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Francisco Álvares, half a millennia ago, told of the tales of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches with a memorable introduction.

“It wearied me to write more of these works, because it seemed to me that they will not believe me if I write more, and because as to what I have already written they will accuse me of untruth,” wrote the Portuguese explorer. “Therefore I swear by God, in whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than I have written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its being falsehood.”

Indeed, that uphill, elegant turns and twists within stones that are rock-hewn churches are marks of excellence in engineering and, of course, showed the heights of architecture. I discussed this as much with an architect I encountered in a hotel not long ago, where I was in a bar, watching TV.



Next to me sat an older gentleman. The two of us got to talking after a Malian joined us, laying the first stone among us for conversing in French. After exchanging a few palavers, the Malian left, and I continued to chat with the senior gentleman.

He started lamenting first what he missed—not speaking French. He had worked and lived in Paris for three years after completing his PhD in Civil Engineering in the United States. It was a time he was unable to enjoy fully as he could not mix with the society there as he would have liked.


Then he started to dish out names of the bridges in Addis he has designed and their stories. These were bridges I cross at least once or twice a day. It got me to wonder why I never bothered to learn who designed them. Then we discussed a number of road projects with the engineer that failed to be envisaged in the city’s rapid expansion.




In great cities worldwide, the story and history of their architectural marvels are well known, unlike that of Addis Abeba. Take, for instance, the bridge joining Brooklyn and Manhattan in New York, considered the “Eighth Wonder of the World” in its opening days. It was then the longest bridge to use steel and was designed by Augustus Roebling in the 19th century. He was the inventor of wire cable, and died in a ferry accident while its construction was underway. It was also reported that 12 people were trampled to death in the crowd that rushed to cross the bridge during its opening.

I had these in my mind when I passed by the under-construction headquarters of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) and decided to have a closer look. Its juggernaut presence—it will be the largest building in Ethiopia when completed—demonstrates the bank’s ambition, though I was a bit perplexed with my first impression of it.

The emphasis seemed to be more on the art of its building than the art of its looks, as it is more rectangular in shape with almost non-present curves. Although it is undeniably graceful and has given colour to Addis Abeba’s skyline even under construction, my lay analysis leads me to believe that its design is more functional than an architectural statement.


But how much more enjoyable would it be to look at it had we had its full story, as in who designed it and his or her thoughts on the building?

Let us hope that the fervour of what a new structure or building may fetch reverberates anew to replicate, if not Lalibela, if not Brooklyn Bridge, then Addis Abeba’s architecture of the 1960s. Perhaps a lesson could be received here from football. Steve Sabol, documentarian, said a football field is like a big movie screen.

It “combines the strategy of chess. It's part ballet. It's part battleground, part playground. We clarify, amplify and glorify the game with our footage, the narration and that music,” he wrote.

A building is the same. It could be imposing by itself, but it is the “narration,” the stories told about it and those it tells, that make it an integral part of the city's life.



PUBLISHED ON Jun 26,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1104]









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