Piloting a new urban quarter in an African city
The northwest Ethiopian city of Gondar was a major center of trade from the 1600s to the 1800s, when it was home to emperors. The center of government and business historically drew the finest builders and craftsmen, who constructed a city of traditional urbanism around the royal compound. But all of that changed in the 20th Century.
“Gondar is no longer the capital and organic urban development has given way to formless urban sprawl,” notes Metaya Tilahun, a native Ethiopian who designed the new urban quarter of Goha Sefer as a Notre Dame architecture graduate student. “The project stems from the desire to connect this historic city to its true form by introducing New Urbanism by way of a pilot urban program.”
The aim of Goha Sefer is to redevelop a 50-acre area just southwest of the city center. The project introduces public squares and plazas as focal points of development in a tight, organic network of blocks and streets, connecting to the existing urban fabric of single-family houses. Conceived as a pilot project, the quarter would demonstrate an alternative approach to 21st Century planning and development practices in Gondar.
“I have been advocating for and researching the preservation of architectural heritage in Ethiopia for over 25 years, and it gives me great joy to see a project like this—that looks at a holistic and human centered approach to urban development,” says Fasil Giorghis, chair of conservation of urban and architectural heritage at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture Building Construction and City Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The quarter is designed for a range of building types and uses, including 260,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and 750,000 square feet of office and industrial space. The 450 residential units include townhouses, low-rise apartments, and condominiums. These buildings offer density to help support mixed-use, yet are compatible with the adjacent blocks of houses.
The CNU jury commended the “beautifully designed, culturally competent, and sensitive design for this urban quarter. The diagramming, urban design plan, modeling, and architectural designs are compelling and convincing.”
Jury members also appreciated the empowerment and regeneration of the local building trades. “The project aims to evoke a sense of place by leveraging Gondar’s key physical qualities and promoting the use of local building materials and traditional building techniques,” notes the designer. “The buildings are designed to harness the natural forms of ventilation and thermal mass to promote energy efficiency, aligning with the traditional building practices of the region.”
Toward that goal, the plan proposes an academy of architecture and building crafts that would anchor the quarter’s Main Plaza. A mixed-use building would house the institution and ground-floor retail spaces. The approach is in contrast to the typical practice in Gondar of isolating public buildings within walled compounds. Instead, the design calls for public spaces that are physically defined and universally accessible, promoting social interaction and community engagement.
“By centering towns and neighborhoods on civic spaces, we can then achieve the more natural ‘cellular’ development of urban forms that have been achieved in pre-industrial times,” the designer explains.
Architect Leon Krier, the renowned urban theorist most associated with the idea of the urban quarter, praised the plans for Goha Sefer, noting, “It is a well-integrated urban structure that responds appropriately to the local context.”
View Goha Sefer's Charter Awards ceremony video here.
Goha Sefer—The New Urban Quarter in Gondar, Ethiopia
- Metaya Tilahun, University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, principal designer
- City of Gondar, Client
- Samir Younes, Professor and thesis advisor
- Douglas Duany, Professor and faculty advisor
2023 Charter Awards Jury
- Megan O’Hara (chair), Principal, Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
- Andre Brumfield, Principal and Global Director for Cities and Urban Design at Gensler in Chicago, Illinois
- Krupali Uplekar Krusche, Associate Professor, University of Notre Dame School of Architecture in South Bend, Indiana
- Jennifer Settle, urban designer, architect, and Senior Associate with Opticos Design in Chicago, Illinois
- Patrick Siegman, transportation planner, economist, and Principal of Siegman & Associates in San Francisco, California