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Asmara’s Modernist Architecture

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It is unfortunate that Eritrea is more likely to evoke images of migrant crises than outstanding architectural heritage. Asmara’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site could change that perception.

Asmara’s Modernist Architecture

Cinema Impero (1937), designed by Mario Messina, fronting former Viale Mussolini (now Harnet (Liberty) Avenue).

Credit: Edward Denison

Asmara’s Modernist Architecture

The bar in the foyer of ODEON Cinema (1937), designed by Giuseppe Zacche and Giuseppe Borziani.

Credit: Edward Denison

When perspectives of the world are framed largely by a Western media that, in the case of Eritrea, constructs unhelpful and inaccurate analogies like “the North Korea of Africa”, engaging with problems and finding solutions becomes very much harder. However, architecture has the potential to make a very real difference to the fortunes of this determinedly self-reliant country.

In July 2017, Eritrea’s capital city, Asmara, was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The 1,300-page listing application, ‘Asmara – Africa’s Modernist City’, refers to the exceptional Modernist heritage built during the Italian colonial period before the Second World War. The 481ha site contains more than 4,340 buildings, all of which have been extensively surveyed and catalogued, along with more than 80,000 digitised documents and technical drawings from the municipality’s phenomenal archive.

Prepared by the Asmara Heritage Project, the work comprises nearly two decades’-worth of research by countless local residents and professionals, supported by numerous international bodies, including The Bartlett School of Architecture. In December 2016, this collective effort was recognised by RIBA, with the award of its President’s Medal for Research.

Eritrea’s encounter with modernity was particularly brutal. Italy claimed the territory in the late-19th century, but it was the 20th century, the century of Modernism, that defined Eritrea. Asmara was planned before Mussolini came to power in 1922 and embarked on his fantasy project of creating a new Roman Empire in Africa.

The apogee of this odious campaign was the invasion of neighbouring Ethiopia in 1935. Asmara became the jewel in the crown of Italy’s African empire, which also included Libya, Somalia and Ethiopia. It was in this brief period, from 1935 to Italy’s defeat by the Allies in 1941, that most of Asmara’s Modernist buildings were constructed: designed by Italians and built by Eritreans.

The successful retention of the city’s physical integrity through a turbulent century is remarkable enough, but what makes Asmara particularly special is the extent to which Eritreans have since assimilated the city’s complex past. Although Eritrea was conceived by colonialism and furnished by fascism, Eritreans reserve a special love for their capital for its association with national independence – a hard-fought struggle that ended in 1991.

Asmara’s Modernist Architecture

The former Lancia workshops (1938), designed by Carlo Marchi and Carlo Montalbetti.

Credit: Edward Denison

Asmara’s Modernist Architecture

The gateway to St Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral (1938), designed at the height of the fascist era and combining Rationalist architecture and highland vernacular. Framed between the towers are the minaret of the Grand Mosque and the campanile of the Catholic Cathedral, illustrating the country’s religious diversity and tolerance.

Credit: Edward Denison

This pride is reflected in Eritrea’s pioneering approach to its colonial heritage, which uses research as the basis for encouraging the city’s sustainable development. This transcends both the reactionary attitudes that, in many post-colonial contexts, have led to the deliberate destruction of physical reminders of the past or the equally destructive forces of a heritage industry whose pursuit of preservation has sucked the life out of many of the world’s great historic cities.

History has not been kind to Eritrea, and its Modernist historiography is no exception. The common conflation of modernity and the West has had a detrimental effect on the way we engage with and understand built environments globally. The problem manifests itself variously, from the writing of history to the creation of institutions charged with researching history or protecting historical artefacts.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Site List is itself a fitting example – a veritable international inventory of cultural prejudice: together, Italy and Spain boast more UNESCO World Heritage Sites (47 and 39 respectively, a total of 86) than all the 54 African countries combined (85).

Asmara’s listing therefore goes beyond merely pursuing international recognition for its cultural assets. Viewed in a wider context, Asmara’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status – as a Modernist site in Africa – challenges some of the fundamental principles underpinning the heritage industry. It calls for a recasting of Modernist history to more fairly reflect and better understand global encounters with modernity, and to allow formerly subjugated territories to reclaim and represent their own histories on their own terms.

Words: Dr Edward Denison, Director of MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments at The Bartlett School of Architecture. His work in Eritrea won the RIBA President’s Medal for Research in 2016. This essay was originally published under the title ‘Encounters with Modernity’ in The Bartlett Review 2017.

Postscript, March 2019:

In July 2018, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a Peace Agreement that brought to an end two decades of hostilities that have had a debilitating and devastating impact on Eritrea.

Edward Denison has been invited by UNESCO to help organise a Donor’s Conference to raise $80m for the restoration and rehabilitation of Asmara’s buildings and public spaces.

The School of Architecture is internationally renowned for innovative research and teaching that is academically rigorous, critically informed, design-led and interdisciplinary. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/architecture

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