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.

My research has two tracks, one outdoors and one indoors. The indoor track is archival research, where I dig through old files and albums of photographs, drawings, maps and correspondence, looking for clues to help me piece together an accurate and insightful account of the development of the built environment. This kind of work is pretty much identical to what I've done in archives in Italy, France, Switzerland and the US. The archives in Addis Ababa, at both the Institute for Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University and the Ethiopian National Library and Archives, have been very helpful so far (while not well organized, they're about on par with some of the Italian archives I've used).

The outdoor track is a little more interesting. It involves walking the streets of Ethiopia's remarkable cities and driving through its jaw-droppingly beautiful countryside, looking closely at the way cityscapes and landscapes have been shaped over the past 120 years. I'm curious about the ways Ethiopian patrons and, briefly, Italian colonial authorities transformed the built environment.

One discovery so far is a series of ways the Italians altered their plans to incorporate local building practices, whether it meant using locally available materials and established construction methods or arranging city plans to incorporate sites already established as places of gathering, commerce or political power. Later, Ethiopian authorities would repeat the process by incorporating Italian planning practices and construction methods during the country's postwar expansion.

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