Tuesday, July 31, 2012

trees, streets and empires

Sudan Street, Addis Ababa
The history of Addis Ababa is intricately linked to its trees. The city was given its name, which means “New Flower,” by the Empress Taitu in what may have been a reference to the area’s plentiful mimosa trees. Yet within a few years of Emperor Menelik II making the city his permanent capital around 1887, the sovereign considered relocating because of the deforestation caused by felling trees for construction materials and firewood. The introduction of Australian eucalyptus trees in 1905, probably by two French diplomats, saved the city. Eucalyptus grows quickly in the Ethiopian highlands, and will grow a new trunk from the stump of a cut tree. It made an ideal resource for construction and firewood – a role it still serves – and has naturalized throughout much of the country. When the Italians made Addis Ababa the capital of their African empire in 1936, they brought a new set of trees with them.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

day job, indoor edition

Archival materials can be incredibly helpful for the kind of research I’m doing on architecture and urbanism in East Africa. These resources can be correspondence and other written documents (logs, contracts, diaries, receipts, reports), photographs, drawings, maps, catalogs, brochures, and objects of all sorts. Often these materials are conserved in archives and libraries, but not always; on Thursday I am going to visit the offices of a construction company that has been based in Eritrea and Ethiopia since the 1930s, and which has a large collection of photographs documenting their work over the years. The material I’ve looked at so far in the Ethiopian National Archives and the Institute for Ethiopian Studies has been very revealing for two main reasons: it documents the processes of construction in great detail and it helps establish a clear chronology of the layers of development in East African metropolises. In both cases the archival evidence often contradicts later written accounts or fills in the vast gaps in our knowledge.

Friday, July 27, 2012

day job, outdoor edition

We haven't posted on tin box for a while now, but things are progressing at the house. We'll have updates on construction later in August.

One reason for the lack of updates is that I've been in Ethiopia since June, conducting research for two book projects about modern architecture and urbanism here. The first book will deal with the period of Italian colonization in East Africa (1935-41) and the second will look at the whole arc of modernization in Ethiopia since the reign of Menelik II. This research has been exciting, in part because I came here with far fewer expectations and assumptions than I had when I started the dissertation studies that led to my first book. The paucity of historical scholarship on modern architecture and urbanism in Africa means that I had to approach Ethiopia prepared to improvise. And Ethiopia rewards improvisation.