The ABC’s of African Modernism: A is for Asmara

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In this edition of concrete and kitsch, I am bringing you the latest in architecture-related wanderlust about a place to which I have never traveled: Africa!  A few months ago, a random google rabbit hole led me to the overlapping portion of the “Africa” and “Modernist Architecture” Venn diagram, and I haven’t turned back since.  I strongly believe in a sort of modern, traveler-angst type of manifest destiny, and believe that the longer the staying power of a travel-related obsession, the more likely I’ll be to travel there in the near future.

So with that let’s take a little trip to the little known and little visited Asmara, Eritrea – the former jewel of Italy’s Imperial Crown!

The futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) in Asmara, Eritrea, was built to resemble an aircraft.

In the endless supply of locations to which I am dying to travel, Africa has always had many faces.  There are the beaches (and cuisine) of Mozambique, the rock hewn churches (and cuisine) of Ethiopia, and the Woodaabe beauty pageants of Niger…but only until recent history did Eritrea, and especially its capital of Asmara, come into my radar.  And yes, the cuisine appeals also.Photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/32681890@N06/

Unlike Ethiopia to the south, Eritrea was under Italian colonial rule from the late 1800s to 1941.  With the influence of Italian urban planners, Asmara developed into a highly modernist city.  Italians had hoped the city would become a center of Italian cultural influence in East Africa.  In the early to mid-1900s, Italian architects used Asmara, then nothing more than a small settlement, to create a modern vision of a contemporary city.  The buildings that live on today present a hundred-year-old vision of the future from a dying colonial power.  In other words – put all of those buzzwords together, and you have a description of a place that has my and David’s names written all over it.

The buildings each correspond to different eras in the urban development of the fledgling city: Early Italian colonial influence, Between and shortly after the two World Wars, and Under Ethiopian annexation.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/fresh888/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/fresh888/

During the first of the three periods, Italians worked to establish a more European style of city planning on the high plateau where Asmara sits.  First there was the laying out of streets in a grid pattern, with more traditional residential parts of the city scattered in every direction from the city center.  Single story buildings expanded rapidly, while the urban core developed.  More indigenous incarnations of wattle and daub architecture blended with contemporary European building techniques, giving rise to a uniquely Eritrean architectural style, prone to outward (rather than upward) expansion.

It also helped that there was little semblance of indigenous urban planning in Asmara.  Because Italian designers and builders were able to create the city from the ground up, and thousands of miles from Rome, they could let their imaginations run wild and create dreamlike and futuristic buildings for all occasions: from cinemas, to gas stations, to government buildings, to orthodox churches.  A modernist city indeed, but completely different from the brand of modernism I typically gravitate toward – the more brutal, stark style characteristic of postwar Soviet and Communist nations in the Eastern Bloc.

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Despite being on the winning side of things in World War 1, Italy had a difficult time containing their East African interests.  Increased interest in Ethiopia loosened their hold on Eritrea as a colony, and upheaval was commonplace.  Architecturally, Eritrea was blossoming – Whoever heard of lack of funds or resources stifling the interests of a fascist state, am I right?  The adornment and intricacy of the modernist structures built or refurbished during this period is unprecedented across Africa during this same time frame.  Even Europeans would have scoffed at the decadent style – Italian architects in Asmara were only able to get away with it because of the distance between the Italian seat of government and its sleepy backwater of an African colony.

The building most commonly associated with Asmara’s modernist expansion was built in this time – the Fiat Tagliero building (1938).  Standing like an airplane long unused and bolted to the ground, today it is surrounded by a basic chain link fence in the center of town; its two huge faux wings cantilevered across an Art Deco tower.  The building, despite its looming presence in the city, is crumbling.  It seems that Asmara, like many other capitals in the developing world, has earmarked funds to causes more immediately pressing than the restoration of vestiges of a colonial past.https://www.flickr.com/photos/fresh888/

And then, finally, came the period of Modern Asmara – a period inextricably linked with Ethiopia, its much larger neighbor to the south.  After World War 2, and the Italian Empire’s fall from grace, Eritrea was placed under British supervision, along with British Somaliland.  The fate former Italian stronghold of the Horn of Africa was then placed in the former Allied Powers’ hands.  This ultimately led to a loose federation of Ethiopian (never conquered by outsiders, yet strongly tied to the Allied Powers during World War 2) and Eritrean lands under the government of Haile Selassie.  And, like any good snowball effect, what followed was warfare and coup attempts – the Eritrean War of Independence lasted from 1961-1991, one of the longest periods of modern guerrilla warfare in the 20th century.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlesfred/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlesfred/Eritrea’s history of political instability is only one of the things keeping David and me from booking tickets there right this very minute.  Another is the cost of getting there, both in dollars and time required – a recent Momondo search priced a round way trip from Seattle at around $1700 USD, and flights from Seattle often require at least two stops and upward of forty hours.  The cherry on top of the Eritrean tourism sundae is, of course, visa bureaucracy.  Visas are difficult to acquire, and any travel once in Eritrea is monitored and heavily regulated.  All of this said, I’m still dying to get there – preferably in the 2017 calendar year.

There are signs that tourism could become a thing in Eritrea.  It is ripe for foreign tourism, primarily from seaside resorts on the Red Sea.  The concentration of modernist architecture in the city, too, is attracting attention – there is even a bid for the buildings to be made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/fresh888/

Anyway, I’d love to know: Who wants to come to Eritrea in 2017 or 2018 with us?  If 2017 is my year for off the beaten path travel (Suriname, Moldova, et al), then I think Eritrea would round out the year with a bang.

2 thoughts on “The ABC’s of African Modernism: A is for Asmara

  • December 31, 2016, 2:32 am

    I’m so glad you made this post. I never even thought about Africa in this way. I looooove the first picture of the bowling alley.

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