A rectangular silver tin attached to the front wall of the over half-a century-old City Hall in Addis Ababa contains an engraved name, Arturo Mezzedimi. Whoever pays attention to the name understands he is the designer of the grand building.
The Italian architect designed over a thousand buildings in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Yemen, says Dawit Benti, an Instructor at the Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development of Addis Ababa University.
His designs range from a small Coptic church in Debre Sina, a rural area north of Addis Ababa, to the historically significant buildings; the City Hall and Africa Hall in the capital.
On October 14, a meeting at the Economic Commission for Africa launched the renovation work on the African Hall, a building that withstood revolution and tumult over 60 years, with a 56 million USD injection of funding from the United Nations.
The renovation is aimed at rejuvenating the historically significant arena. The desire and aim is to transform the building into “a significant tourism destination, incorporating the rich history of the pan-African movement through a permanent exhibition, featuring professionally curated cultural, historical and natural heritage sites,” according to Antonio Pedro, the Acting Executive Secretary of ECA.
The establishment of the Organization of the African Unity, which took place in the African Hall, was accompanied by the 1950s fashionable pan-Africanist sentiment that gained momentum in Africa and was led by Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah.
When the historical responsibility of hosting the first conference of the 32 independent African states fell on Ethiopia, Arturo Mezzedimi was summoned by Emperor Haile Selassie in the late 1950s. By then he was an acquaintance of the Emperor and had already designed churches, mosques, and hospitals under the patronage of the monarch.
Mezzedimi had priorly moved to Asmara, Eritrea when he was just 18 years old in 1940 to visit his father who was an entrepreneur there. Eritrea was still a colony of his country, Italy, yet to be freed the next year by the allied forces.
Arturo Mezzedimi graduated as a technical surveyor from a Technique Institute in Asmara and undertook his first designing endeavors in Asmara though he was not specifically trained as an architect.
“As a young self-taught professional, Mezzedimi fully exploited the vibrant life of the city, producing designs for dwellings, villas, factories, shops, and commercial spaces at an impressive rate,” said Jacopo Galli, a professor at the University of Iuav of Venice in his 2022 paper Aspirations and Contradictions in Shaping a Cosmopolitan Africa: Arturo Mezzedimi in Imperial Ethiopia.
As the historian Anglo Del Boca noted, there weren’t many technical experts in Ethiopia in the 1950s and this paved the way for Mezzedimi to be introduced to the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I.
Mezzedimi had already designed Menen Hospital in Asmara, the Navy Academy in Assab and other projects with the order of the Emperor when he was given the grand assignment of designing the African Hall.
The architect took it upon himself to visit the headquarters of the United Nations in New York, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) head office in Rome and UNESCO’s building in Paris to take inspiration from these buildings to give his African Hall design an essence of an international organization.
Anglo Del Boca’s The Negus included Arturo’s 1979 interview where he said he changed the design of the hall seven times because the location for the construction of the building kept on changing.
Arturo was later given 91 days to finish his design of the hall by Mengesha Seyoum, the then Minister of Public Works.
Tasked with an urgent assignment, Mezzedimi worked day and night under the close surveillance of the Emperor himself for three months. Arturo later said in the interview, “for 91 days, I worked from 9 am to 4 am.”
“The building measures 75,000 m2 and includes 260 offices, an assembly hall with 800 seats in simultaneous translation, six rooms for committees from 30 to 60 seats, a library, permanent exhibition rooms, party rooms, a foyer with a bar for the public, galleries for sightseeing, and rooms for banks, airline offices, and tourist companies,” wrote Jacopo Galli.
Showing that Arturo paid keen attention to details in his crafting of the design, Galli says, “The circular roof of the assembly hall, supported by small metal pillars that create a suspended effect, is particularly important in terms of aesthetics and climate comfort and is shaped like a gigantic truss whose every inclination is calculated as a function of solar reflection, the placement of artificial lighting, and the need for natural ventilation.”
Domus, the Italian magazine for architecture, design and art, hailed African Hall in its 1963 publication as “free from vulgarity, [it] has taste and neatness and a quiet elegance”.
The hall was officially inaugurated between May 22-25, 1963 during the first assembly of 32 heads of independent African states that came together in Addis Ababa. It was in this hall that the African leaders signed the charter for the establishment of the OAU, the Organization for African Unity which was later succeeded by the African Union (AU) in 2002.
Dawit says, “The design of the hall was ahead of its time. What’s most amazing about the African Hall is that participants can have coffee breaks without leaving meetings. Even if you want to take a break and step out of the hall, you can still listen to what’s being said inside. Mezzedimi’s designs transcend time.”
To flatter Mezzedimi’s architectural outcomes, Afework Tekle, the late Ethiopian leading modern painter, did a stained glass painting in the African Hall - showing Africans’ struggle for independence and progress.
The current venture to renovate the hall is not the first. The African hall went under a renovation from 1971-75, also funded by the UN. The African Hall still stands elegant, defying time and changes, situated under the Economic Commission for Africa.
African Hall’s renovation project will breathe new life into the iconic monument, said Nita Deerpalsing, the Director of ECA’s Publications, Conference and Knowledge Management Division. She added that when the renovations are finished, the hall will be transformed into a “state-of-the-art facility and museum”. She also expressed her hope that it will be “one of the most visited places in Addis Ababa”.
Apart from the African Hall, Arturo Mezzedimi designed more than 20 urban centers in Addis Ababa including the Zewditu Building, Finfinne Building, and the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia head office. The City Hall, which is one of his masterpieces, was also designed in the early 1960s. He also did the architecture of the Tana Palace in Bahir Dar in 1967.
Dawit also stresses that Mezzedimi’s architectural works embraced the modernity of their time while still having local colors as well as treasured emblems of the nation. He is currently writing a book on Mezzedimi's works, highlighting how the architect intermingled ancient Ethiopian architectural symbols and the modern design forms.
He says the architect wasn’t given due recognition in his prime time in Ethiopia though he put his prominent mark on the architecture of Addis Ababa. This could be mainly because of Ethiopians’ tradition of taking pride in their history of defying colonization, Dawit assumes, and the fact that Arturo Mezzedimi was a foreign professional.
The revolution that abruptly uprooted the Monarchy also didn’t allow time for Mezzedimi’s works to be documented and reflected on. Moreover, the revolutionary Derg that succeeded Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime didn’t want to emphasize on the positive legacies of the precedenting monarchy.
For these and other such reasons, Mezzedimi’s contributions have dimmed over time, until professionals of the architecture sector decided recently to celebrate him while observing the 100th birthday of the late architect last June.
Mezzedimi’s 100th birthday was observed in Addis Ababa with a coordinated conference by the University of Iuav of Venice and the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development of the University of Addis Ababa.
Different study papers done on the life and works of Arturo Mezzedimi were presented from different parts of the world at the virtual conference including Lecturer Dawit Benti’s Mezzedimi’s works incorporating Ethiopian traditional symbols and Professor Jacopo Galli’s Aspirations and Contradictions in Shaping a Cosmopolitan Africa: Arturo Mezzedimi in Imperial Ethiopia.
The presentations commemorated the architect’s advanced designing skills for his time, the fascinating rate he did the designs with, following the path of Mezzedimi from his first arrival at Asmara in 1940 up to his professional climax the 1960s Addis Ababa.
In a letter Mezzedimi wrote in April 1992, entitled Hailé Selassié: a testimony for reappraisal, he said, “... in 23 years of collaboration, he never expected me to become a member of his court, nor limit my work to the projects of his empire alone,” adding the monarch’s conservative and yet progressive stances in multiple fronts including architecture: “Ruling a country like the old Abyssinia with ambitions of recovery and modernization was certainly no easy feat.”
Emperor Haile Selassie awarded Arturo Mezzedimi three decorations, says the footnotes of the letter: Knight Officer of the Order of the Star of Ethiopia, Knight and Knight Officer of the Cross of Menelik II. It says “Mezzedimi obtained the highest honor when the Ethiopian Postal Administration dedicated five stamps to his major works and the United Nations did likewise, with the issue of three commemorative stamps.”
Arturo Mezzedimi died aged 87, in his birthplace in Siena, Italy. The African Hall remains one of his architectural triumphs that is still standing.