Back in August 2007, I attended an exhibition entitled "Asmara, Africa's Secret Modernist City" at the wonderful Bauhaus Centre in Tel Aviv. Being a fan of both modernist and art deco architecture, this was a real treat. The fantastic images in the exhibition and the accompanying publication made me want to get on the next plane to Asmara to see it for myself. Unfortunately, the cost of flights was prohibitive at that time and I had to wait until late 2010 when I was able to see not only Asmara but also Keren and Massawa, the other major cities in Eritrea.
|Modernist villa in Asmara
Asmara has a wonderful collection of about 400 modernist and art deco buildings dating from the 1920s and 1930s, part of the legacy of the colonial period when Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia was under Italian rule. The Italians believed they would be there for hundreds of years and so their architects, and of course, African labour, filled Asmara with beautiful modernist villas, shops, cafes and cinemas, many of which and many which still survive, although some have fallen into disrepair. This is hardly surprising given that the Eritreans fought for thirty years to gain their independence from Ethiopia, finally achieving this in 1993.
Like many capital cities around the world, Asmara boasts some impressive government buildings. Two that particularly stand out are the Municipality and the Ministry of Education both on Harnett Avenue. The Municipality is one of my favourite buildings in Asmara. Built from 1951-1971 in a simplified art deco style it stands out due to a central green tower with its clock and crowning disc displaying the symbol of Eritrea - the camel. The central tower also has a balcony for addressing the public and elongated windows on each wing. The green facade is made from mosaic tiles whilst the window frames are marble. Amazingly the architect is unknown, but what is known is that the state assembly hall in the rear of the building was inaugurated by our own Queen Elizabeth in 1965 during the Ethiopian period.
Further along Harnett Avenue, the Ministry of Education building dates from 1928 with an extension from 1940. Only the architects for the extension is known - Bruno Sclafani - more of whom later. Somewhat austere externally, this pink painted building was once home to a stunning set of paintings in the local style including depictions of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, the serpent of Eritrean and Ethiopian legend that is said to have shaped the land, other local fauna, St. George and the Dragon and several allegorical figures. Sadly this has all been destroyed in the period following independence. I was able to have a quick look inside this building - although not to take photographs. The main staircase retains echoes of a former grandeur with a decorative metal bannister which carries fascist symbols. The interior is painted in green and yellows.
|Municipality, Harnett Avenue
|Ministry of Education, Harnett Avenue
A stroll through Asmara in the late afternoon and early evening is perhaps the time to see it at its most interesting. The main thoroughfare - Harnett Avenue is the venue for the evening passagiata of hundreds of young Eritreans, dressed in their best clothes, promenading or talking in small groups. Many people will smile and say hello, buona sera or good evening to European visitors they pass in the street.
The Italian penchant for cafe culture - strong coffee and sweet pastries and patisserie - lives on amongst the Eritreans, as does a taste for good pasta and pizza. The many cafes fill up in the late afternoon and stay full until almost 10pm, when most people go home - this is not a party town. Royal Bar was my favourite serving great ice cream as well as the ubiquitous coffee and cakes. The customers are mainly groups of local young people, who come to drink, talk and look.
Many of the most ornate of the cafes are located within cinemas, including the wonderful Cinema Roma on Semtat Avenue. The cinema was originally to be called Cinema Dux but was refused planning permission because the name was judged to be too close to the title Il Duce (Mussolini). Building work started in 1937, originally under the direction of Italian architect Roberto Capellano and then Bruno Sclafani and it began life as the Excelsior. The interior was restored in the 1990's and features a selection of reds, ochres and oranges inside and out with marble on the exterior. For a few nakfa (the local currency), you can have a peak inside the auditorium outside of screening times. An enormous old projector is displayed in the lobby, surrounded by old Hollywood posters and many ardent smokers and serious coffee drinkers.
|Cafe in Cinema Roma, Semtat Avenue
Another real landmark and further down Semtat Avenue is the stunning Fiat Tagliero Service Station. It's hard to believe that this beautiful building was a petrol station. It resembles an aircraft with massive, unsupported wings. Legend has it that the municipal authorities demanded that there be pillars to support the wings before granting permission to build and that the architect Guiseppe Pettazzi complied by using wooden pillars. At the building's unveiling he held a pistol to the head of the building contractor and ordered him to remove the supports. True or not, the original plans for the building, rediscovered in 2001 showed 30 poles propping up the wings. They are not there now! Restored in 2003, the building now belongs to the Royal Dutch Oil Company. It benefits from the highest level of protection in terms of listed building status meaning no changes can be made to the original.
Another wonderful deco style industrial building is the former silicon factory originally known as Agencia Lancia on Tegadelti Street designed by Carlo Marchi and Carlo Montalbetti and built in 1938. Built for wealthy Italian Santo Falletta it housed a service station, workshops, showroom and car exchange for the Lancia car company. Beautifully symmetrical with trademark deco portholes it has retained its wonderful projecting glazed central tower that once housed a water tank and was illuminated at night. In good condition at the time of my visit, the building is now all but hidden from the street by a wall and is easy to miss. Its definitely worth searching out and taking a peek.
|The Fiat Tagliero service station, Semtat Avenue
|Agencia Lancia, tower of former silicon factory, Tegadelti Street
|Apartment building in Asmara - the caption on the front promotes family planning.
Eritreans have learned to be extremely resourceful, through many years of war and a number of economic difficulties. Nowhere is this better illustrated than at the recycling market called "Medaber" - not to be confused with the Hebrew word medaber מדבר, meaning speak. Here you can see all kinds of materials - plastic, old oil drums, pieces of cloth - being used to create new and useful things. I especially liked the set of suitcases constructed from cardboard and cloth and the recycling of old tyres for water carriers. During the struggle for independence the Eritreans had a saying that "everything has its use and then another use". This is very clearly demonstrated at Medaber which provides employment to many local people.
The recycle market was just one example of the hard work on constant view in Eritrea as people strive to improve their lives and the position of their families and despite the difficulties faced by many people, the Eritreans I met were unfailingly helpful, friendly and generous. This included extending invitations to dinner in their home and even learning how to cook an omelette for me. You can read more about that here.
|Young worker at the Medaber recycle market
|"Everything has its use and then another use"