Antonio Paoletti (TU Delft) designed an open masterplan strategy for the densification of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as an alternative to the top down demolishing and masterplan strategy currently used by local governments. The strategy has been developed through meticulously researching the existing historical buildings and the informal settlements. The research by design has resulted in a design for new typologies and configurations that bridge the gap between the local and the universal.
Can you explain your choice of subject?
The main reason behind my choice lays in my previous experience with Professor Nelson Mota and the chair of Global Housing. Prior to our travels in Ethiopia, I had already experienced the importance of fieldwork and hand drawing as key elements to decode complex urban ecologies both in Bangladesh and in India. One of the main focuses was to learn from the processes from which informal settlements came about focusing on the spatial agency of their dwellers in day-to-day activities. I knew that the educational framework offered by the chair would have represented a perfect environment to further develop my personal tools and interests.
What or who are your sources of inspiration and can explain this?
In my studies, I have developed an interest in architectural research characterized by a sensitivity to vernacular, regional, and innovative humanistic concerns while dealing with global challenges. The work of Álvaro Siza, Charles Correa, Balkrishna Doshi, Raj Rewal, Nader Khalili, Marina Tabassum, and Hassan Fathy represents a body of references that have been crucial in the formation of my position. More than the aesthetical aspects of their design, I have been looking at their way of rooting architecture to its place by looking at climate, culture, history, local resources and co-producing it with the inhabitants. Throughout my research, I have also studied the ethnographical methodology of Kon Wajirō and Uzō Nishiyama. They both faced a sudden acceleration in the city’s development comparable to the Ethiopian case. Indeed, in a historical moment in which even the present seemed to vanish all too swiftly, they felt the urgency of surveying through detailed sketches Japan’s changing lifestyles and housing typologies.
State the key moment in your graduation project?
The on-site research conducted in Ethiopia in October 2019 represented the most decisive moments of the thesis. From an early age, I developed an interest in video making, but only in Global Housing’s framework, it proved to be an appropriate tool to capture aspects related to daily life. During the site survey in Addis Ababa and other regions of the country, I strived to record details of different Ethiopian dwelling conditions and building methods. While exploring Talian Sefer, one of Addis’ historical districts, the camera became an essential instrument to navigate through different spaces, following the small gestures of ordinary activities, and revealing Talian’s hidden narratives. Rapid sketches, too, fixed in my memory certain spatial qualities that would set the basis for my design. Those first-hand observations and the reiterated drawings of specific aspects of Addis’s everyday life allowed me to grasp elements related to the small scale in such a way that my design hypothesis gradually grew from the scale of the dwelling into a clustering system, and composing, ultimately, a large fragment of the city.
Urbanization is not even close to being a new concept. Mass migration, in fact, has always represented for many civilizations the last resort against droughts, famines, war and natural disasters. However, in the last centuries the phenomenon increased rapidly, especially in the Global South. Between 1950 and 2010, urbanization in Africa has increased from 16% to 32%.
Ethiopia, and in particular Addis Ababa, are experiencing the phenomenon of this rapid urbanization first-hand: the urban population will triplicate in the next 15 years. However, the quality of life remains far below decent and it has a deficit of at least 300.000 housing units and counting. Addis Ababa wants to deliver quickly, in great quantities and as cheap as possible: there is little time for thinking!
This forced march to development often translates into upgrading the city through evictions and demolitions of entire neighborhoods and the imposition of a standardized notion of modernity. Moreover evicting the inhabitants of informal settlements to Addis Ababa’s outskirts, means erasing socioeconomic networks that enable urban poor to survive.
It is a self-destructive behaviour of a country that erases its culture in order to move forward.
We have reached a point in which a radical intervention in similar districts is inevitable to cope with such a fast pace of development. Yet, there are two ways to do so: we could sweep away those districts that are considered as slums and impose a development, missing Addis’ last chance to retain important aspects of its cultural heritage and disrupting consolidated communities. Or we could try to learn how the informal city came about to propose an alternative redevelopment in continuity with the past and which does not harm the livelihood of the community. To incorporate the lessons of Talian means to recognize that similar areas are the result of a juxtaposition between centralized planning and a decentralized activity of many individuals.
Street markets and informal settlements epitomize this notion: structures that arise spontaneously out of the activity of heterogeneous groups. Similar activities establish self-organizing mechanisms that characterize ways of life and architectural spaces. How can we develop a body of methods to incorporate those morphogenetic processes into design? How can we densify and reconfigure dilapidated historical districts without erasing their traces, interpret their styles of life while providing a dynamic structure that can cater for the dreams of their inhabitants?
How can we open new doors to new aspirations while drawing on existing values?
What are you doing now?
I am working at Mecanoo Architecten in Delft. Currently, I am involved in a large masterplan for the redevelopment of a maritime industrial area in Rotterdam and in a research for a series of temporary interventions along Rotterdam’s dike to reconnect several districts, creating the spatial conditions for social encounter. I am very excited to participate with Mecanoo in similar local projects tackling societal and environmental issues.
What hope/do you want to achieve as a designer in the near and/or in the distant future?
It is evident that our historical condition urges us to re-think our living patterns for the future habitability on Earth for both human and nonhuman beings. However, a similar action requires a collective endeavour, acting both locally and globally, supported by an ethic of interdependence as post-human philosopher Rosi Braidotti argues. Are we enough of a community to take on this? I hope that as an architect I can contribute to form the basis for the collective cooperation needed to enhance our capacity to act in the world. If I can live up to this responsibility, I think that my work could be meaningful.