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Documenting Architecture

Documenting Architecture, Carving Faith – Lalibela
Summarized by Nahom Atakilt
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The 43rd architects ወርሃዊ session kicked off the 2023 New Year with a special session that took its visitors on a visual expedition to one of Ethiopia’s ancient & living heritages. Titled “Documenting Architecture: ‘LALIBELA-CARVING FAITH’ Exhibition”, the session attracted a large and eager audience curious about the recent developments of the historic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. The discussion was part of a bigger exhibition that explores multiple dimensions of the Lalibela site with the help of innovative technologies, such as augmented reality and high-definition films. As an introduction to the discussion session, participants immersed themselves in the visual imagery of the exhibition and the interactive virtual experience set against three highly detailed physical models of the rock-hewn churches. Kidanemariam W/Giorgis, the sustainable Lalibela project manager and one of the panelists, took the pleasure of explaining the background story leading up to this first-of-its-kind exhibition in all of Africa.

After the short visit session, the panel discussion began with an opening speech from Ato Sileshi Girma, State Minister – FDRE Ministry of Tourism. He thanked the contributors to this exhibition, including the French Embassy and the Association of Ethiopian Architects, and added this show is a prototype to be replicated for different tourist destinations in Ethiopia. Following his remarks, the discussion started with four panelists: Fasil Giorghis (Associate Professor, Chair holder of Conservation of Urban & Architectural Heritage at EiABC, AAU), Kidanemariam W/Giorgis (Sustainable Lalibela project manager), Agegnehu Adane (Director of the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, AAU) and Maheder Gebremedhin (Principal Architect at Yema Architecture and Director at the Urban Center) as the moderator. Maheder started by asking about the early days of the project and its development to the final stage.

Kidanemariam: It all started in 2009 when the CNRS, French National Centre for Scientific Research, went into Lalibela for research, which developed into a twelve-panel short exhibition two years later. During the show, thoughts of an international exhibition sprung up, which lead us to work with Archeovision, a unique group working in 3D technologies for heritage and archaeology. Years later, in 2019, following a bilateral agreement between the French and the Ethiopian government on protecting the Lalibela site, an expert task force headed to the location and recorded a staggering total of 10 terabytes of data. The team then bottled down the contents into the exhibition you now see.

Maheder: How long did the research span take and can you give us a scale of the study? Kidanemariam: It took around three years from 2019 up to 2022, with the covid pandemic delaying progress from the beginning. The study area covered 10 churches spread over 3.2 hectares. It was the most extensive study to date conducted in Lalibela with almost ten billion points digitally scanned and over thirty thousand photos taken.

Maheder: Fasil, as part of similar former explorations, what was unique about this research and can you explain the architects’ role and significance? Fasil: The difference is the level and depth of the study. There were many studies done on Lalibela starting from the 1930s up to recent times, but this time we could find out details such as structure positioning and rock thickness thanks to the advanced laser technology employed. The other unique component of the research was it contained a multi-disciplinary team comprising not only architects but also hydrologists, geologists, and many more.

Maheder: Since many consider Lalibela as an art piece, as much as an architecture work, how do you relate it to this exhibition? Also, were there any art findings during the research? Agegnehu: The main thought about the exhibition was its context shift from a vernacular to a modern urban space and how we would treat this shift. We considered many locations for the exhibition but finally settled with Entoto Fine Arts Center because of its architectural experience similarities to Lalibela; you can see it relatively flat as you enter, but then you descend and discover its contents. We further incorporated red carpets and other elements to ingrain the visitor into the “Lalibela” experience.

Maheder: What was the cost of the project? Kidanemariam: It took around seven hundred thousand euros. Maheder: Some Lalibela churches have a basilica shape and a church function, while others differ in shape and function. In later years, however, they were converted into churches. Assuming the study covered this point, were there any solid findings about the latter group’s intended church use?

Fasil: Some churches have a basilica-shaped plan with a primary church function, while others are more complicated to suggest a solid argument. Despite the research, it is still early to state solid reasoning behind their existence.

Maheder: Can Ethiopian scholars and students access this wealth of research information? And how can Ethiopians increase their roles in such research and preservation attempts? Kidanemariam: Of course, we can access the study and we will make it available to Ethiopian Universities, eventually. Fasil: Despite all the studies, there is still not a hundred percent proven knowledge on how to fix the Lalibela churches. But one positive aspect is the increasing local involvement in such research. In this study, there was a local committee, which is a sign such efforts will grow and continue soon.

After the panel discussions, the panelists gave the chance to participants to raise questions. Among them were questions of continued vs. disrupted expression, observations of current practices, and modern techniques integration. Participant #1: There is a debate about a continuous vs a disrupted form of art and architectural form of expression in Ethiopia until Lalibela and up to now. What do you make of that? Panel Answer: In terms of Lalibela as a continuation of previous architecture and artworks such as Axum, it has continually maintained its evolution and is part of the ancient bloodline. If we look at modern works, however, there are little to no traces of architectural and art continuity in most of the buildings. Hence, it is important to encourage local art and architecture practices to keep the bloodline alive.

Participant #2: Has this research identified current local architectural practices that can contribute to the preservation of the Lalibela churches? Panel Answer: There are indeed some local practices and they can help us in discovering how our ancestors carved these Lalibela churches. But the conservation works require us to fill the gaps and cracks in the churches, which is the opposite of the direction of the current practice; it is carving, not filling in. Hence, identifying such practices would be of little use in our preservation efforts.

Participant #3: Has the team modeled the site in 3D? Panel Answer: Yes, we have. Maheder: Considering the Lalibela site has active churches, and you are attempting scientific research, were there any objections from the priests? How did you deal with any occasional disagreements? Panel Answer: There were some frictions, of course, but we were very considerate of the people and respected their ways of operating. Even if they refuse, we chose dialogue and respect as our tools to gain their trust. It takes time, but it is the best way we have found.

Participant #4: Are there any modern urban planning integration suggestions from the research? And why do you think there is little mention of Lalibela and other outstanding works, even in books dedicated to African architecture? Panel Answer: Unfortunately, there is not enough planning work. There were some prior studies with a handful of suggestions that were not completed because of a lack of labor force. The rare mention of “Ethiopian Architecture” in books is because we haven’t written enough about ourselves and our works. Besides that, the few written books are in the Amharic language, which limits their global reach. We are witnessing major improvements in the present time, but we still need to promote our work better.

The discussion ended after an almost two-hour discourse between the panelists and the participants. It was an interesting and insightful conversation that shed a light on the current conditions of the Lalibela churches and their ever-immense cultural and heritage value. We would like to thank everyone that contributed to the “Lalibela Carving Faith” exhibition, as well as the discussion event. Until the next Architects ወርሃዊ session, take care.

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© May, 2023 Ketema Journal

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