Bollywood, a film industry that has over overtaken the US-giant Hollywood in every aspect. Nigerians created Nollywood and made some progress. Artists like Huma Sekella, former husband of the late Maria Makeba, are doing well in promoting African culture.

He plays the best jazz exclusively based on African culture. He came to me five years ago and said that African architects need to look at African culture. Our architects have lost it, but I don't have a problem with using glass for buildings, as transparency is essential. The more openness the building offers, the better the people residing in it will engage with the environment. Having said that, in the center of Qatar, the sheiks have realized that the traditional architecture attracts more visitors than the new tower buildings designed by the Americans. Hence, African architecture has lots of potential. My visit to Addis at this time is a coincidence as I was meant to go to Vietnam, but I was advised to take Ethiopian Airlines and pass through Addis, then change on to Dubai, through the Emirates on to Vietnam. As the plane was about to land I looked down - as an architect that is what I always do - and saw a fantastic landscape. It was actually very beautiful. A landscape from the air. When I landed, instead of transiting I wanted to see the city.

The first thing that hit me as I entered the city was the drive from Bole Airport to Mesqel Square. I see the road as an African celebration center. In fact, when you drive down that five km road, you must recognize the need to feel yes, I am an African. That's what it should tell me. But on the contrary, it says to me that yes, I not an African. That feeling has been lost. I want to revitalize that road. I met with a university lecturer and told him about my project, and I am willing to risk my money on it, my personal money. I want to do something on it. A project entitled: Revitalizing the Mesqel Square to Bole Access Street. Then other ideas came up. A design and technology innovation city in Addis has come up, requiring some 200 or 300 hectares of land to work on. These are two key initiatives we have in mind. Of course, the issue of lecturing students in Addis happened and in doing so I have discovered some gaps. I wanted to contribute by sharing knowledge with the students, as students are the key to whatever the society needs.

As I said previously, five students visited South Africa to observe, and next year the five best students from Ethiopia, with their lecturer, will go to see Johannesburg and Cape Town, and also Italy. This cultural exchange will be an annual event, and the two best final year students will have the opportunity for a one year exchange, returning to Addis afterwards to practice what they have learnt. If we do that in a five-year period, we will produce some good hands that could achieve a great deal. For that we will set out an architectural competition in partnership with my foundation at the university, and ask students how they can come up with ideas to revitalize a livable environment. The winner will be granted USD five to ten thousand. These are the initiatives we have in the pipeline. How much will it cost to create a 200 to 300 hectares city? That is to build a new design and technological innovative city. Within a city...

Yes, within a city. We are looking for land and we have a meeting scheduled with Addis Ababa city and the suburbs master plan revising officials, to find us land to realize the project they met with officials and discussed their plans on Monday, agreeing to come up with detailed designs to submit within the next three months.

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