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The African Building Platform

Cover Feature

NEW THINKING for a NEW BEGINNING

Alebel Desta CAE
Article > Tinsae Tsegahun, Yishak Tsehay
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Since ancient times, gifts have been an important part of celebrating a leader. They can range from native art pieces to expensive jewelry and gemstones. Alebel and his team presented their work with a yellow local satin fabric rather than something extravagant for the inaugural ceremony of his
Excellency Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ph.D.

‘New beginnings’ urban art installation was constructed for the Prime Minister’s inauguration ceremony on the 4th of October 2021 at Meskel square. The urban art installation was designed in a way to complement the historical significance of the ceremony and imprint an everlasting memory. This was achieved through manipulating yellow fabric based on a desired scale and proportion in a way that reflects hope, diversity, and unity.

Temporality was an intriguing aspect of the design. The question was how the place (location) and memory can connect so intimately and how the architecture can play such a powerful role in remembrance. These were achieved through an interesting nature of the urban art installation, an interplay with light and other natural forces which makes it lively and interactive in terms of color, movement, and sound. The translucent nature of the fabrics coupled with the nature of interlaced scaffolding members creates fascinating shades of patterns as the direction and intensity of light changes throughout the day. Besides, the fabric is designed in a way to respond to wind forces, making the structure dynamic as the elements move in response to the wind direction creating a resonating sound.

Urban Art Installation

When art and culture are interwoven into an urban context, it helps attract people, engage society and professionals, diversify talent, creativity, and economic growth. Cities need to be uplifted and activated, to engage people, to create seasonal experiences, to craft new feelings and a new sense of place in a temporal manner. In this way, urban art installations can be used as a tool to reawaken cities.

The phrase “art installation” refers to a large-scale, mixed-media installation that is usually created for a specific location or event and is only present for a limited time. The holistic experience, rather than the display of discrete artworks, distinguishes an art installation from other types of art. For passers-by, urban art installations provide a more three-dimensional piece that can offer a richer, more interactive, and engaging experience. They have the option of standing out or blending in with the surrounding urban landscape.

South elevation of the installation

The production of installations has become an important element in modern art since the 1960s. It has been the case since the art markets ‘crash’ reawakened interest in conceptual art, which always relied on a variety of materials, light, and sound (music). Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude were known for their large-scale, site-specific installations, which often featured landscape components wrapped in fabric, such as the Wrapped Reichstag, The Pont Neuf Wrapped, The Umbrella, and The Gates in Central Park in New York City. Their creation took years, if not decades, of detailed planning, all with the purpose of bringing joy, beauty, and fresh perspectives to the familiar.

Meskel Square has been a site for public gatherings, demonstrations, and festivals, notably, the Meskel festival since the early 1900s. It has been the most prominent public gathering location in Addis Ababa’s modern history, holding a variety of cultural, religious, political, entertainment, and sporting events. And it was the ideal location for the temporary urban art inaugural installation for his Excellency Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ph.D. The installation’s main idea is to breathe a new life into Meskel Square’s formerly sleepy promenade, enticing with its hopeful color and dramatic and difficult-to-forget experience, as it was planned and designed to hold thousands of spectators and leave a lasting effect on everyone.

Alebel Desta, Architect with a scaled model of the Art Piece. Model Scale 1:50 Image: Yishak Tsehay

Design and Symbolization

Ethiopian history, culture, and existing reality were the driving forces in deciding the design concept. Diversity in Ethiopia is manifested in several forms, including identity, religion, culture, and nature. Our diversity has been used by our internal and external enemies as a tool to divide us. But, Ethiopia is a nation that does not succumb to the consequences of pressure throughout history and defended its sovereignty for centuries, and will continue as a nation resiliently. It is believed that the unity within diversity is the cornerstone of our existence and this was used as a design concept along with the idea of ‘New beginning’ and the hope it brings, by designing an urban art installation that represents hope, diversity, and unity.

The bright yellow color, which is likewise positioned in the center of our multicolored flag, has long been seen as a sign of joyous, youthful color, full of optimism, sunshine, sincerity, and enthusiasm. The አደይ አበባ (Adey Flower), which is a symbol of good hope and a wish for a happy and prosperous year for Ethiopians, is also represented by yellow.

The two grand colossal vertical tower components represent a portal to a new beginning, a new chapter, and a new way of thinking. Their scale depicts individuals as being small compared to the representation of Ethiopia. The equal vertical strips of fabrics surrounding the towers depict people’s equality regardless of their identity, religion, and culture. Another major element is the interwoven individual strips of fabric that are stretched out between the two towers, it portrays the unity of Ethiopians. When standing together Ethiopians are powerful enough to overcome any pressure, as emphasized by a famous Ethiopian proverb, “ድር ቢያብር አንበሳ ያስር”.

Looking at it from the south, the elevation of this urban art has striking diagonal members radiating down with varying angles, size, and position from the top of the towers on each side terminating at the bottom portraying diversity. Ethiopians possess diverse cultures, identities, and religions, yet in the same domain, Ethiopians in every sense of the word. These lines on the side were also intentionally used to deviate from the usual horizontal and vertical pattern to create visual interest.

The wind, the rain, and all the other forces represent the powers that threaten Ethiopia’s existence. Ethiopians’ resilience in tolerating pressure and moving spiritedly forward is reflected in the fabric’s flexibility, which allows it to easily accept force and project back without harming the structure.

In terms of a design response to the site, after studying the historical and cultural significance of Meskel square, in line with the nature of inauguration ceremonies, the site arrangement was done mainly based on functionality, security, hierarchy, and aesthetics. The dominant urban art installation was placed in front of the LRT line in response to the arrangement of the Meskel square amphitheater. The performance stage was designed for music and choreographed dance performances, placed as a central element for the whole site with emphasis given to the performer through creating levels. The yellow belt that lies on the wall behind the amphitheater is a symbol that ties all Ethiopians together and unifies the whole site.

It is architecture naked. Only an idea. No material attached to it. No engineering to cloud the work of the architect. Envisioned and installed by the architect himself. Like the time of the master builder.”

Zeleke Belay, Architect

Material

The success of the urban art installation doesn’t only rely on the success in effectively conveying design ideas, but also on its ease of construction and demolition, due to the appropriate selection and use of materials. Yellow fabric, scaffolding, plywood, and timber supports were the major materials in the construction of the urban art installation.

The fabric utilized is a satin textile that was fabricated in advance off-site. The use of this unique fabric for the installation, in an environment where concrete and steel are being usually considered as the only materials in architectural design, makes a strong statement by initiating architects and engineers to change their perception of the value of materials and be able to explore different materials and design possibilities.


This unique choice of material is the reflection of Alebel’s long experience of experimenting with different materials in his design studio, which helped him to take a bold move in using fabric for this art piece. The fabric was placed in its appropriate position as soon as the scaffolding was completed and it was then assembled based on the design. The fabric also makes it possible to span 50 meters with no intermediary support, a span that cannot be easily achieved with other materials.

As for the scaffolding, it was a major component of the design and a basic building scaffolding was chosen as the fundamental framework due to the tower’s grand scale and the limited amount of time available. It only took a short amount of time to put together, and none of it went to waste. The scaffolding was transferred to a construction site as soon as the structure was disassembled.

Design Implementation

More than 300 individuals have contributed to the success of this project including Architects, Engineers, fabric experts, visual artists, carpenters, technicians, metal workers, laborers, and others. From conception to the inaugural day, the project took four weeks. After three weeks of design and prefabrication of fabric elements, on-site construction started on September 27. Due to the tight schedule, the project was implemented while celebrating holidays and the team worked seven consecutive days and nights on site.

On the first three days, the two colossal with ten-meter by ten-meter bases and twenty-meter height were erected along with the carpentry works needed for assembling fabrics on it. The stage design was done in parallel with the tower works. On the fourth and fifth days fabrics were lifted in place in their respective positions as soon as the scaffolding was completed ready to be assembled based on the design. The fabrics were then released in all directions from the base points on the fifth and sixth days. This final step was the most challenging and exciting for all involved in the project. There were times when challenges on-site raised the need for improvisation to do some design and construction changes in order to be able to complete the project within the time frame. All the sleepless nights, the blazing sun, the freezing cold, the stress, and exhaustion were all fruitful in the end.

Disassembly of the installation Image: Yishak Tsehay

Cost and Sustainability

Sustainability is of great importance especially for poor countries like Ethiopia. In this regard the urban art installation was designed with sustainability in mind, considering ways of recycling, reusing, and upscaling materials for other uses. The design was implemented as cost-effectively as possible. Locally available construction materials were used to reduce cost and transportation distance. The yellow fabric is locally manufactured and the cheapest of all fabrics available on market. Now that the installation has been dismantled, the yellow fabric is going to be used to design playful sculptures for a public school and part of it has been donated. As for the scaffolding, it will be reused for future construction and it was transferred to a new site as soon as the structure was disassembled. Timber support structures and plywood will be used as formworks for future constructions. Overall the project was designed in a way to minimize waste, reduce environmental impact and save time.

Moreover, the construction and disassembly of the installation were designed in a way to simplify work, be cost-effective and time-efficient. This led to one of the most intriguing things about the project, which was the fact that it appears in a matter of days and disappears in hours, something which was ceremonial as the team cut all pieces of fabric simultaneously, creating a cascading waterfall-like effect which was captivating for all involved in the project and the public.

On an endnote, the unity of the team, the open-mindedness of the clients, and the willingness of all the stakeholders involved in the project were of great value in bringing this urban art installation to life. As it has opened the eyes and minds of all it is also expected of other professionals to be inspired to take an active role in reactivating public spaces and neighborhoods.

the inaugural ceremony of his Excellency Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ph.D | 04 OCT, 2021 Image: Aron Simeneh

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