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The Eritrean city of Asmara is an intact Italian colonial city 
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Old 05-09-2010, 09:07 PM   Post #1
Starbuck
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Default The Eritrean city of Asmara is an intact Italian colonial city



« Empires leave their distinctive mark. The gothic-revival public buildings in the centre of Mumbai could only have been created by the British, and the stuccoed classical buildings in Pondicherry look distinctively French. Of all the legacies of colonial empires, one of the most impressive is a large city built in Africa by the Italians yet it is one of the least known. Asmara is the capital of Eritrea, that much fought-over land in the Horn of Africa that was occupied in the 1880s by the new kingdom of Italy as a springboard for conquering Abyssinia. Mussolini finally and brutally realised this belated imperial ambition in 1935-36, which was when concerted efforts began to make Asmara into an important city to attract Italian immigrants. It all ended in 1941 when the British army arrived. What was achieved at Asmara has become known only since Eritrea secured independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

In 2003 a handsome, illustrated book about Asmara by Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren and Naigzy Gebremedhin was published and three years later an exhibition about the city, based on Denison's excellent photographs, was mounted in Berlin. Thanks to the World Monuments Fund in Britain, this recently came to London and will travel to Stuttgart, Turin and other destinations before ending up as a permanent display in Asmara itself Both book and exhibition reveal that Asmara is much more than a former colonial administrative centre or a vast, chaotic African city with a few surviving curious and exotic public buildings. Built high up in the mountains well inland from the sea, it is a very complete and Italian city, with a wide range of buildings equal in quality to those of the period in any city in Italy. Architecturally, Asmara is as significant in its way as are, say, New Delhi and Chandigarh--to name two celebrated cities designed by European architects in India.



The book is subtitled Africa's Secret Modernist City, but this is a little misleading. Asmara is not exactly modernist in the strict sense of that unsatisfactory and much misused term, for it reflects the range of architectural approaches current in Italy in the 1920s and 30s. These certainly included the austere geometrical rationalism of Giuseppe Terragni, but there was also the mannered and inventive classicism of the Novecento style associated with such architects as Giovanni Muzio as well as the monumental stripped classicism of Marcello Piacenfini. There were also rounded and streamlined structures inspired by American art deco as well as by Italian futurism, with its obsession with machine imagery. Reflections of all these are to be found in Asmara, where there are also interesting earlier and more conservative buildings.

Perhaps because they were operating far from home, Asmara's architects seem to have been more free to experiment. Particularly remarkable is the Enda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral, rebuilt in 1938-39. An austerely abstracted central block is flanked by two campaniles, topped by stripped-classical temples on which rest traditional conical roofs, with the whole unified by horizontal banding of two colours of stone. Possibly influenced by Piacentini's church of Cristo Re in Rome, it is a more impressive design than, say, the contemporary domed church in Mussolini's EUR complex. And then there is the streamlined Fiat Tagliero petrol station with its outstretched, cantilevered concrete 'wings' giving the building the dynamic character of an aeroplane. It is sad to discover that a plan imposed on Asmara in 1938 enforced the separation of the European from the native quarter--a reflection of Mussolini's adoption of Nazi racial policies that same year (when he also decided in favour of monumental classicism as the official style, rejecting the modernism of that ardent Fascist Terragni).

In view of all this, it might be expected that modern Eritreans would reject the legacy of their former Italian conquerors. Impressively, however, the Eritrean government has promoted the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project to look after Asmara's architecture and to seek world heritage status for the city. Just as the Soviet government restored Tsarist palaces after World War II because they were built by ordinary Russians, so the Eritreans consider that Asmara belongs to them and is something to be proud of. As Naigzy Gebremedhin has written, 'The architecture of Asmara is being preserved because it celebrates the labour of thousands of Eritreans. Eritreans have appropriated, completely and unequivocally, the colonial architecture in their capital city. This appropriation has never implied minimisation of the evils committed by fascist Italy in Eritrea ... But they no longer harbour any quarrel with the buildings that have survived.' Such mature wisdom contrasts with the way the Irish Republic used to treat Georgian Dublin or the attitude of French Canadians to British buildings in Quebec City.

In this project, war-torn Eritrea is seeking international help, but it is surprising and sad to learn that very little has so far come from Italy. Modern Italians may well be embarrassed about their colonial history, but they usually display an intelligent and accommodating attitude to their Fascist past. For instance, the floor mosaics in the Foro Mussolini that depict Italian planes bombing Abyssinia have not been destroyed. This tolerance (or ambivalence?) partly stems from the fact that, until 1938, Fascist architecture was not ideologically rigid or stylistically consistent. Also, unlike most creations of prominent Nazi architects in Germany, most official Fascist buildings were as useful as they were well designed. Almost every town or city seems to have its handsome post office or railway station built between the two world wars. The plain fact is that the general standard of Italian architecture in the 1930s was the best in the world.

Since many good Italian architects who worked in the 1930s continued to practice after World War II with only a slight change of direction, their work is taken seriously and not damned (whether rightly or wrongly) as most Nazi architecture still is. Elegant, comprehensive monographs have appeared not only on Rationalists, such as Terragni, but also on such architects as Muzio, Angiolo Mazzoni, Enrico Del Debbio and others who flourished under Il Duce. There is one exception, however: Piacentini, who, as he became Mussolini's favoured architect and planner, still seems to be beyond the pale. Yet although he produced monumental stripped classical buildings, such as Rome University, of the sort that are so often, if wrongly, exclusively identified with totalitarianism, his work was resourceful and varied and his classicism never dull or pedantic.



More important, perhaps, is the fact that Piacentini's town planning was not like Albert Speer's in Germany, a destructive affair of vast vistas and axial symmetry. It was subtle and intelligent, introducing new buildings into old city centres with a respect for the past combined with a delight in asymmetry and informal spaces. Particularly good examples are his interventions in the centres of Brescia and Genoa. Indeed, town planning as well as architecture in 1930s Italy was extraordinarily sophisticated and good, and one of the most distinguished and interesting products of that problematic decade now turns out to be the ex-colonial city of Asmara in Eritrea. »


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Link for above.
SkyscraperCity gallery.

Last edited by Starbuck; 05-09-2010 at 09:15 PM.
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Old 05-12-2010, 02:53 PM   Post #2
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Some posters (with pics of buildings) of Italian businesses operating in Asmara back then:




Lol@ the typo, "Sactole" instead of "Scatole":




Glass-making




More at http://www.ilcornodafrica.it/lav-lavit.htm
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Old 05-12-2010, 09:21 PM   Post #3
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More pics from Asmara.

Cinema Impero






FIAT-Tagliero building








AGIP filling station




IRGA Building


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