clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A look at Asmara, Africa’s unknown city of modernist architecture

Asmara, Eritrea's capital city, was just named a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Fiat Tagliero
Fiat Tagliero
©Edward Denison, 2016

Update July 8, 2017: During a recent meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Poland, Asmara has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Here's our interview with some of the preservationists who worked for years to make that happen.

An eccentric emblem of Modernist design, the Fiat Tagliero gas station is one of a kind. With broad, streamlined, nearly 100-foot-long overhangs that resemble the wings of an early propeller plane, this structure by Giuseppe Pettazzi would stand out anywhere. But in its present home, Asmara, Eritrea, the unlikely service station from the late '30s actually makes sense in a cityscape filled with Rationalist design and sweeping curves. It’s the most recognized symbol of this little-known Modernist metropolis in the Horn of Africa, originally commissioned by Italian Fascists in the ‘30s. Along with blocks and blocks of other such buildings, the Futurist Fiat Tagliero has been submitted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of a concerted effort by the Asmara Heritage Project (AHP) and others to protect and preserve this overlooked architectural gem.

"Asmara should be regarded as a central part of the Modernist canon," says Dr. Edward Denison, an architecture expert and professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture, who first visited Asmara as a tourist in 1997 and has worked professionally to help preserve and protect the city's architecture since 2001. "Successful or not, this will be something this application will address."

While similar styles and structures can be found in other cities in the region, including Rabat, Mogadishu, Tripoli and Casablanca, Asmara stands apart. Hundreds of structures like the Selam Hotel offer beautiful simplicity in design and formfew here, or anywhere, are as flamboyant as the Taglieroand make this one of the world's largest collection of such buildings in the world. Denison works with the main group supporting the UNESCO Nomination, AHP, alongside colleagues such as Guang Yu Ren and Naigzy Gebremedhin, with whom he’s co-authored a book on the city's architecture.

Cinema Impero
Cinema Impero. ©Edward Denison, 2016

Asmara’s design is a result of the region’s unique history with colonialism. Eritrea became an Italian colony in 1889, the only ground in the region the Italians were able to hold onto after being defeated by the Ethiopian Army in 1896 at the Battle of Adwa. After Mussolini took power, this outpost became the African capital of what the Fascists hoped would become a new Roman Empire, the Africa Orientale Italiana. Resources and money for construction flooded in to what the dictator called "Little Rome," creating a space for radical Italian architects to experiment and expand upon a city plan originally conceived of by Odoardo Cavagnari in the 1910’s.

A new Modernist core was added to what was once a small, sleepy village, with hundreds of buildings and designs sprouting up before the Italians were defeated and driven out in 1941 after the first major Allied victory of WWII. The expansion of Asmara, Eritrea's capital, continued in one form or another until a Communist coup seized power from the Emperor in 1974. Northern Italian and Rationalist styles predominate, along with a few examples of vernacular architecture, such as the Orthodox Cathedral of St Mary’s, with references the highland African vernacular, and the Central Mosque, which utilizes Islamic forms. According to Denison, many have incorrectly associated Asmara with Art Deco.

"The ‘Miami of Africa’ concept was coined by the media," says Denison. "Art Deco is inherently a decorative style. Asmara is rationalist and more Northern Italian. It’s not decorative, in fact, the whole point is to strip that off."

St Mary's Orthodox Cathedral
St Mary's Orthodox Cathedral ©Edward Denison, 2016

Denison feels the UNESCO nomination, which should be decided upon by next summer, makes a statement about more than just these particular buildings.

"It’s important people see this as Eritrea’s first World Heritage nomination," he says. "It’s much harder for a country like Eritrea to make these submissions, so consequently, Africa has many fewer sites. It’s an imbalance which needs serious attention. We hope this bid is successful not just because of it’s own value, but because it sheds light on how we treat heritage globally."

Asmara 4
Cinema Roma. Creative Commons Image by Andrea Moroni
Bar Zilli
Bar Zilli ©Edward Denison, 2016

Capri Bar
Capri Bar ©Edward Denison, 2016
Odeon Bar
Odeon Bar ©Edward Denison, 2016
Palazzp Mazzetti
Palazzo Mazzetti ©Edward Denison, 2016