Quo Addis? Conflicts of Coexistence at 17th International Architecture Exhibition Venice Biennale

From 22 May until 21 November 2021, La Biennale will take place in the Arsenale and the Giardini in Venice. The curator Hashim Sarkis calls on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together in different ways, in the context of widening political divides and growing economic inequalities.

As part of an intercontinental team spanning ETH Zürich, KIT Karlsruhe, EiABC Addis Ababa and Cornell University, Felix Heisel and Marta H. Wisniewska developed the contribution titled “Quo Addis? Conflicts of Coexistence”. In an urban model of Addis Ababa, the historical and architectural development of the Ethiopian capital from the age of Menelik’s empire in the 19th century until today is depicted in an abstract and at the same time precise and clear way. Below film produced by Jenny Rodenhouse completes the exhibition contribution and brings the visitor closer to life and coexistence in the different quarters of the city.

 

In Addis Ababa, the hybridization of territory comes in the form of shiny ensembles overshadowing indigenous settlements, traffic arteries disrupting the labyrinth of pedestrian paths, and agro-industries springing up next to what is left of subsistence farms, to mention just a few of the more striking spatial juxtapositions – and all this superimposed on the residue of past layers of nation-building processes. 

Woven into this already complicated spatial hybrid are mixed modes of social organization (ethnic affiliations, religious groups, agricultural cooperatives, neighborhood associations, trade unions), along with various modes of production (agricultural, industrial, microentrepreneurial, service-oriented), all coexisting in multiple forms to produce a composite economy, including those practices that are considered informal.

This is the terrain on which the coming iterations of Ethiopia will have to be articulated, rather than it being wished away in some blank-slate development venture or beautification scheme.

The installation Quo Addis? – Conflicts of Coexistence (in the Co-habitats section of the exhibition) includes a fictional model of the city of Addis Ababa. The model is made of multiple layers, each representing a particular political regime whose traces remain in Addis Ababa’s urban socio-spatial fabric: (a) the Age of Empire, 1889–1936; (b) the Italian occupation, 1936–1941; (c) US- and European-sponsored modernization under Haile Selassie, 1941–1974; (d) the USSR-backed socialist regime, 1974–1991; (e) European Development Assistance, 1991-2005; (f) Meles Zenawi’s grands projets, 2005-2012; and (g) contemporary mega-development ventures sponsored by foreign actors – UAE, Saudi Arabia, China, etc. (2012-today).

To this amalgam, one more layer is added – namely, one foregrounding alternative ways of how Addis Ababa might live together in the future.

 

The exhibition is the result of many years of collaborative research between the involved partners. Book publications such as Lessons of Informality: Architecture and Urban Planning for Emerging Territories – Concepts from Ethiopia (Heisel and Kifle, 2016 – also see video: https://vimeo.com/225560846) or the more recent Addis Ababa: A Manifesto on African Progress (Hebel, Heisel, Wisniewska, Nash, 2019) are results of this research and provided one basis of the exhibition. Additionally, the long running documentary series _Spaces (www.spacesmovie.com)  provided the imagery and footage for the above video produced specifically for this exhibition.