Not-so God’s Roof
By David Bristow
There is much to admire and be amazed by in Lalibela. But apart from the Euro-trash and Canadian camel-driving tourists (see post here), there is one other aspect to the place that begs comment. It is the roofs over the central complex of stone churches, namely Betemedhanialam (House of the Saviour), Debre Michael, Debre Sinai incorporating Debre Mariam, and Golgotha, wherein lies buried the great King Lalibela.
After 1,000 years out sun and rain the churches were in need of some TLC. In 1954 the Ethiopians covered them with hideous wood and tin roofs. Then it was declared a World Heritage Site and the UNESCO problem solvers stepped up.
They replaced the old ones in a super modern style that vaults the churches and reduces them to also-players. There is nothing subtle about those roofs. They pay no homage to history or the inherent spirituality of the place. The new ones exhibit high-tech solutions that would gladden the heart of any engineer, but not so much that of an architect or historian.
The huge flying slabs are supported on great steel pylons that rest on the surrounding stone. Where they need more weight on the footings, instead of using – oh, I don’t know, how about stone? – they have placed metre-high cubes of stainless steel. I know this from the horse’s mouth, so to say: engineers believe they have a contract from God to pave our entire planet. Which is exactly why we also have environmental scientists to try to keep them in check.
You would think, given the nature of the site, the rocket scientists at UNESCO might have commissioned an architect as inspirational as an IM Pei, or a Frank Gehry. Maybe a gentle curve, or a wave, supported from outside the main hewn-out area. Maybe it would have included some iconography and other historical references other than the super-modernist, angular edifices that now dominate this ancient site.
It looks to me like a solution arrived at by a committee of bureaucrats (or, to quote another astute observer of modern society, a confederacy of dunces). Certainly not inspired by God, or the angels that apparently helped carve out the churches.
It looks like UNESCO has gone and built an airport when all that was needed was a carport.