The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

May 2, 2010

Asmara Modernist

It is the imperial influence of Europe that has transformed much of Africa into the continent we know today. Long after the wondrous designs of the Egyptian Pyramids and the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and the mud-brick mosques of Mali, new architectural paradigms began to inform the African metropolitan landscape. This is most evident in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.

Although Eritrea has long been part of Ethiopia, independent only since the 1990s, Asmara – a World Heritage site – has little in common with the constructions of its erstwhile overlord. In fact, it has much more in common with the architecture of Italy, the country that colonised and occupied it from the end of the 19th century to the end of the Second World War. Neoclassical Building in Asmara's Town Square

Baroque example in Asmara's Town Square Arabesque Neoclassical in Asmara's Town SquareStraight Lines in Asmara's Town Square In the early years of their rule, the Italians introduced a bewildering mixture of styles in Asmara. The city’s town square offers the perfect example of this melange. The building of the Communal Bank of Eritrea is in the neoclassical idiom; the post office building has an austere, stripped classicism with lovely colours; there is a Baroque edifice in one of the corners of the square, with its swooping stairs and strange cupola; a 1950s-style building has strong lines and punched out windows; a neoclassical building that acknowledges a sort of arabesque arcade; and there is a symmetrical palace building that completes the ensemble.

Asmara's Modernism Asmara’s mix of architectural styles defines it as the epitome of the 20th century in Afro-Italian history. But, of course, the Italian taste for the eclectic didn’t last. By the 1930s, Benito Mussolini had decided to inflict a harsh futuristic aesthetic on his colony. Like Hitler, he wanted to express his power via architecture. He decreed that the new Asmara would be done up in his favourite style, namely Modernism.

Pettazzi's Fiat Petrol Station in Asmara One of Africa’s most remarkable buildings has to be the Modernist petrol station built in the shape of an aeroplane. Designed by one of Mussolini’s favourite architects, Giuseppe Pettazzi, the 1938 Fiat gas station is a splendid example of a branch of Modernism called Futurism. It used to be said of this beautiful fossilised pterodactyl of an edifice that its design reflected the desire of homesick colonials to return to Europe.

Pettazzi's Fiat Petrol Station in Asmara There’s a story about this building. Pettazzi, when he had to submit these plans to the local authority, faced a huge problem. They couldn’t believe that a concrete structure with a sixteen metre cantilever looking like this could stand up by itself. So they forced him to put lots of little columns underneath in order to support it. When the structure was built, Pettazzi was reported to have held a gun to the builder’s head, and ordered the poor man to take away all the columns. And lo and behold, it's standing up.

Residential Block in Asmara At the height of the occupation, 70,000 Italian civilians were drafted into Asmara, to build Mussolini’s model city. To keep them entertained, in 1937, the authorities built the Odeon cinema, one of five picture palaces in Asmara. Its elegant foyer appears to have been ripped out of the set of a classical movie, with subtle backlighting and sumptuous fittings. Upstairs, in its function room, the architects gave it a playfulness with its deliciously sloping ceiling.

Odeon Cinema, AsmaraSloping Ceiling in the Odeon Cinema, Asmara It’s easy to fall for a place like Asmara. This is what happened to the Eritrean architect Naigzy Gebremedhin, author of Asmara: Africa's Secret Modernist City. One of his favourite buildings in the Selam Hotel, built in 1937. Its style is Rationalist, a branch of Modernism that favours the simple, the brutal and the ruthlessly functional. The Fascists, says Naigzy, adopted this style and made it their own, and the Italian architects of the time adopted both the Fascist stance and continued to work in this particular idiom.

Selam Hotel, Asmara The Casa dei Italiani in Asmara was originally the Fascist youth club, Casa dei Ballila; at the front gate, the fasces are still visible – reeds tied together, the traditional Fascist insignia, and at the capitals of the columns used to be axes, which have since been removed. It used to be a Fascist club for boys, so to speak, and now it’s the club for Italian expatriates and the Italian-speaking Eritrean community.

Of course, Mussolini’s buildings weren’t really designed for the natives at all. The Italians imposed strict social segregation, leaving most Eritreans sidelined and marginalised. Nevertheless, many Asmarinos (as they are called) retain a certain affection for Mussolini’s cultural legacy. While they would never excuse any of the terrible colonial past, Eritreans do appreciate that the Italians spared no expense in designing and constructing the city. Despite the daily reminders of their colonial subjugation, it is evident that many Asmarinos love their capital. And why not? Even an outwardly unprepossessing apartment block can hide a wonderful surprise.

Apartment Block in Asmara (with a surprise inside) Take a look at this seamlessly meshing appearance from below of the spiral staircase that serves six to seven apartments in this block.

Seamless Spiral Staircase This is by no means a unique experience in Asmara, a city that retains a wonderful charm. If nothing else, the Romans were able to donate a certain romance to the place.

Modernist building inspired by a train. Asmara. Naigzy reveals that the Fiat building was only one of several that were inspired by forms of transport. Here is one that looks like a train, led by a locomotive going down the river.

Modernist building inspired by a boat. Asmara. And when that one was finished, directly across it was built another building – which looks like a boat.

By 1941, Mussolini had turned Asmara into the most modern city in Africa. But in just six years, Il Duce’s dreams of grandeur were shattered by Allied troops, who jackbooted him out of Eritrea. As the tanks rolled into town, the soldiers must have been amazed to discover a little Italy, complete with legions of locals walking the passaggiata down the via Mussolini.

For the Italians, of course, the evening stroll had been a way to wind down the day with elegance and flair. The Eritreans continue to enjoy some of that élan in Asmara, which remains to this day one of the most charming cities in Africa.

(A loose transcript of David Adjaye’s Building Africa: The Architecture of a Continent. BBC Four.)


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