A guest article by
Elias Yitbarek Alemayehu

I live in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, with a population of about five million (official estimate 3.5 million). The neighbourhood I live in is called Piazza, is the old centre of the city and one of the busiest. My apartment overlooks a busy traffic junction. The daily scenes from my window include traffic jams, a constant flow of pedestrians, shoeshine boys, car-washing youth, car parking attendants, beggars, street hustlers, street vendors, watchmen, stray dogs and people simply hanging out. During peak hours, the streets are completely full of packs of vehicles stuck in the traffic jam and incessantly honking. It is a teeming and vibrant junction without respite – chaotic, spontaneous, and at times, surreal.

Street view in Addis Ababa. © E. Y. Alemayehu.

In 2014–15 I had the opportunity to stay in Jyväskylä, Finland, at different intervals for a total of five months. During my first visit, I stayed in an apartment overlooking a street junction close to the city centre. The scene and sounds were in sharp contrast to the traffic junction in Addis Ababa. The most common sources of sounds were lone intermittent beeps from traffic lights and the few cars that stopped and passed through accordingly. From my Jyväskylä apartment window, whenever possible, I keenly observed activities at the junction. I saw a man who came every morning with a plastic bag in his hands to a corner kiosk located at the junction. He went into the kiosk and came out after a while. He stood by the corner, took a canned beer from his pocket and drank it. He smoked a cigarette and then went back into the kiosk. He repeated this routine three or four times each morning. At times, after his third or fourth beer, he urinated by the fence and then went back to the kiosk. This activity was repeated every morning at fixed intervals. 

In comparison to the chaotic view and buzzing sound of the street junction in Addis, in the case of Jyväskylä not only the activities but also the street sounds were rhythmic – bordering on monotony. It alternated between silence and sound. In fact the silence intervals were longer than the intervals with sound. I observed similar patterns with the activity of the man at the kiosk. His stays outside to drink beer and smoke cigarettes happened quickly compared to the time he spent inside the kiosk. The beeping sound of the traffic light and the noise from the cars took place against a dominant silence. Except for few pedestrians crossing the junction now and then, the man at the kiosk was the only activity in the street against the backdrop of the majority of people staying indoors. This was in stark contrast to Addis Ababa, where the majority of people are active in the streets and one can hardly enjoy any silence in the relentless noise. 

In addition, during my stay in Jyväskylä, a city of 140,000 people, what grabbed my attention was the vast availability of open spaces, lakes and forests. In Jyväskylä, I was told, almost every household can reach a lake or a forest within a walking distance. From an urban planning point of view, the built structures in Jyväskylä are pockets within large forests. This is the opposite of Addis Ababa, where the forests and open spaces are small pockets within the vast built environment.

I couldn’t help but think how my observations from my windows in both cities and the relationship between the built environment and open spaces could be related to the temperament of Jyväskylä’s and Addis Ababa’s people. After all, the built environment is the physical manifestation of who we are as people: “first we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us” (a quote by Winston Churchill).

At the risk of over generalizing, the Finnish people are often characterized as silence-loving people. Coming from an African city, this I could vividly observe. In my encounters with the Finns I could also observe the absence of small talk. Silence, I was told, is considered part of a conversation in Finland. Words are used to transfer messages. There is respect for words; it is okay to be together or in the company of others and keep silent. Silence is considered not as the absence of noise but as another form of conversation. The following instances in Jyväskylä may demonstrate the aforementioned statements.

During my stay in Jyväskylä, after being invited to a gathering of friends, I was heading to my host’s home. On my way, I caught up with a friend who was walking with two of her children to the same place. The usual exchange of greetings was followed by silence. In an effort to break the silence, I said, “while I was checking the address of the house we are heading to, I found out that the roads of the neighbourhood are named after dancing styles: tango, waltz, humppa, and so on”. She said, “yes, some dancing styles”. Again, our very brief chat was followed by another silence. To continue some light conversation I said, “the neighbourhood’s residents must like dancing or could be dancers!” She did not pick up on my joke, instead she responded by saying, “no, I myself used to live in the same neighbourhood and I know that the naming is not because the residents like dancing.” I had to remind myself: “no small talk!” After some walks in silence, we arrived at our host’s house.

Another instance was when I invited a Finnish friend to my apartment for a cup of coffee. I knew that he was traveling out of town for some time. Thus, following his arrival at my place, to break the ice I asked, “how was your trip?” In Ethiopia this is a casual question usually posed without the expectation of a thoughtful answer. It is asked just for the sake of avoiding silence and possibly to initiate a conversation. The response I got from my Finnish friend, however, was rather a formal account of his trip. Following a thoughtful silence he started to carefully mention the places he visited, the activities he did in each visit and the type of people he met and the number of kilometers he covered. At the end of his rather rigorous account I had to remind myself I should not ask for the sake of asking – no small talk!

In sharp contrast to the above, in Addis Ababa, silence breeds nervousness. In the Ethiopian culture it is not considered courteous to keep quiet, particularly in the presence of a guest. One is expected to constantly engage in small talk. Something as simple thing as a greeting could go on and on for minutes with back and forth cliché statements. The whole city, particularly the city centers, continuously buzz with different types of sounds from people, vehicles, animals, places of worship, music instruments, etc. One can hardly get a silent corner for respite.

How does the above observation translate into cities? Here one could make a contrast between silence/open spaces/voids on the one hand and noise/objects/buildings on the other hand. The relationship between silence, open spaces and the voids between buildings is considered not only metaphorically but also functionally. The same is true with the relationship between objects and the noise emanating from the various street activities. The word “object” is, primarily, used here to denote buildings which do not take into account a given urban context – stand alone buildings that neither define streets or opens spaces nor respond to the climate and the way of life of residents.

The silence of the Finns seems to be made manifest in their love for open spaces, lakes and forests; and their measured talk could be expressed through the small pockets of buildings constructed within the vast forests. The constant chatter and noise in Addis Ababa, by contrast, is manifested in the love of placing buildings and objects in every available open spaces. The city has few parks and public spaces, far below the required standards. There has been a constant effort to fill every inch of the city with man-made things. Open spaces have been considered wasted land. A typical well-functioning city, however, is composed of both buildings and the spaces between the buildings (voids); a good balance between them is essential. It is like the balance needed between inhaling and exhaling, repose and wakefulness, action and reflection. People require silent moments to reflect and look into one self. This realization calls for looking at cities not as a mere collection of objects and blocks of buildings but also as places that satisfy psychological needs.

The city design of Addis Ababa has been focusing on the design of objects rather than the voids between them. But a mere collection of objects does not make a livable city. Following long years of deep slumber, unprecedented urban transformation is occurring in the city. The construction of roads, high rise buildings and condominium housing blocks are transforming the city for good – giving it a new skyline. Often redevelopment schemes are done without a proper urban design. It is only recently that the issue of urban design, one that could mediate the relationship between open spaces/silence and buildings/objects, has come into the picture.

In 2012, a proper urban design was made by the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City planning (EiABC) for an area located in the inner city, commonly known as Basha Wolde Chilot (the author was one of the coordinators of this project). The point of departure for the project was the fact that it started by designing first the open spaces/voids, and making the building blocks a secondary design element. (See Hebel & Yitbarek 2011.) Perimeter blocks of buildings were used to define both the open spaces and the streets. Thus, networks of open spaces were created which balanced out the buildings. Contrary to this approach, as mentioned earlier, most of redevelopment projects in the city have focused on the design of buildings/objects only. The spaces between the buildings are usually left-over spaces often appropriated by adjacent owners or utilized for garbage dumping or other unintended purposes.

In the case of Addis Ababa, it should be noted that, the provision of open spaces goes beyond the need for silence. Owing to the mild climate, many activities are carried out in the open; one only has to walk through the city and the informal settlements to observe this. The open spaces are used both for day-to-day household chores and larger communal activities. Owing to their varying sizes and locations, they accommodate activities ranging from the smallest outdoor chores such as manual coffee grinding and making laundry to accommodating wedding ceremonies. Thus, in Addis Ababa, contrary to Le-Corbusie’s famous dictum that “the house is a machine for living”, rather the open space is a machine for living. This is true particularly for the majority of low-income people of Addis Ababa, for whom common spaces are not a luxury but crucial components of survival.

Thus, if Addis Ababa is to be more livable city, it needs to learn from Jyväskylä’s silence and open spaces. It is high time that it considers the provision of public spaces and parks. Unless the noise surrounding objects and buildings is balanced with the provision of silence and open spaces, the city will end up being a jungle of concrete. At present, it seems the city administration has become increasingly aware of this. It has planned to develop more than 100 parks, in the coming five years.

For its part, Jyväskylä may need some of the Addis Ababa’s vibrant street life and spontaneity to balance its vast silence and predictable rhythm. One of the reasons for marital divorces in Finland, I was told, is lack of sufficient communication between husband and wife. Communication is minimized and assumptions are made instead, to the extent of reaching a breaking point. The pretext for the minimal communication, I was told, is avoiding redundancy of information or the telling of something which is obvious. A good friend of mine tried to explain this by relating the following story: 

An old man wanted to visit a place whose location he didn’t know. He went to his friend’s family, who knew the place, and asked for somebody to accompany him. The lady of the house was gracious enough to give permission to her young son to accompany the elderly man. The old man and the young boy started to head toward the place. They walked in silence without uttering a word. After a long distance, the young boy, observing the dark sky with heavy clouds, commented, “I think it is going to rain”. There was no reply from the old man. After a while they reached their destination. The old man visited the place he wanted to see and they started walking back home. Again, all the way back there was no conversation. The only talk on the whole trip had been the earlier comment of the boy about the rain. Finally, after arriving at the boy’s home, the old man said to the boy’s mother, “you have a good boy but he talks too much.”
Then, said my Finnish friend, “you see, it is not that we do not talk but it is because we avoid the obvious and the redundant as much as possible. Why should the boy say ‘it will rain’ when it is obviously so!" However, in my opinion, ideal cities could be created if Addis Ababa could share Jyväskylä some of its "noise" and man-made objects and Jyväskylä could lend Addis Ababa some of its silence and open spaces. Addis Ababa needs more "repose" and "reflection" and Jyväskylä more "wakefulness" and "action".

For those who insist in favor of silence at the cost of objects: I think, communication and the need for bonding with fellow dwellers are inherent characteristics of human beings. The molecules of minerals, plants, animals and human beings bond with each other in order to exist for what they are. It is nature’s law that bonds and interaction produce life while separation and disintegration lead to death. Similarly, on a larger scale, residents need to bond with their fellow neighbors in order to enjoy a fulfilling life. Communication and social interaction is not a luxury but a necessity. It is not an externality to the collective identity of human beings but an essential characteristic.

And for those who insist in favor of objects at the cost of silence, I share the quotation below on Malevich’s painting of 2015 “the black square” - devoid of any representational objects:

The traditionalists tried to laugh the picture off. They said Malevich had gone mad, he must’ve painted the black square in the dark! His response was straightforward: "I am glad I am not like you. I can go further and further into the wilderness because it’s only there that transformation will take place. My black square is a bare and frameless icon for our times. Arise, comrades, and free yourselves from the tyranny of objects!" (Andrew Graham-Dixon quoting Kazimir Malevich in the BBC documentary, the Art of Russia, episode 2.)

Dr. Alemayehu is Assistant Professor, Housing Chair, at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development (EiABC),and the former president of the Association of Ethiopian Architects (AEA).

Source cited: Dirk Hebel & Elias Yitbarek (2011). “Addis Ababa, Extracting Character from Voids”. In, Anza (East African Architectural Magazine), Bracom Associates, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

Acknowledgements: Serkalem Girma, Dr. Sileshi Yitbarek,
Kumneger Alemu, Sylvie Fanta and Prof. Laura stark.