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.

The aerial photos of Addis Ababa that I’ve looked at, for example, help clarify when different projects were constructed in the city, and already this helps correct several misconceptions about the city’s development. The documentary photos of buildings in smaller cities help identify their clients and dates of construction – this sweet little house in Dessie, which I saw in person last week, is a prefabricated wooden building from a company in Bergamo, but I hadn’t known that they were sold to this particular government agency until I found this unpublished photograph. Other images of projects under construction show a workforce made up largely of local laborers, including many women, and one report lists their numbers in one province. Other images show construction methods that incorporated local materials and techniques, presumably because of the scarcity of cement in the Horn of Africa, and others show some of the first finely crafted European furniture made in Italy’s East African colonies. Piece by piece, the archives reveal a story.

Sadly, my time indoors always seem to coincide with the sunniest weather during the rainy season in Addis Ababa. Oh, well.

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