A few weeks ago, I was strolling along the shore of the urban lake I live next to, on my way to a glass of wine at a nearby cafe, when something caught my eye. There, in the middle of a large open park, often used for
soccer football games and picnicking, was a structure clearly based on an East African hut! It was a WTF moment, for sure. I immediately delayed my glass of wine to investigate. Architecture always gets my attention, and this was, to say the least, unusual.
Turns out, this was part of The Home Away From Home, a week-long celebration of East African culture, timed to coincide with the Eritrean and Ethiopian New Year. The hut housed a small gallery of art, and there was a nearby information booth staffed by volunteers.
Thus did I meet Ellias Fullmore, who designed and built the hut. Soon, Ellias and I were engaged in a conversation about architecture, design, and engineering, with Ellias whipping out his cell phone to show me examples of Fractal design in Ethiopian textiles and me asking him about support columns and scroll-cutting technology. The rest of this post is in Ellias’ words; with additional input from Sephora Woldu. Thanks to both for giving us all such a great lesson in East African art, design, and culture! With that, take it away Ellias…..
“[We] decided to build a temporary art gallery and festival inspired by East African architecture to showcase Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora artists based in the Bay Area . The event’s name and theme ”Home [away from] Home“ was designed to explore the concepts of “home” when away from one’s place of origin. We thought that building a modern interpretation of a traditional structure would be a great way to bring that point “home”. The structure was influenced greatly by the traditional gojo/ adgo or “hut” but also derived a great deal of influence from the stone masonry of ancient East African civilizations like Axum and Lalibela.
Ethiopian/ Eritrean Architecture
“The structure we built was influenced significantly by the common East African housing structure called a Gojo (In Amharic) and Adgo (in Tigrinia). This would be referred to as a “hut” in western vernacular . Typically circular or octagonal with a coned roof supported by single central load barring column (referred to as Messosso –typically symbolic of the head of the house hold ..i.e pillar of strength etc..) In our version we used a custom built central bracket to support the roof panels instead of the traditional support column ..we did this to allow for more space in the structure.“These structures can be made of wood or made out of stone, and typically have an intricately thatched roof. In our version we used burlap to allow for light to penetrate the canopy and allow for greater visibility of the artwork housed in side. Modern interpretations of this design are used frequently in east Africa for Hotels and conference centers fully equipped with every modern amenity.”
“Much more elaborate renditions of these structures are used traditionally in Orthodox Christian Churches in Ethiopia and Eritrea but the use of these rounded structures predates Christianity in this part of Africa. (Ethiopia became Christian in 333AD- One of the first in the world).
“The archway and panels of our gojo/adgo was influenced by the ancient civilizations of Lalibella (12 century AD) and Axum that date back to before the 1 century BC, characterized by the use of fractal geometry common in all parts of Africa and unique windows and archways carved out of a single piece of stone. (We used Plywood and a CNC router). Lastly, the design was significantly influenced by a fractal design pattern called a tilit that is used in East African embroidery and clothing.
“It was important to me that the design reflected the traditional but also was future facing in its aesthetic. Most Africa themed structures built in modern times tend to trap African aesthetic and design principles in a mythical past. It was important that we looked at the design as a reinterpretation of tradition suitable for Oakland California in 2014.”
Sephora added, “Understanding the technicalities of how Home [away from] Home was accomplished is rooted in the acknowledgement of the variety of people who supported our project. We had the backing of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts–a major arts institution worldwide–alongside our grassroots team of people from the various Eritrean and Ethiopian communities in the Bay Area. Scholars, artists, students, volunteers and advisers who came out of the woodwork (pun intended) to support this project. Cheesy, but true. Meklit, Ellias and I built this idea, but it took a village to construct it into reality.”
Sephora Woldu handled the permitting process. She writes:
“Currently there is no permit application with the City of Oakland to build a temporary East African pop- up art gallery/home in a public park. So, we improvised.
“Because our project was a temporary space and technically an art piece in and of it self , it fell in into murky territory when it came to building code. So, to be on the safe side we made the structure completely compliant with California building codes exceptions regarding structures less than 12x feet high and total area less then 500 feet. The code also specified that exempt buildings should be modular and only assembled on site not constructed on site . The fact that our buildings wall’s only went half way to a roof constructed of a burlap tarp draped across support beams and not solid roof also contributed to falling under the less stringent building codes of tents, awnings , sheds and gazebos.”
Got questions? Leave ’em in a comment and I’ll get answers.