When Fascists Tried to Remake Ethiopia

When Mussolini’s army invaded and ultimately occupied Ethiopia, the Italian fascists did more than expand Italy’s African empire; in their eyes, they obtained an opportunity to build a capital from scratch.

As Rixt Woudstra details at Failed Architecture,

The idea of Ethiopia as a tabula rasa—a blank slate—was omnipresent in the writings of architects and urban planners occupied with the designs of the colonial capital between 1936 and 1939, who considered the country devoid of any structures of architectural significance. Contrary to the fascination of Libyan whitewashed courtyard house – their simplicity, colours and volumes perfectly in tune with modern taste – the round houses of the Ethiopians were regarded by Italian architects as irrational and unhygienic.

Modernist architecture’s obsession with rationality and supreme planning looked askance at a city even as relatively new as Addis Ababa for not proceeding out of the geometries and ideals en vogue in Europe. Within months of the Ethiopian capital’s conquest, no less an architect than Le Corbusier, one of the icons and pioneers of modernism, composed a sketch to accompany a letter he sent to Mussolini instructing “how a city for the modern times is born,” and offering his services as a midwife.

Woudstra writes,

Le Corbusier’s sketch shows Addis Ababa literally as a tabula rasa: the rigorously superimposed plan cleared the land of all signs of humanity and centuries of urban culture. In his letter, Le Corbusier described his drawing perfectly by writing that he was attracted by ‘…models so severe, that one might think the colony was a space without time, and therefore, without history, and without any particular geographical meaning.’ Further in his letter he added: ‘…the city is direct dominion; the city becomes the city of government, in which the Palace of the Governor must stand overall…’

Not for nothing, as Matthew Robare recently noted here, did Theodore Dalrymple compare Le Corbusier to Pol Pot, saying “he wanted to start from Year Zero: Before me, nothing; After me, everything.” Le Corbusier had found himself frustrated by the long-standing architectural patterns of Europe, whose age and complexity resisted his cutting pen. As Woudstra notes, the Addis Ababa proposal was completely in line with Corbusier’s ideal city, theorized independently of tradition or conditions. Corbusier’s plan for Paris, for example, razed the city of its low complexities in order to produce this:

Plan Voisin for Paris, 1922-1925. photo: Fondation Le Corbusier

Plan Voisin for Paris, 1922-1925. photo: Fondation Le Corbusier

As Robare explained the other week, these grand rational plannings have not died with their blackshirted allies. China’s construction of cities out of whole cloth may sometimes be painted with green sustainability, but they neither have the human appeal nor the natural sustainability of an incrementally grown, walkable city.

Addis Ababa was spared a Corbusier-inspired revamp by a combination of bureaucratic foot-dragging and rapid British troop movements that eventually freed the capital from fascist control. The grand colonialism would proceed apace, however, back in the very Western countries that had previously so frustrated Corbusier and his followers.

After World War II, both the United States and Britain turned over much of their own cities to the hands of experts and engineers who, channeling the Corbusierian vision, would level working-class neighborhoods in order to build large, modern towers in the name of urban renewal. The social devastation that process wreaked upon the already economically disadvantaged is explored in painstaking detail in TAC National Editor Benjamin Schwarz’s cover story in our latest issue. The organic neighborhoods, slums though they often were, were dynamic social environments. The tower blocks atomized and individualized the families and communities they replaced.

The ugly philosophies of central planning and Corbusierian modernism have not been defeated, but as Justin Shubow explained at Forbes, the architectural profession it has been fueling is now nearly exhausted. When an architect’s response to a Katrina rebuilding contract is to assemble experiments with artistically “damaged” roofs, one would hope that the absurdity of the architectural profession has brought it close to the bursting point.

Unlike Addis Ababa, however, we will not have British tanks to save us from Corbusier. We will have to demand buildings at a human scale, and refuse to let the professional guilds defend 50 years of failure.

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