In 1936, the pioneer of modernism offered Mussolini his design expertise for the capital of Ethiopia.
Had Le Corbusier’s sketch for the colonial capital of Addis Ababa been realized, it would have been one of the most ruthlessly planned cities of the twentieth century. On the 19th of August 1936 (a mere three months after the conquest of Addis Ababa), Le Corbusier wrote to Mussolini to offer his technical services and to comment on the appropriate design for the new cities of Africa Orientale Italiana, the Italian colonial empire. The design, which accompanied the letter, would show “how a city for modern times is born”, as the famous architect put it.
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…”
Although these lines indicate that his ideas on colonialism were the underlying motivation for the design, when looking at the drawing more closely, the sketch closely resembles Le Corbusier’s ideal city of the future – a concept which he had developed in the 1920′s, but never had been able to realize. Le Corbusier defined the future city, the Ville Contemporaine (which would be developed into the Plan Voisin for Paris), as a city for three million people, characterized by strict geometries and uniformity of detail. Existing European cities were too scattered, noisy, filthy, and lacking nature. By building clustered habitation and separating it from traffic, Le Corbusier aimed to solve these problems. The Ville Contemporaine was divided into various zones, each with a different function (habitation, leisure, or production). Important to note is that when Le Corbusier explained his concept he spoke of urbanism as a ‘three-dimensional science’. Urbanism not only consisted of a two-dimensional plan, but also of the three-dimensional buildings within the design. For Le Corbusier, urbanism was a physical and functional unity, whose significance is to be sought in its total setting, rather than in the separate parts.
Returning to the drawing, we can see that it depicts different functional zones, such as administrational and transportation areas. Yet, the functional zones and the dominant central axis are now used simultaneously as a device for racial separation; it divides the indigenous inhabitant from the Italian colonizers. Just as the Plan Voisin would be situated on top of the existing centre of Paris, the Italian dominion was expressed by the fact that important Fascist buildings were built over existing Ethiopian structures. For example, the place of the imperial palace of Menelik II, number nine on the drawing, was changed into the Fascist headquarters.