Diary of an Australian Architect in Ethiophia – Part 1

Diary of an Architect

Working abroad has unique challenges, especially for an organisation that is a sovereign entity which seeks the highest ideals yet must comply with no specific standard, a conundrum faced being the Campus Architect for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa[1] (UNECA), where our world has become a 13 hectare site in the centre of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

In 2013, whilst I was passing through this part of the world, an expression of interest caught Conrad Gargett’s Director Lawrence Toaldo’s eye that happened to be for a project that directly suited both our interests and skill sets, the renovation of Africa Hall.  An early 1960 modernist masterpiece, designed by the then 37 year old Arturo Mezzadimi [2]as the birthplace of the Order of African Unity [3](African Union) and the United Nations initial foray on the continent of Africa.  Commissioned by Emperor HIM Haile Selassie, the building and grounds provided the first building enabling modern diplomatic engagement for the continent’s nations, including simultaneous interpretation technology, committee and function spaces.

UNECA has expanded over its 60 year history, growing to meet the demand of both the ECA and the over 20 UN Agencies active within Ethiopia.  The investment for the conservation and modernisation of Africa Hall aligns with similar recent projects in New York and Geneva undertaken by the UN. Several in years design and documentation undertaken from our Brisbane Studio with frequent FIFO trips to Ethiopia, lead to the eventual requirement for a permanent site presence of the Conrad Gargett team once site works commenced in early 2018.  As luck would have it in this profession, the UN tender globally the need for a 5 year Campus Architect contract, enabling the on-call provision of architectural and engineering disciplines to record, plan, design, document and administer a wide range of projects across the entire UNECA site. What was originally a single project has now become over 60 across the entire campus, all varied in scale and objectives, yet all interlinked to form a future long term vision for the UNECA campus to grow in a considered and managed approach.

As inferred above, the UN processes are a combination of a range of international standards, codes and regulations.  The organization is the embodiment of a global outlook, whereby its approach and methodology has at its core a consultative approach to all actions and decisions that are to be made.

Whilst the organization is unique, the location where we are practicing, Ethiopia is also intriguingly original in every way; the people, culture, life/work balance and social interactions. Our team have been lucky enough to embed within the UN system, guaranteeing client emphasis for due process and consultative approach to all design work being developed.  Ethiopia has the unique and highly prized history that includes not only the birthplace of humanity, an imperial dynasty unmatched in human history but also the relatively recent accolade of being the only nation on the Continent of Africa not to have been formally colonized by a European nation following the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 and subsequent Partition of Africa[4].

[1] https://www.uneca.org/
[2] https://journals.openedition.org/abe/3159
[3] https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/african-union-au/
[4] Stig Förster, Wolfgang Justin Mommsen, and Ronald Edward Robinson, eds. Bismarck, Europe and Africa: The Berlin Africa conference 1884-1885 and the onset of partition (Oxford UP, 1988).