Standing as a startling collection of futuristic Italian architecture from the 1930s, perched on a desert mountaintop high above the Red Sea, the Eritrean capital of Asmara has been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Announced as one of a series of new ‘inscriptions’, which are expected to include German caves with ice-age art and the English Lake District, Asmara is the first modernist city in the world to be listed in its entirety.
First planned in the 1910s by the Italian architect-engineer Odoardo Cavagnari, Asmara was lavishly furnished with new buildings after Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, when the sleepy colonial town was transformed into Africa’s most modern metropolis. As the “little Rome” at the centre of Italy’s planned African empire, it became a playground for Italian architects to experiment.
“It has an unparalleled collection of buildings that show the variety of styles of the period,” said Edward Denison, a lecturer at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, who has been working as an adviser to the Asmara Heritage Project, helping to put together the 1,300-page bid document, the result of two decades of research.
From the daring cantilevered wings of the Fiat Tagliero service station, modelled on a soaring aeroplane, to the sumptuous surrounds of the Impero cinema, the city is full of buildings that combine Italian futurist motifs with local methods of construction.
Behind the sharp cubic facades stand walls of large laterite stone blocks, carefully rendered to look like modernist concrete constructions, finished in shades of ochre, brown, pale blue and green – much more colourful than their European counterparts.
“While other countries like Libya and Somalia were understandably keen to trash their colonial heritage,” said Denison, “Eritrea was subject to a decade of British rule and 40 years of Ethiopian rule, so the process was more gradual.” The inscription of Asmara – along with historical centre of M’banza Kongo in Angola – goes some way to addressing the under-representation of Africa on the Unesco world heritage list. Of 814 cultural sites worldwide, only 48 are in the African continent, fewer than in Italy alone.