Sparking interest in architecture in Guder, Ethiopia

By: Jim Beal
7 December 2018

In a follow-up blog post, Jim Beal reflects on his recent trip to Ethiopia, where he introduced the practice of architecture to high school students to inspire future careers. For his previous post, click here.

The Oromo language has no word for architect. Through the lens of Ethiopian historical examples like the remote Debre Damo Monastery, the stone carved churches of Lalibela, the castles of Gondar, and vernacular regional dwellings, Oromo students at New Hope School in Guder, Ethiopia, learned that architecture is the intersection between the current knowledge of construction and the cultural expression of art. An architect occupies the space between science and art, and is the planner of function, designer of experience, conductor of technology, and administrator of construction.

During my time in Ethiopia, I met with groups of students who were tasked with thoughtfully creating a space for a unique cultural “scale figure” using different materials — pipe cleaners, PlayDoh, popsicle sticks, dowels, wood blocks, or foam. The exercise gave them an appreciation for the relationship between available resources, construction methods, and craft. When materials ran low, they also had fun improvising and pilfering more materials from other groups!

We didn’t create any new Oromo words together, but the students learned the important distinction between a “builder” and an “architect.” A builder thinks about a building as a floor, walls, and roof to serve a function. A builder’s tools are the saw, hammer, drill, and shovel. An architect thinks about a building as spaces that are for people and have meaning. The architect’s tools are scale, proportion, light, texture, and transparency.

The practice of architecture in Ethiopia is still young. The country faces immense challenges in urbanization, public health, and resource management. Overcoming these challenges will take leadership from a new generation, and it very well may be these young people who step into this role for their country — as consensus builders, cultural narrators, welfare protectors, resource stewards, and community servants. Perhaps they will become architects, helping to shape their social and cultural spaces in new and inspiring ways.

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