Imagine a place where you step into a world of tranquility only to hear the gentle sound of the wind in the trees and the chirping birds overhead. A place surrounded by lush vegetation, towering mountains, and an expansive lake. A place where you can immerse yourself in the stunning and intricate architecture that reflects the rich, centuries-long history and culture of Ethiopia. Halala Kella Lodge is a new tourist destination in the wild of Southwestern Ethiopia, which has snuggled its way within the Dawro hills and mountains overlooking the lake formed by the Gilgel Gibe III hydroelectric Dam Reservoir. “The lodge is part of the Koysha clusters ‘Dine for Ethiopia’ flagship initiative of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed introduced in 2021 to boost Ethiopia’s tourism industry and position it as a world-class destination.” The Koysha international tourist destination development project is a major undertaking that covers a large area of southwestern Ethiopia, about 450 kilometers from Addis Ababa.
Named after the fortified stone walls of the Dawro kingdom, Halala Kella Lodge sits at an altitude of 900 to 1000 meters above sea level and on a total area of 12 hectares on one of the many abundant hills of the historic land. Dawro had been a highly centralized, powerful independent Kingdom until it was incorporated into Modern Ethiopia by Emperor Menelik II towards the end of the 19th century. The 1200+ km long stone wall is said to have been built to protect the Dawro people from invaders but also served as a symbol of their strength and unity. Its building work was started several years before King Halala came to power and saw completion during his reign; hence the walls are named after him.
Because of the location’s historic and cultural significance, it was critical to lay out a general direction for a new development, described in its two main objectives: One is to develop the existing natural and man-made resources in the area by making the attractions physically and visually accessible, usable, and enjoyable to incoming tourists, conserving the historic and cultural resources of the great Dawro walls. And two to create new experiences in the area by introducing contemporary tourist facilities, unique accommodation types, and physical and visual experiences.
To meet these objectives, the architects had to balance the preservation of the past and the needs of the present. They were tasked with creating a structure that would be both functional and respectful of the site’s cultural heritage. The reputable RAAS Architects took this challenge and began by studying the local history, culture, and climatic conditions to gain a better understanding of the context. “We thought of the design as an environmental acceptance or response to nature rather than creating buildings. Hence we spent a considerable time figuring out how to frame the majestic views in each of the spaces and reconcile the new development to its context” Rahel Shawl, founder, and principal at RAAS Architects Plc.
The design team based the concept on respecting the culture and history of the great Halala wall and the people of Dawuro. Inspired by vernacular architecture, the architects took the familiar “tukuls” and translated the horizontality of the Halala stone fence into a rectangular geometry to create villas that celebrate the beauty of both the past and the present. The tukuls’ high roofs were then chamfered to breathe in air and light the space below. This fusion of traditional and contemporary design is evident throughout the resort, from the villas to the site arrangement which gradually progresses from public blocks to private villas. The resort is a multi-villa complex with two presidential villas, 18 one and two-bedroom villas, a convention center and museum, a restaurant and bar, a recreation building, a sunrise restaurant, and a sunset deck spread over the hilly landscape of the site; each oriented to enjoy the picturesque scenes of the landscape.
You can arrive at the resort through a full car trip from Addis Ababa through Hawassa–Wolaita Sodo while route visiting the Gilgel Gibe III hydroelectric Dam along your way, or fly towards Arbaminch and take a slight road trip towards the lodge with the opportunity to take a boat excursion in between. Whichever way you choose, you will be blessed with extraordinary views of the surrounding landscape as you near the resort. Depending upon the time of your arrival, you will catch glimpses of the slated roofs glistening in the sun or shrouded in the mist as if they were a secret that the mountains were keeping hidden. On your way past the first gate, you will notice five large steles with diagonal cuts across their neck symbolizing the “Dinka”, the longest woodwind musical instrument in the world (4 to 5 meters long, four in number).
As you proceed, you encounter the second gate where the great Halala Stone fence opens up to grant you access to its modern kingdom. Here the architects have put the subtracted wall beside the gate to go in line with “conserving the historic and cultural resources of the great Dawro walls”. You then ascend to the main resort, pass a private route to the presidential suites on your left, and arrive at your first stop: the convention center and museum. The convention center, which can accommodate 155 people, was built to maximize views of the resort’s breathtaking surroundings. The space also houses a museum dedicated to the artifacts and exhibits that showcase the rich history and culture of the Dawro and a souvenir shop that sells a variety of locally produced crafts. Outdoors, you will find an amphitheater above which you can spot the Dawro Mountains rising, their peaks, and piercing into the clouds.
After your long journey, you step into the reception area and take a moment to relax while listening to the soothing sounds of water trickling on the walls behind you. The reception is part of a larger building network which comprises a restaurant and bar and a recreation block, complete with an outdoor swimming pool and gymnasium. From the reception, light beams of custom metal artwork depicting the “sun king” King Halala illuminate the path down to the restaurant, welcoming guests like a warm embrace. Descending the stairs, you will find yourself in a spacious minibar with a geometrically framed view of the landscape. The double-height space creates a sense of grandeur and openness, while the geometric framing of the windows adds a touch of sophistication. Upstairs to your left, however, you will find an even bigger surprise: the main restaurant. Upon entering, the space bursts forth from an intimate space to a soaring triple-height, with a transparent mesh melting gracefully from the chamfered rooftop to the ground’s rock garden surrounded by water, plants, and rocks. Inside, you will find yourself in a column-free circular space with tables and other features around the peripheries, leaving room in the center for circulation and a natural experience.
The restaurant is a microcosm of the outside world; whether it’s raining or sunny, you can experience the weather through the transparency of the mesh and the perforated rotating metal screens that enclose the space. Besides their aesthetic qualities, the perforations play a huge role in regulating the space’s comfort level by allowing cold air to seep in through the walls and hot air to vent out through the chamfered top. This helps to keep the space comfortable all year round. To those who love the outdoors, there are seating spaces arranged outside following the restaurant’s circular layout, while landscaped seating spaces are found further down the hill accessible via a gentle ramp. The pool is located midway between the private villas and the public facilities, and it serves as a transitional element between the two. It is a place where you can transition from the all-encompassing functions of the restaurant to the personal shelters of the villas. As you continue your ascent, you will find yourself on the main pathway, which snakes its way from the resort gate and branches off into three paved paths that lead to different villas. There are 10 one-bedroom, 8 two-bedroom villas, and 2 presidential villas stacked from the lowest to the highest point respectively oriented towards the lake.
Walking by, you will notice the high chamfered roofs of the lower villas, covered in shades of grey and with walls painted in a similar color. The occasional burst of orange adds a touch of brightness to the mix. The arrangement of the villas results from the architects’ careful planning, which maximized each space’s views while also preserving their privacy. The one-bedroom villas are on the lowest contour and offer the best views of the lake and the great Halala stone fence. These villas have a simple circular outline, with a shaded verandah providing a place to relax and enjoy the views.
A few meters above, you will find the two-bedroom villas, their partial rectangular geometry lending them an air of sophistication. They are adorned with local stones that shimmer in the light from the perforated angular verandah shade. Inside the villa, you are drawn to the stunning views of the surrounding landscape. The white-painted walls act as a neutral backdrop, allowing the views to take center stage. Your eyes will also be drawn upward, where the usual flat ceiling has been replaced by massive glulam timbers that rise from the walls to meet at the center top chamfer. This creates a sense of vertical expansion, making the space feel larger and more open. The outside terrace offers even more expansive views. The wide spans of the terrace allow you to take in the full beauty of the surrounding mountains and lakes. But it is not until you come into the presidential rooms you can fully appreciate the true scale of the surrounding landscape and the villas’ architectural complexity. The two villas are both spacious and luxurious, with a master bedroom, a meeting room, and an indoor courtyard.
The courtyard is a cool and refreshing oasis, with a water fountain that cascades over a stone-clad wall. The design team has also used the site’s acute elevation difference to their advantage with split-level dining and living room spaces. While sitting on locally made sofas, you can immerse yourself in the views of the sky and the surroundings, as well as the momentary scenes captured by various photographers on the walls. Outside, the shaded verandah opens up to a wonderful mix of vast landscapes punctuated with the lower villas’ slated roofs almost disappearing into the mountains. As you stroll around, you are rewarded with breathtaking views of the Dawro Mountains stretching out to the horizon in every direction.
The sunset deck is located a few steps outside of the Halala stone fence. The oval-shaped sunset deck cantilevers over the far cliff, and gives you the sense of being suspended over the landscape. Visitors can feel as if they are floating in mid-air, awash in the beauty of the setting sun. The place offers far-reaching views of up to 270 degrees and several kilometers along the Omo River with the surrounding green mountains running alongside it. The sunset deck is one of the two facilities that exist outside the Halala stone fence. The other one is the Sunrise restaurant on the lower ground, just a short drive down to the lake where you can dine in the warm kiss of the morning sun, surrounded by the overwhelming nature. The construction of Halala Kella Lodge was a true community effort. Local and international artists, contractors, and workers came together to create a place that reflects the rich culture and history of Ethiopia. The artists created custom metalwork, furniture, and artwork that celebrates the local culture. The Contractor Elmi Olindo and its staff should be commended for their dedication and resilience. They worked long hours in hot and humid conditions but were determined to complete the project on time and to the highest standards.
This level of community collaboration during construction helped to create a sense of ownership and pride in the development, and it ensured that it would be a place that would be enjoyed by both locals and tourists alike. The result of this community effort is a place that is both beautiful and sustainable, completed within just 18 months. Halala Kella Resort is a stunning example of how traditional Ethiopian architecture can be incorporated into contemporary design. The resort’s buildings are a fusion of traditional and contemporary styles, with elements of Ethiopian culture and history seamlessly incorporated into the space. Its use of local and natural materials, such as stone and wood, gives the buildings a sense of authenticity and belonging to the landscape. It is a place where you can touch, feel, and experience the rich history and culture of Ethiopia. It is also a place of peace and tranquility, with stunning views of the surrounding mountains, lakes, and forests.