When Metaya Argaw Tilahun ’20 M.Arch was looking at grad schools for architecture, the logical choice was not to come to Notre Dame. It was to stay at home in Virginia.
She was living in Richmond, where she studied architectural history as an undergrad at Virginia Commonwealth University. Staying in Virginia for school would have meant paying in-state tuition, and not having to move. Plus, she was about to get married and her husband-to-be needed to stay in Virginia to finish his undergraduate education at VCU.
Despite all that, Tilahun came to South Bend, where she found passion and purpose in her work.
A longtime admirer of classical architecture, Tilahun followed the advice of a mentor who steered her toward Notre Dame. The program emphasizes classical architecture and traditional urbanism, which promotes environmentally friendly and walkable design and architecture.
“I decided to go across the country for three years in the pursuit of learning architecture on my own terms and in the way I believe that we should be practicing it,” Tilahun says. “And then when I got to Notre Dame, I completely fell in love with traditional urbanism and got so passionate about it. It was the perfect situation … getting there and saying, this is exactly what I want to do in my life.”
Tilahun was born and raised in Ethiopia, and she focused her thesis studio project at Notre Dame on bringing the principles of traditional urbanism to her home country. The project was honored as a 2022 Urban Guild Award winner, which recognizes innovations in architecture and its integration into its urban context.
In Tilahun’s thesis project, she proposed and designed a new civic building in Gondar, Ethiopia, that will be home to an architecture academy for teaching architecture, building crafts and technologies in addition to traditional urban design. The academy would be set in a public square, with additional residential and commercial buildings around it.
“In our culture, there’s a thing where people get together and drink coffee under a tree. Why are we not providing the infrastructure to do that in the cities we are building?” says Tilahun, who hopes a new public square would be used for this ritual.
Tilahun also proposed using building materials native to Ethiopia. On a research trip to her home country during the thesis project, she saw tall glass buildings under construction that, while visually interesting, attracted and reflected the hot summer sun and ran up astronomical cooling costs. Instead, Tilahun wants to focus on designing buildings that are useful and practical for the people living and working in them. She’d also like to lead a return to traditional Ethiopian architecture.
“I am trying to reclaim the identity of Ethiopian architecture because, basically, it’s been completely wiped out and destroyed,” Tilahun says. “Our ancient architecture that still exists today was built in the 1600s or before. Very little that has been built anew has the character of Ethiopian architecture, so it is neat … resynthesizing, and finding ways to reestablish the essence of [Ethiopian architecture].”
The Urban Guild praised her project, saying it “has the potential to introduce urbanism to developing countries such as Ethiopia, and, with that, the possibility to put an end to the never-ending expansion and sprawl that is eating away cities such as Addis Ababa [the capital].”
The hallmarks of traditional urbanism are mixed-use developments that are affordable and walkable, making residents less dependent on cars. It differs from functional zoning, which divides land by how it is used, and leads to suburbs with the division between home and business districts. In the U.S., the coastal town of Seaside, Florida, is a prime example of successful traditional urbanism. Tilahun also had the opportunity to work with her Notre Dame professors on new-build traditional urbanism projects in Costa Rica and Guatemala.
Tilahun and other proponents of traditional urbanism say their designs create more human connection and therefore better mental health, in addition to the environmental benefits.
“The big point that traditional urbanists like me are making is that what we’re doing is based on the needs of the people. And it is more sustainable … because people will use spaces the way they need them,” she says. “Why is it that the most expensive areas in any given city are the old towns that are really charming? Because everybody likes those little downtowns, with storefronts you can walk to and get your coffee and your groceries. It is all about making these things more accessible.”
Part of what she loved about living in Richmond was its walkability and traditional urbanist architecture. These days, she lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband, Arnaud, and their son, Ezana, named for an ancient Ethiopian emperor.
“My husband is very supportive. He is the reason why I am able to enter competitions like the Urban Guild Awards,” Tilahun says. “And when I decided to go to grad school, there was no trying to convince me to stay in Virginia. He was supportive and said everything is okay, do what you need to do.”
Tilahun worked at a small, residential architecture firm after graduating from Notre Dame, then a larger commercial architecture firm. Now, she is a project manager in the planning and facilities management department at Georgetown University, which she says has given her additional insight into the organization and coordination of architecture projects beyond the design phase.
Her future plans for architectural change in Ethiopia are still a passion project, alongside her other art and design interests: furniture design and refurbishment, painting, jewelry making and fashion design. Tilahun once presented a show at Richmond Fashion Week, showcasing designs inspired by traditional Ethiopian clothing, but modernized for enhanced comfort.
“[My work in Ethiopia] is going to be an ongoing project. These are the solutions to the problems that I want to solve … by creating human-scale, high-density urban structures that are easily built,” she says. “I want to create usable spaces that people love and enjoy. It makes people happy to sit in a space and enjoy the weather and your coffee. People love it, and it is better for the environment. It is ticking all the boxes. That’s what I’ve learned so far, and I’m still learning.”