Asmara – a vibrant city in Eritrea
For centuries, the people of Eritrea underwent immense suffering as a result of being ruled over by various colonial powers, due to civil wars and national „wars of liberation“, from dictatorial regimes, and through drought and famine. Against this background, the conservation and management of architectural culture was entirely irrelevant for a very long time. What is more, it was precisely the architecture left across the whole country by the former colonial power of Italy which was considered by the Eritrean people to be far from appropriate for symbolizing the achievements made in the context of the country’s independence. Following the border conflict with Eritrea’s larger neighbour Ethiopia in 1998, furthermore the University of Asmara, the country’s capital, was closed in 2002. Since then, Eritrea has no longer had any university architecture courses or architecture schools.
Under these clearly unfavourable conditions, and despite a lack of economic and technical means, over the past few years a committed group of architects – the Asmara Heritage Project, represented by Medhanie T. Mariam – has diligently documented the country’s heritage of modernistic Italian colonial architecture. Those involved in the project were all too aware of the potential of this collection – unique in the world – of great Modernist architecture. In 2017, UNESCO rewarded the efforts of all participants, bestowing the status of a World Heritage Site on Asmara specifically for this particular aspect of the city’s heritage.
This accolade was long overdue, and indeed, for many of the structures which had come into being in the city during a period of virile Italian architectural output, from the Novecento Italiano movement to Futurism, it perhaps comes too late. Many of the once-spectacular cinemas are now closed, dilapidated and idle; the old hotels have no paying guests, facades are crumbling, modernistic fountains and baths have run dry, factories stand largely empty, and across entire districts, dwellings have no supplies of water or electricity.
Emblematic of this decline is the stadium on Keren Road in the north of the city. Only a fragment of the stadium still remains; the submarine-like tower of the entry kiosk stands buckled and derelict, while most of the rest has been torn down and replaced by a new stadium. Many structures have either not been restored at all, or been inappropriately restored due to a lack of the right materials. This could be the end of the story, yet it is actually the start of a new beginning.
As a result of recognition by UNESCO of the Eritrean contribution „Asmara: A Modernist City of Africa“ and the city’s status as a World Heritage Site, badly needed funds are now available, and Modernism in Asmara has finally come to public attention. The country is soliciting this attention and seeking to construct a touristic and cultural infrastructure.
Anyone who, today, has the pleasure of an informed city tour of Asmara will soon find their breath taken away by the huge treasure trove of preserved Modernist buildings. Everywhere in the city, the presence of ambitious and important architecture can be felt, conveying a sense of Modernism as it was lived: the embracing of what were then exciting new technical achievements, often associated with sensual pleasures. Films are still shown today in the Cinema Impero, and the modernistic coffeehouses still serve what is perhaps the best coffee south of Calabria, made using original Italian coffee machines. The modernistic, bright houses, fitted using high-quality materials, are in many cases still inhabited, and most administrative buildings from the period are still in public use.