Rahel - My Friend at Harvard

There was precious little traction gained with the previous architect, with whom I had traveled in the Netherlands to see the work of De Architectengroep but there was something distinctly different about his replacement. This woman was instantly accommodating and humble to the core. Two and a half years later in 2003, we were delighted to be handing our architectural masterpiece - The Royal Netherlands Embassy - over to the gathered crowds and to later receive the Aga Khan Prize for Architecture from an international jury of well respected professionals. Rahel Shawl and our team of local engineers had worked so well together we happily continued our collaboration on numerous other projects for well over a decade. Rahel became a treasured friend and confidante and when offered the chance of a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University I was more than happy to pen the open testimonial below. I like it much, as a passionate piece of writing but more so, because she was indeed selected, solely on her own merits, to contribute further to the discipline of architecture in the United States of America. After her year in Massachusetts she returned to Ethiopia and thrives as an example and mentor to many upcoming Ethiopian and African architects].

Just 15 years ago, Addis Ababa was a low rise, demographically mixed up city with wide, tree lined boulevards boasting numerous open spaces and sweeping vistas; a pleasant and beautiful place to live (despite the limited services). Unfortunately, fifteen years of rampant development have destroyed the calm and we have lost any realistic chance of preserving the old world charm that was once plain to see. Despite this, Raas Architects (Rahel Shawl) and one or two other practices have struggled against the mainstream, providing small oases in a desert of architectural disaster. Rahel’s designs and collaborative work with international architects have provided the city with a number of its most visibly pleasing, landmark structures and spaces, giving a glimmer of hope that Addis Ababa can be saved from the worst excesses of thoughtless development.

I have worked with Rahel Shawl for over fifteen years and have seen her flourish. Starting as an understudy to ‘great and powerful international architects’ I have witnessed firsthand her ability to persuade, cajole and influence their thinking and to mould their grand designs - sometimes subtly and sometimes drastically but always sympathetically. I have shared with her the chance to take on our own commissions and have enjoyed the opportunity to see her true talents fully expressed.

Ethiopia, known regionally as ‘the Water Tower of Africa’ is practically untouched and the natural environment is stunning. Consequently, Ethiopia is attracting greater numbers of tourist year by year. The need for eco-friendly, quality accommodation in rural areas is growing exponentially. Without hesitation I have recommended Rahel’s services to every one of our clients as she has a clear understanding of vernacular architecture (and the need on occasion for departure from such styles) and careful integration of green technologies.

In a highly patriarchal society Rahel Shawl has never made it her mission or raison d’être to forward the role of women in architect or business. Nevertheless she has quietly and surreptitiously provided a superb role model for young women entering the profession and has taken on the establishment with quiet determination. In a landscape of ridiculous triangles, obscure angles, garish colours and plainly awful architecture Rahel has treated the city of Addis Ababa with respect, simplicity and soft modernism.

And, it is unfortunately not uncommon, to suffer the indignity of being lectured by many a ‘great and powerful international architect’ living in such a lowly and misunderstood place as Ethiopia. I have observed Rahel’s graceful yet robust ability to engender respect. She holds her own both naturally and through her achievements. She was recognised by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for her involvement in the Royal Netherlands Embassy project in Addis Ababa and has been considered for an award by Royal Institute of British Architects for her involvement in the British Council Offices in Ethiopia. Her standing amongst Ethiopian professionals speaks for itself and she is a highly valued member of the Ethiopian Architects Association, participating on various juries and committees.

Rahel can be forthright but never overbearing. She is intelligent and sophisticated but never pompous. She is considerate in her manner and demeanour and a pleasure to be around. She leads by stealth! Planting a seed of doubt her colleagues and peers always come back to her for advice.

Running any business in Ethiopia is mind bogglingly complex and fraught with risk. Add to the mix a studio of young feisty architects, eager to learn and desperate for new challenges and this leaves little time to concentrate on pure architecture. Consequently, we feel for Rahel who is always bursting with ideas and enthusiasm but bogged down in the day to day drudgery of running an office. Fees are notoriously low in Ethiopia compounding the hand to mouth existence of architects and professionals. A fully funded fellowship to Harvard is just what the doctor ordered and I whole heartedly recommend this course of action. She will, I am sure interact positively, contributing to and learning from her cohort of Harvard fellows.

Ethiopians are a proud and often arrogant race of people (and I can say that openly being British!). However, centuries of isolation and internal suppression have resulted in an insular society, one which has trouble expressing itself and promoting its fascinating cultural heritage and traditions without being overtly aggressive or wretchedly dismissive. Rahel on the other hand is at home with ‘forenges’ yet quietly and sincerely passionate about her homeland and culture. The simple fact is Rahel stayed while Ethiopia has suffered more than most from that traumatic episode; known to us all as the ‘Brain Drain’. And we insist that when you have finished with her and she has enjoyed the fellowship of other great minds you send her back to us.