Asmara; Africa’s secret modernist city by Edward Denison

The independence of Eritrea in 1993 (and the ending of the war with Ethiopia in 2000, as well as less happy events since) brought Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, back into the public eye for the first time in a generation. Travellers who visited found a city full of fine Modernist buildings, left in something of a time-warp. Asmara had been the centre of Italian colonialism in East Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many buildings had been planned and erected by the Italians in the 1920s and 30s, when the Modernist movement was at its height. What is more, the relative obscurity of the country and its turbulent political history had meant that many of these buildings, though neglected, had also avoided much of the massive redevelopment that took place in the 1950s and 60s in other cities at a time when Modernist architecture and the Art Deco style was not appreciated.

This book, then, surveys the notable buildings of Asmara as they stood in 2002-03. It gives as many details as possible, and contrasts the buildings’ current state with historical photographs and (where available) original architects’ drawings, plans and concepts. The book also gives a history of Eritrea, concentrating on the period when most building was done, from 1889 to 1952.

The historical section goes into the events of the colonial period in some detail. Italy came late to colonialism, and found that when they had fewer resources to commit to their colonial project, institutional racism quickly ran out of steam when faced with pragmatic requirements. The region’s religious openness, with Judaism, Coptic and Catholic Christianity and Islam all observed, also meant that co-existence and proper multi-culturalism were facts of everyday life, irrespective of what Rome dictated (especially during the Fascist era). Perhaps the worst period was that between 1951 and 1993, when Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia under a UN agreement heavily influenced by external political considerations. A national liberation movement grew up in the 1960s and 70s; when the Mengistu regime came to power in Ethiopia, the liberation movement ceased its internal dissension (mostly) to fight directly for freedom.

The book does not particularly draw attention to the effects of these conflicts on the fabric of the city of Asmara; rather, it concentrates on the buildings and the various attempts at town planning mainly carried out by the Italians, both in the colonial period and afterwards,. Italian influence remained strong in the architecture and building styles, although many architects adapted local forms and details. Yet despite this, it is surprising how many of the photographs appear to depict a European city dropped into another continent; many of the buildings would not look out of place in a European city, as they employ styles and proportions that reflected architectural thinking in the mid-20th century; and much of the street furniture also seems familiar to a European eye.

Some of the buildings are, indeed, classics of modernist architecture, and indeed some are compared with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Fortunately, the independent Eritrean authorities have taken advice and are receiving assistance aimed at preserving the best of Asmara’s architecture whilst helping the nation develop and improving the everyday life of their citizens. This book is an important part of that process, as it brings Asmara’s cityscape to the attention of a wider audience, who hopefully will help raise awareness of the city’s place in world culture.

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