Ethiopia is facing a relentless development and the urban population of Addis Ababa, in particular, is growing faster than the city can absorb. This results in a huge deficit of housing accommodation for people. In the last decade the Ethiopian Government tried to tackle the housing shortage by promoting a full-scale project: the Condominium Blocks. While facing the matter of density and providing a fast construction process, the new governmental housing project cannot be considered the best approach for affordable housing in Addis Ababa. Three main problems can be highlighted: high production cost, caused by the import of foreign technologies and materials; building configuration that does not match with the social and cultural context of Ethiopia’s urban poor, and, finally, lack of flexibility in the apartment units that cannot extend according to people needs.

Our project, “Rhizome”, proposes an alternative to the model of condominium blocks. Our design is rooted within the site, technically feasible, economically competitive and flexible in construction time and materials. Rhizome started from the investigation of the social and spatial patterns of lower income areas of Addis Ababa and, in particular, in the Menen neighbourhood. This brought about a clear research question: How can the different socio-spatial layers that characterize the fabric of the Menen neighbourhood, be reinterpreted into a low-rise project able to reach the same density of the Condominium blocks? How can the project be feasible and promote itself as flexible standardized system?

The backbone of our project is the idea of residential compound, a physical and social structure composed by three elements: two incremental housing blocks and the circulation system. These are clustered together and can be rotated, mirrored and attached to each other creating a series of spaces that compose a hierarchical sequence of community spaces. This enacts a holistic strategy that bridges multiple scales, from the main urban streets, to the intimacy of the compound and, eventually, to the most private space of the dwelling.

In our project every cluster is independent, allowing the entire project to be built in phases and to develop through time organically integrated in the surrounding physical structures. With this strategy, it avoids disruptive spatial and social breaks between old and new structures and communities. Furthermore, the project can be built using two different construction methods that offer more affordable solutions than those currently used in the governmental housing programme. The project could be standardized and rapidly built using a concrete structure. Alternatively, it can be built using a rammed earth building system. The former requires material importation, technological structure and specialized skills while the latter is more affordable and sustainable, using material and techniques that can be found in-situ and can involve the population in the building process.

The design approach developed in our project makes it a feasible and competitive alternative approach to the condominium blocks in matters such as cost, time, labour and skills.

In botany, Rhizome is associated to the growth of the plants’ underground roots. Likewise, our project stands for a continuously growth of an interconnected sequence of spaces that stems from a unique simple element: the residential compound.


Who influences you graphically?

Actually, we influenced each other. When we first met, we had two completely different approaches of representing architecture: one was more artistic and the other one more technical. We graphically grew up together with time; I remember our first project: plain line drawings were just put side by side with rendered images.

However, during our thesis design process we faced several challenges and, eventually, our styles slowly blended together. Indeed, we realized that, in order to rightly represent the Ethiopian atmosphere into architectural drawings, we needed to combine detail with an ‘artistic’ representation of the daily life of people living there. Day by day, we built up a library of objects and people made by retracing the pictures we took while visiting the country. Textures and colours were also inspired by the informal environment of the Ethiopian city settlements.

What prompted the research, how was this part of the project documented and developed?

When we first visited our project site, we could not grasp what was happening behind the wide corrugated iron sheets that were used as fences.

We had then the chance to visit the inhabitant’s private dwellings and we discovered an incredibly interesting hidden world. Behind the fences, the dwelling were organized in compounds; moreover, a series of courtyards, communal spaces and thresholds brought us from the public space of the street to the most private space of the houses.

We then decided to redraw, study and classify the compounds to deeply understand the sequence that interconnected one space to the other. We categorized the compounds depending on how and why people would make a certain use of the space. In this way, each category could be explained by an immediate simple scheme.

Thanks to this, we could grasp the importance of the sequence of spaces from the public to the private realm into the everyday habits of the inhabitants.

How important were the interior and exterior views? What did you want to convey/ achieve through these?

Incrementality was one of the key elements in our design. In incremental housing projects, it is extremely important to oversee how the project will change when people start appropriating the free available space. Otherwise, the project would risk to completely losing its quality, drowning into the chaos of the informal settlements. The interior and exterior views aimed to show how people could shape the compounds throughout time without interfering with the essence of the project.

Indeed, the inhabitants could build an exterior extra staircase to rent out the second floor of their apartment or simply close off the terrace to add a bedroom. Also in the interior views it is visible the way people could transform their own dwelling. The possibility to expand in the interior space prevents the project from losing its quality with time.

What defined the ‘objects’ which feature within these interiors? What do they reveal of the various inhabitants? What is the effect and purpose of the presence of the community within the images?

Since the beginning the community played a central role. We worked close to the inhabitants to understand how they experience their daily life space. Indeed, the objects and people you find in the views, from the small canvases in the apartment to the advertisement banners, were cropped from pictures we took during the site visit.

Moreover, in Ethiopia, especially in informal settlements areas, there is a strong sense of community. Since the sunrise streets and courtyards become gathering places where people work, cook and socialize. Therefore, the spaces in Rhizome could never be imagined without presence of the community. The project itself was designed according to the way inhabitants use and experience their surrounding space.

How important was the plan in the development and exploration of the modular configurations?

Plans kept being developed and fine-tuned until the very end. We put effort in narrowing down the number of plan variations to achieve the simplest way to configure compounds and neighbourhoods. The configuration of the plan was conceived in such a way to allow the ‘modules’ to mirror or attach to each other’s. Therefore, the project can coexist with an existing villa, form a solid street scape towards the street or create connections with a pedestrian pathway. According to the context, the apartment is free to become, for example, a shop.

On the other hand what role does the axonometric play? What sets of two conditions does the differentiation of colour delineate?

Axonometric drawings were, probably, the finest method to prove that floorplans were actually working in the third dimension. They represent the sequence of spaces that an inhabitant could experience, from the different public streets to the more private space of the compound.

Axonometric projections, definitely, make the architectural space more legible and immediate.

Moreover, this technique gave us the possibility to draw an infinite number of details to recreate of atmosphere of the site and describe the daily life of people.

Where do you see this project developing- would you be interested in exploring the thesis beyond the academic space?

We aim to build a prototype of our design in Ethiopia. It is a pity that, especially, affordable housing projects do not find a sequel out of the academic field. We designed a project which is technically feasible, economically competitive and flexible in construction time and materials. Thus we strongly believe that our project could work. Building it would be the best way to see if we were right.