Asmara: Africas Secret Modernist City

A soaring plane, a surging ship, a swirling staircase. Disconnected as they may seem, these elements all come together in Asmara, capital of Africa’s newest country Eritrea, in a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of architectural riches. The symbolism characterizes the eclectic buildings of this extraordinary city, which is now slowly revealing itself to the outside world.

For more than three decades, Asmara’s hidden wonders were kept secret as civil war raged through the craggy mountains, narrow valleys, and desert plains of Eritrea—then a province of Ethiopia. Guerrilla fighters struggling for independence from successive oppressive rulers finally marched into their newly liberated capital in 1991 and, with peace, Asmara’s unique architecture was at last brought out into the open.

Straddling a plateau over two kilometers high, the “city in the clouds” houses one of the highest concentrations of modernist buildings anywhere in the world. It was an experimental playground for the Italian colonizers of the early twentieth century, whose architects and builders were given free reign to dabble to their heart’s content.

The result is a mishmash of inspired engineering, packed into an area of four square kilometers, which fits together in the most charming way imaginable. Futuristic buildings depicting the new fascination with machines in the early 1900s stand alongside the simple rationalist styles of the 1930s and the austere monumentalism of the fascist era.

As fascism waned, this too was reflected in the architecture with a return to rustic, classical villas. Intermingled with these various styles are fabulously ornate buildings, such as the Asmara Theatre, the former palace and the Roman Catholic cathedral—neo-classical designs, with touches of Gothic and flourishes of art deco.

But all this history requires preservation, a fact that was quickly acknowledged by the new Eritrean authorities. After the war, hurried and unplanned construction began sprouting everywhere to the horror of world-renowned architects like Naigzy Gebremedhin. Realization of the threat dawned, and the government placed a building embargo on Asmara’s historical center. Naigzy returned to his native Eritrea in 1994 to establish a national environmental program, and became the independent country’s first director of environmental protection.

Aided by World Bank funding, he launched an initiative known as the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project (CARP) in a bid to save the buildings, many of which had started crumbling badly due to war, isolation, and neglect. He worked as the coordinator of CARP until his retirement in 2004, serving without pay in recognition of the many sacrifices made by fellow Eritreans in achieving the nation’s independence.

Before liberation, Naigzy trained as an architect and city planner at various institutions including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and lectured at the faculty of building and architecture at Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa.

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