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Eritrea's capital city, a.k.a the 'Miami of Africa', could become Africa's next world heritage site

Asmara's Mai Jah Jah area

By M&G Africa

Be prepared to be surprised. Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea, has one of the largest collections of modernist architecture in the world, impressive features that bolster the application made on February 1 for it to be listed as a World Heritage site.

Unesco World Heritage Sites are natural and cultural legacies of “outstanding value to humanity” and these approximately 400 buildings and their legacy make Asmara a unique contender for the esteemed status. The fate of the application, submitted by the Asmara Heritage Project (AHP), will be known before July 2017 and, as the Asmara project already meets several of the ten criterion for heritage status, there are high hopes.

For centuries, Eritrea was influenced by the cultures and religions of different rulers, from the Egyptians and the Ottomans to the Europeans. These all left their traces on the culture and architecture of the country, but it was Italy’s occupation that had the strongest mark.

Miami of Africa

Asmara was under Italian occupation from 1889, but it was Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 that transformed the small town then into Africa’s most modern metropolis.

Asmara grew to become a capital city, with zoning, sanitation and modern drainage systems and buildings that followed the design principles and architectural styles indebted to European tendencies at the turn of the century.

Then, during the urban expansion programs in the 1930s, hundreds of Modernist buildings went up. As described by Edward Denison - an independent architectural specialist, co-author of “Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City” and a member of the AHP team - last year at the Africa Research Institute: “overnight, the skeletal form of a modern and brilliant urban plan, conceived in the 1910s by a particularly enlightened Italian architect-engineer Odoardo Cavagnari, was lavishly clothed in modernist architecture.”

It should, however, be noted that there was some was some architectural experimentation and innovation also happening with one of the city’s most striking structures, the Fiat Tagliero service station, for example, being built in 1938. It was a bold tribute to futurism which is an Italian artistic movement that had comparatively little architectural exposure.

The spectrum of the Modernist buildings exist in an area of about four square kilometres in the town centre and earned Asmara the title as the “Miami of Africa” in reference to the US city’s famous style which features geometric shapes, curves and soft colours.

But these plans and structures also had African influence.

Denison again mentioned this, explaining how many of the structures were built using local materials, local workers, with parts of them inspired by local techniques - such as the “monkey head” building technique which uses wooden dowels to bind the walls - and how the Italian planners embraced the topography of Asmara as they developed the urban plans.

“Their designs sought to create a modern city that addressed the uniquely modern requirements of transportation, communication and sanitation, but did so in a way that respected and responded to the local environment while embracing modern planning principles. In doing so they created a very distinct urban plan. Although the city has since expanded and evolved substantially, the core characteristics have been retained, highlighting the success of the original designs.”

Hope for restoration

Many buildings are in run-down condition requiring an overhaul and modernisation of facilities including sanitation and electricity. An important step in this process will be the recognition of the Asmara architecture as a World Heritage by the UNESCO.

Through recognition there’s hope that the huge costs of renovation and preservation can be met if Asmara’s architecture can become the cornerstone of gainful tourism in Eritrea.

The potential is there.

Though the city’s striking architecture is the icing on the cake, Eritrea has many attractions to offer; the Red Sea, scenic mountain region, diverse fauna and flora, the historical landmarks of antique cultures of the Axumite Empire, Christian churches and monasteries, the Ottoman urban culture with the port of Massawa and the renovated railway from Massawa to Asmara.

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