Why destroy Asmara?

February 8, 2013

Africa’s Secret Modernist City

asmara1928The inhabitants of Asmara, the capital of the young African nation of Eritrea The inhabitants of Asmara, the capital of the young African nation of Eritrea situated in the mountains towering to the east of the Red Sea, have seen their share of conflict and violence. Neighboring Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan, the Eritrean city is regional witness to a century characterized by colonialist exploitation, racist genocide, ideologically fused proxy wars maintained by the cold war superpowers, despotic dictatorships, and lethal ethnic clashes. Eritrea is known as a subject of countless news reports depicting yet another human catastrophe resultant in immeasurable suffering.

Against this dreary background, it can truly be regarded a little wonder, then, that the considerable attention that the city of Asmara has lately been getting is directed at its splendid architectural and urban heritage. The historic perimeter of Asmara and its modernist architecture developed during the heydays of colonialism under a fascist Italian regime and, recently added to the tentative list of the UNESCO World Heritage programme, somewhat miraculously survived the long period of postcolonial turmoil virtually undamaged.
Indeed, after the vicious wars and the resultant economic depravation and international isolation of the past, with peace in 2001 a secret has been discovered in Asmara. Here we can find the largest complete urban ensemble of early modernist architecture in the world – on par with Miami South Beach and Tel Aviv. Evolved during the burgeoning period of expansion of the so called Africa Orientale Italiana between 1930’s and early 40’s, but begun by the Italian colonizers at the turn of the century, already, the evidence of construction in Asmara features a breathtaking array of architectural styles and curiosities.

Due to the involuntary moratorium in construction activities, beginning with the British takeover after the 1941 Italian defeat in World War II and extending into the struggles of independence with Ethiopia, more than 400 architecturally significant buildings remain in essentially unaltered condition. Featuring characteristics of novecento, neo-classicism, neo-baroque, monumentalism futurism, and rationalism – the Italian interpretation of the so called international Modern Movement of functionalist architectural conviction – these buildings make Asmara a living proof of the very diversity of modernism in architecture.

Despite the detrimental consequences for many of the inhabitants of this remarkable city, then, the circumstantial conditions of war – so denying to foreign investors and urban developers over a phase of 60 years – are thus controversially regarded a blessing by some conservationists. As Peter Cachola-Schmal, director of the Deutsches Architektur Museum (DAM) hosting the exhibition Asmara: Afrikas heimliche Hauptstadt der Moderne in Frankfurt rather cynically remarks in his foreword to Asmara: The frozen City: “poverty is the best conservation tool”.
And indeed, seemingly coincidently, it is the very traits of poverty, the patina of decennia of forced neglect of building substance and a desperate lack of resources to build new structures that appear to have made Asmara interesting in the Western eye of the beholder. Why should this African city be of any interest to us? Was a universally valid contribution to architecture made here? Cachola-Schmal innocently reports to have asked prior to the launch of the exhibition. In the end it were the melancholy shots of a mysterious, slightly crumbling, ideal city of modernism that fascinated.
The visitors of the exhibition about to travel through Germany and Italy, later on, have the opportunity to evaluate the strangely beautiful photographs of crumbling Asmara. They can judge the architectural significance of the city, not the least thanks to the promotion of the Eritrean Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Program (CARP), and its former director, Naigzy Gebremedhin, who is a co-editor of the seminal study Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City, first published in 2003.

Gebremedhin is well aware that the voices of nostalgia now urging to conserve relics of a bygone era in Asmara increased in volume because of the widespread publicity that the highly visual, but ardently informative exhibition – primarily based on the elaborate analysis provided by Gebremedhin’s book – was able to generate in the West. And, in fact, Gebremedhin and his collegues at CARP – part of the International Cooperation, Macro Policy and Economic Coordination Department of the Eritrean government – must have calculated that if only these voices increased in numbers and powerful influence, they potentially meant financial aid and touristic development for their small African country in the future.

Direct appeals for assistance are therefore also frequent in the catching 2005 documentary City of Dreams, regularly shown on the occasion of the exhibit, in which Naigzy Gebremedhin guides through his city as a charismatic protagonist-narrator. The documentary augments an infectious enthusiasm for the magnificent artifacts of the past with a sense of respect for everyday life within the historic environment of Asmara. At the same time it manages to juxtapose an acute awareness of the many complicated postcolonial implications every occupation with that heritage necessarily throws up.
bar.gifToday, Asmara generates attraction as a remarkably intact exemplary of a once glamorous modern European colonial settlement. This is evident also to Weine Dessalegn, an interior architect trained in the West and subsequently put in charge of conservation and restoration efforts in Asmara, who matter of factly remarks in an interview featured in City of Dreams that the Italians built Asmara for themselves, not for the Asmarinos or the Eritreans. A statement with which she actually intends to give weight to her personal interpretation of the origin of the many beautiful sites in Asmara. The Italians built Asmara for themselves, and in so doing, they built it with a lot of soul, care and attention to detail, she declares. And, indeed, such daring details as the unknown architect Bibolotti’s dazzlingly elegant staircase in a small, unimposing rationalist building housing three sets of flats and a shop situated on a minor Asmaran crossroad, really continue to allure until today.
cinema-impero.jpgHowever, in confirmation of the exclusiveness in Dessalegn’s explication of the gaiety of Asmaran design, while erecting the city equal attention to detail was devoted to a radical segregation between the indigenous population and the Italian colonizers through means of modern urban planning and a technique of strict zoning. As the critic Frantz Fanon has exclaimed, the first thing the native learns is to stay in its place. The awesome buildings of the inner city district, from the monumental, yet gently proportioned Pallazzo Falletta – designed for the famous Italian industrialist Santo Falletta – that remains prominently structuring the very town centre, to the representative cinemas Impero and Odeon that used to provide modern entertainment to the Italians; all were strictly off limits for the coloured, native population.
While the building site of Asmara thus appears to have constituted a blank canvas on which – owing to Asmara’s relative obscurity and distance from the old continent – the Italian architects and engineers could escape the constraints imposed on their activities in a more conservative European environment, the urban utopia eventually built in East Africa was established at considerable cost to the native population. Forced re-housing was common and beyond the dividing belt around the inner city, in the so called native quarters, the planners’ devotion to comfort of living remained minimal compared to the advanced amenities introduced elsewhere. The living conditions in these slums, as depicted in The City of Dreams, continue to appal even today. Still no sewage system has been installed and even sealed roads are nowhere to be found in these densely populated districts.

Intriguingly, such obvious and intricate involvement of Western architects and urban planners in enterprises of colonial domination and racial Apartheid, with instances easily to be found all over the globe, have structurally been neglected in the grand narratives of modern architecture. Instead, conservative histories of architectural modernism serve to reinforce one-dimensional, Eurocentric discourses of cultural influence and identity that – in turn – come to conspicuously constitute the basis of international conservation registers. With regard to the geographical extension of the Modern Movement, conventionally only the tautological “proof” of its superiority, progressiveness, and universal relevance is cited, most famously by Johnson and Hitchcock in their reference to an international style. The socio-historic preconditions that were allowing Western experts – architects, engineers and urban planners – to export their ideologies to the colonies in the first place, and the foreign influences they incorporated in their work, are hardly ever addressed.
Gebremedhin’s case study of Asmara, the documentary film as well as the exhibition on the city can generally be considered extraordinary exceptions, adding to tendencies towards a more reflective reception of architectural modernisms. Very inclusively and under careful consideration of the dark sides to the formation of the confines of the city as they are nowadays admired, a comprehensive historical overview on the development of Asmara is provided as a framework within which to contextualize the architectural development.

The fact, for instance, that the building boom and the display of wealth in the Asmara of the 1930’s was effectively made possible by the rather late entry into the colonial race by the Mussolini regime, is discussed at length. The enormous population growth at the time, peaking at 70.000 Europeans and more than 100.000 Eritreans, is explained as a reaction to the extra resources provided in support of the Italian military campaign to annex the then only African member of the League of Nations, Ethiopia. And, although the consequential influx in inhabitants should have been more dramatically set in relation to the genocidal effects of the battle for Ethiopia, which caused 1 million Ethiopean casualties due to the utilization of modern weapons of mass destruction by the Italians, it is positive that also the entry of historic Asmara into the tentative list of the UNESCO World Heritage now bears clear reference to this historical circumstance. Other recommendations of sites of significant modernist architectural heritage, such as the deifying description of the universal value of the Indian city of Chandigarh, designed among others by Le Corbusier, are less critical in their approach, by far.

Moreover, room is devoted to the discussion of native influence on the Italian planners and architects that extends beyond the mere exploitation of manual labour. When the village of Arbate, originally lying on the outskirts of early Asmara, was moved to accommodate the urban expansion of the city, for example, the site remained of vital importance to the indigenous orthodox Christian community as their church was situated there, too. In 1920, then, the Italian architect Gallo designed a bigger church to replace the original. While otherwise obeying to fairly modern stylistic codes, this house of worship featured clear references to the indigenous hidmo style of building and to a related construction method dubbed the monkey head technique. In 1938 the church was yet again replaced by an enlargement, this time planned by an unknown architect, who took over references to native building styles, as well – the towers retained traditional agdo roofs, for instance.

The diverse and often complex cross-fertilization of architectural styles as it is manifest in Asmara – not only on the plane of hybrid fusions between African and European archetypes, but also with respect to distinctive currents within modernism in architecture – is adequately hinted at by the exhibition and the documentary. But, as a definite source of information, the book Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City proves especially elucidating, here. It features a comprehensive, commented inventory of the significant buildings, ordered according to a taxonomy based on distinct historic phases of construction, and is richly illustrated with carefully set in scene color photographs. The manuscript also comes complete with an astute bibliography, a useful chronology and a practical index. It is the pioneering expertise gathered in this survey, then, that will prove of indispensable help in all efforts to protect the cultural heritage of Asmara.

In fact, the necessity of broad scale conservation efforts to safeguard this site demonstrating one of the highest concentrations of modernist architecture in the world seems to be a matter unanimously and popularly agreed upon. The residents of Asmara – as featured in the documentary City of Dreams, in any case – appear to be proud to finally have appropriated a city that, although not intentionally designed for them but their oppressors, is of remarkable human scale: much unlike many other grand modernist projects of urban development, Asmara is very much accommodating of pedestrian city dwellers, for instance. As a result, many Asmarinos are likely to agree to Naigzy Gebremedhin who claims to have made his peace with the fact that the unique architecture of Asmara, which many others have come to appreciate so much as a consequence of his groundwork, originally stems from an evil regime.

But, why destroy it, Gebremedhin asks. Indeed, the question at stake seems to be not whether to conserve Asmara, but how to. Especially how in due process to do full justice to the history of colonialist exploitation and human suffering that is inextricably connected with the fine modernist inheritance of the city. In the end, the issue of how to conserve the architecture of Asmara appears to be irrevocably attached to the problem of whose heritage it is. Certainly, after the Italians had left the country, the colonizers’ former living quarters were rightfully appropriated by the indigenous population and, consequently, the living culture that has developed there, until today, absolutely needs to be taken into account on par with any dedication to the preservation of Asmara’s colonial legacy.

Naigzy Gebremedhin and CARP are right; the considerable chance of economic development that the increasing attention directed at the historic perimeter of Asmara is likely to open up needs to be grasped in order to finally improve overall conditions of living. Essentially, there is hope for a change for the better also benefiting the many still forced to live in the slums. And, indeed, after a broken past, truly all of the inhabitants of Asmara deserve a share of future peace and prosperity.

Asmara: Afrikas heimliche Hauptstadt der Moderne. (Deutsches Architektur Zentrum, Berlin, 3 October – 3 December 2006; Deutsches Architektur Museum (DAM), Frankfurt am Main, 6 February – 15 April 2007; Kasseler Architekturzentrum, Kassel, 24 April – 13 May 2007; BDA Galerie, Stuttgart, 21 September – 19 October 2007; International Union of Architects (UIA), World Congress, Turino, July 2008)

Ruby Ofori and Edward Scott, City of Dreams. (Documentary film, 2005)

Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren, and Naigzy Gebremedhin, Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City, London / New York 2003, 240 p. ISBN-13: 978-1858942094

Stefan Boness (phot.), Jochen Visscher, Asmara: The Frozen City, Berlin 2006, 96 p. ISBN 3-936314-61-6

see http://www.daz.de/sixcms_4/sixcms_upload/media/2811/asmara_bilduebersicht.pdf