Asmara, Eritrea: A playground of futurist architecture

Asmara, Eritrea: A playground of futurist architecture

Updated 18th March 2016
Eritrea's capital, Asmara, has weathered colonialism and decades of war, and emerged an independent nation with one of the world's best preserved collections of Futurist and Modernist architecture. Credit: Edward Denison
Asmara's bounty of Modernist buildings is due in part to the influence of Italian architects, who took a 1913 city plan and created a Futurist playground during the 1930s. Credit: Edward Denison
Futurism, which held up modern technology and rejected the past, was a concept created in the beginning of the twentieth century, but later fell out of favor with Italy's fascist government. As a result, some architects could experiment with Futurist ideas only on the fringes of the Italian colonial project. Credit: Edward Denison
Though some cities have sections that have been given over to Modernist architecture, Asmara is rare in that it has been designed in its entirety as a Modernist creation. Credit: Edward Denison
The most famous building in the city is the Fiat Tagliero, a car service station. Its shape is evocative of an airplane -- a typical Futurist motif. Though not in current use, the building is in good working order after having been renovated in the early 2000s. Credit: Edward Denison
A "uniquely protracted" post-colonial situation prevented Eritreans from resenting their colonial heritage, argues Edward Dension, a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Art. He suggests that this is due in part to the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Credit: Edward Denison
Today Eritreans are proud of their Modernist heritage, and Dension, working under Medhanie Teklemariam at the Asmara Heritage Project, is bidding for the city to become the nation's first UNESCO World Heritage site. Credit: Edward Denison
The heritage movement started in 1996 in an unlikely way: through ex-prison inmates who petitioned against the demolition of their onetime detention center, Caserma Mussolini. Credit: Edward Denison
In 2001 the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project was instigated. Funded by the World Bank, it began documenting the city's rich heritage, unknown to most of the world due to Eritrea's turbulent and secluded past. Credit: Edward Denison
The initiative was succeeded by the Asmara Heritage Project, which submitted it's application to UNESCO on February 1. It will be 18 months before the team behind the bid finds out if they were successful. Credit: Edward Denison
"Africa is underrepresented on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and also in Modernist history," Dension argues, suggesting that "Asmara's bid is just one of many that will increasingly try to redress this imbalance." Credit: Edward Denison
Written by By Thomas Page, for CNN
Once a sleepy corner of the Italian Empire, Eritrea's capital Asmara is home to one of the world's best collections of futurist architecture. Now, the city is bidding to become the nation's first UNESCO World Heritage site.
Asmara certainly deserves the distinction; its architecture -- built in the modern era and informed by the school of futurism -- is some of the most beautifully preserved in the world. And the city owes it all to Fascism.

A Futurist haven

Italy developed an urban plan for the capital of its colony as early as 1913, though it was under Mussolini's fascist government that modern architects built the city into what it is today, earning it the nickname "La Piccola Roma."
"There was a very intense period of architectural development from 1935-1941," notes Edward Dension, a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL).
Everything from cinemas to cafes to prisons were constructed in rapid succession, an entire city popping up inland from the Red Sea. Little was left untouched my modernist hands -- the Fiat Tagliero, Asmara's most iconic construct, is on paper one of its most mundane: a service station.
The Impero cinema. Credit: Edward Denison
"It's that combination of urban planning and modernist architecture that makes Asmara so interesting," Dension argues, "because it was a whole city, not part of a city, like Casablanca, or Tel Aviv." As for why, he is uncertain.
"Were [the architects] there to champion fascism, or colonialism, or were they there to run away from it and just get on with what they liked to do, which was design buildings? We still don't know enough about that, but I suspect it's the latter."
"By the 1930s [futurism] fell out of favor with the fascist government of Italy," he explains. "And so one thinks, those who espoused futurism and wanted to articulate it in architectural form, could do so only in the colonies."

What's independence got to do with it?

1/9La Pyramide (Abidjan, Ivory Coast)
Designed by Italian architect Rinaldo Olivier, La Pyramide was celebrated as one of the Ivory Coast's most impressive structures at the time of its completion. "It was meant to recreate the liveliness of the traditional Ivorian marketplace, consciously (designed) in contrast to the sterile modern architecture that preceded it at this time," says Herz. Sadly, he notes, those aspirations never came to pass."Economically, it was never viable, and it's now gutted," he says. Credit: Iwan Baan
Italy's loss was Eritrea's gain, but in the years since it has been an uneasy road for the East Africa nation. From Italian colony to British administration to Ethiopian federation, the "process from colonialism to independence was uniquely protracted" for Eritrea, says Dension. And it is arguably why Asmara is in such good condition.
Dension suggests that Eritreans "probably view their colonial architecture a lot differently than say Libya does with Tripoli, or Somalia does with Mogadishu, where some of the colonial buildings were deliberately destroyed, or disregarded... which a newly-independent country would want to do away with." Because of the lengthy path to independence, "those strong feelings against the colonial ruler were perhaps not quite so strong when independence arrived."

Proud heritage

Eritreans today maintain a close relationship with their modernist heritage, spurred on by an unlikely source: ex-prison inmates.
Caserma Mussolini, an ex-detention center-turnerd-Bank of Erirea. Credit: Edward Denison
Caserma Mussolini, a military barracks that served as a detention center during colonial rule, was due to be razed in 1996 and replaced with a German-designed high-rise.
"It was the former inmates of that prison that said 'You can't destroy this building, it's part of our heritage'," Dension explains. "It was the inmates who really started focusing Eritrean minds, and started them thinking 'What do these buildings actually mean to us?'"
A World Bank-funded project, the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project, ran between 2001 and 2007 and started preservation work, an initiative continued by the Asmara Heritage Project (AHP), established in 2014.
Rescuing Angola's stunning historic cinemas
Dension has played a part in both teams, the latter under coordinator Medhanie Teklemariam, and says that on February 1 the AHP submitted Asmara for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage site -- what would be a first for Eritrea.
"Africa is underrepresented on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and also in modernist history," he argues.
"Our understanding of modernism is very much framed by a Western-centric, Euro-centric perspective. It does reveal a problem in the way that we understand Modernism and the way we understand colonial history. Asmara's bid is just one of many that will increasingly try to redress this imbalance."
Read more
The man who put the color in photography
There was a time when color photography was considered amateur. By pioneering color in the 1960s, Joel Meyerowitz helped change that.
Jacopo Prisco, CNN