Made in Japan


John Burns


Takeshi Taira


New buildings may go unnoticed among the rumbling construction jungle of Addis Ababa, but not in the smaller, staid town of Gondar – especially not one that arrives over a century old and, more remarkably, from Japan.

Gondar crowns a bucolic plateau in Ethiopia’s northern highlands. Here, imperial castles sit alongside crumbling Italian moderne piazzas and squat round stone houses, known locally as tukuls. Though this accumulation of architectural layers is somewhat impressively piecemeal, an authentic wooden Japanese house found at its core is still as curious as one imagines, say, a tukul in Tokyo might be.

Japan and Ethiopia actually share a lot of similarities

‘Decades ago, Gondar had been running for the revision of its master urban plan. As part of this process, the city had been in contact with the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at Addis Ababa University and also Professor Riichi Miyake from Fuji Women’s University,’ Getahun Seyoum, the Head of Culture and Tourism in Gondar, begins to explain how the Japanese building, known as the Millennium Pavilion, was seemingly teleported to Ethiopia. ‘The city was working in collaboration with these two institutions and both parties proposed to do something to show cooperation between the two nations.’

The concept developed organically and was picked up by the Japanese Embassy in Ethiopia, who commissioned Tokyo-based architecture firm Atelier Tekuto to manage the project, with Fasil Giorghis, a Gondar native and one of Ethiopia’s leading architects, as local support.

‘We commissioned the project to commemorate the Ethiopian millennium,’ says Koh Nakamura, a spokesman for the embassy, who explains that under the ancient Coptic calendar, Ethiopia celebrated the third millennium seven years after the rest of the world. ‘We wanted to create a symbolic monument which would become a cultural bridge between Japan and Ethiopia.’

The structure started life 120 years ago, fulfilling its purpose as a kyaku-den, or guest hall, that was attached to a traditional Japanese folk house, known as a minka. Having slumped into abandonment, it was selected by Atelier Tekuto to be retired to Gondar, where it now rests at the gates of Jan Tekel Warka public gardens, under the shade of a large and rather gnarly 400 year old fig tree.

‘There are approximately half a million of these minka in Japan that are over 100 years old; most of them are doomed. Rather than spending money on demolition, which emits excessive carbon dioxide, it is much more beneficial to sustain our cultural heritage and recycle them,’ says the principal architect at Atelier Tekuto, Yasuhiro Yamashita, explaining why he chose to repurpose authentic Japanese architecture instead of designing a new-build for the project.

‘In Japan we tend to have smaller families nowadays, and the traditional custom to entertain guests is gradually disappearing. Consequently, so are these guest halls. When we visited the owner of the house, his guest hall was no longer in use and had been left abandoned for many years. He gave it to us for free, generously, as he wished to have it reused for the benefit of others rather than see it demolished and burnt to ashes.’

Moving house, as the old adage goes, is one of the most stressful events in life; moving a whole house, however, is arguably trickier. After some entanglement in the red tape of Ethiopia’s customs law, according to which the wood has to be fumigated and vectors evicted, the structure was disassembled piece by piece and carefully shipped to its adoptive country.

From Ōda City on the isolated coast of Japan’s Shimane Prefecture, the house was transported to the nearby Port of Hamada, from where it set sail on a two day journey that saw it pass by Busan in South Korea and through the Strait of Malacca, before steaming on to Djibouti. From Djibouti, it was driven to Gondar on the back of a lorry.

The plan was to rebuild the basic framework of the kyaku-den according to its original configuration which, understandably, caused quite the team-building exercise in cross-cultural navigation. ‘It was a very difficult construction due to the lack of professional carpenters in Ethiopia with knowledge of traditional Japanese construction,’ muses Yamashita.

‘All of the instructions came in Japanese,’ says Fasil Giorghis, hinting at where the problem may really have lay. ‘It was only the accompanying little drawings that made it possible to put up.’

New design elements on the kyaku-den were kept to a minimum but, where unavoidable, ‘used natural Ethiopian materials instead of the original Japanese ones as much as possible,’ says Yamashita. ‘The revision of building materials can itself be considered as a new design feature.’

The reeds of papyrus plants were used to thatch the structure’s roof, and, on its underside, the ceiling was finished with bamboo woven in the traditional Ethiopian style. The walls of the kyaku-den were finished with local plaster and its shoji [the sliding wooden screens] were covered with taut, locally woven fabric instead of the translucent washi paper used in Japan.

Symbolically, the kyaku-den shares its plot with a circular tukul; the two ancient, customary dwellings of each nation sit side by side. Like dizygotic twins, there are not a lot of similarities to draw. ‘Japanese houses are basically open and life inside is integrated with the surrounding nature; Ethiopian houses are basically shelters against the weather and life inside is protected from the force of nature,’ says Yamashita.

Yamashita saw fit to repurpose and restore the tukul as part of the project too. ‘I introduced glass blocks between the top of the circular stone wall and the roof. This brought natural light into the traditional Ethiopian house, which was originally very dark. It dramatically changed the spatial quality; everyone was very happy with the result,’ he says of his simple redesign.

The kyaku-den does not serve as a shop window into Japan’s identity, as national pavilions so often do at the likes of world expos and biennials. Rather, it builds the bridge of its brief by standing as a vessel for showcasing Ethiopian culture instead. Here, one can watch elaborate patterns and bright colours weaved into traditional tibebs, or order a ceremoniously served cup of Ethiopian coffee.

As Koh Nakamura of the Embassy of Japan in Ethiopia remarks, perhaps the two nations are not so polar as they might first appear. ‘Japan and Ethiopia actually share a lot of similarities,’ he says. ‘Our tea ceremony is similar to the Ethiopian coffee ceremony; both constitute important parts of our culture. Ethiopia and Japan share unique five note musical scales that make them exceptional from the western seven note music structure. Bowing, too, is a greeting etiquette ingrained in both countries.’

Opened on August 29 2008, the two pavilions are currently looking a little dog-eared, according to Fasil Giorghis. But, he says, they require just a touch of TLC and some better promotion and programming. ‘They’ve got great potential,’ he says. ‘First of all, they’re in a great location – very central. Secondly, Gondar does not have any such cultural centres, let alone any that integrate foreign cultures. It’s also probably the only Japanese building in the region. No, the whole country.’