Even at a time when buildings are being destroyed to make way for high-rises that have more commercial value than aesthetic value, one cannot help but notice the city’s distinctively nostalgic architecture as they stroll down Churchill Road from Piassa to the National Theatre.
The post-World War II vision of imperial modernity developed by Emperor Haile Selassie is the source of the nostalgic architectural marvels of downtown Arada and Beherawi; a vision that included the best architectural creations to date in Addis Ababa.
The Modernist, an elegant movie, brilliantly captures this fundamental change in the city’s design and a larger vision for the nation.
The film explores the emperor’s vision, as well as one of the primary architects who brought the vision to life.
From the director of the Athletes, an enthralling film about the late great Abebe Bekila, comes the Modernist, a film about the reconstruction period under Emperor Haile Selassie I after the Italian occupation from 1936 to 1941.
This emperor’s vision is examined in the film, along with one of the key architects who realized the idea.
Natnael Solomon, an architect who saw the film in the urban center, says the film resembled a journey through history and the thoughts of those who were prosperous at the time.
The film highlights the emperor’s commitment to education and other areas of development, highlighting the crucial role he had in Ethiopia’s modernization in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Rasselas Lakew, an Ethiopian-born director, actor, and writer, gave the film a theme that informs audiences of the indisputable contribution made by the late emperor and French architect Henri Chomette in converting Addis Ababa into a city suitable for housing the African Union.
“Because of how meticulously the story was told and the substance was presented, I believed the director to be an architect. I was aware of the topics it covered due to my line of work, but it was nevertheless presented in a clear and understandable manner for those without a background in architecture,” Natnael said.
Rasselas’ 2009 film, the Athlete, received critical acclaim as well as numerous international awards.
His subsequent work has received widespread praise for meticulously demonstrating a vision that could have taken off in a positive direction but was instead derailed by what some architects refer to as “eyesore buildings.”
Addis Ababa saw a development boom following the Second World War and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which gave the city newfound worldwide prominence as the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
Expat architects worked closely with the emperor to shape the Ethiopian capital as a symbol of African modernity in accordance with tradition.
“The city had a unified strategy back then. Each structure was clearly deliberate. Before a building could be completed, each architect’s plan had to be approved,” Natnael said. He admires the many buildings that still adorn the city and provide it with a sense of beauty that has not faded with rust.
Along with the expatriate architects and the shaping of Addis Ababa, Haile Selassie’s Imperial Modernity examines how a distinct Ethiopian modernity was negotiated through various borrowings from the past, including Italian colonial planning, both at the scale of the individual building and at the scale of the city.
In an era when those buildings are not given the historical significance they deserve, the film serves as a reminder of the need to cherish and preserve the city’s past.
The structures serve as a showcase for architectural marvels from around the world.
The public buildings were planned by Italian Eritrean Arturo Mezzedimi, French Henri Chomette, and the collaboration of Israeli Zalman Enav and Ethiopian Michael Tedros and Ayala Levin; each one proving the emperor’s intention to make Ethiopia as architecturally advanced as Europe at the time.
It also demonstrates how the emperor’s vision transcended racial boundaries, bringing foreign architects to a site considered “primitive” at the time to face the challenges of mediating Haile Selassie’s vision of imperial modernity.
“The city is rich in history and treasures that are obvious to anybody who cares to look. Films like this may force the audience to delve deeper than the surface. I recommend it to all architects, as well as everyone else. It perfectly integrates history, art, and design. Definitely worth watching,” Natnael concluded.