Duck Duck Book

47 – asmara
07.8.2007, 8:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Asmara : Africa’s secret modernist city / Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren, Naigzy Gebremedhin.
London : Merrell, 2003.
[MCL call number: 720.9635 D396a 2003: two copies, no holds]

Asmara is the capitol of Eritrea, which is a little country on the African side of the Red Sea.  Between the 1890s and the 1940s, Eritrea was part of Italy’s colonial empire, and during that time the city of Asmara was built as a colonial capitol.  It is a smallish and very young city, in a much-ignored nation.  Even though Asmara could hardly be provincial (it is after all, the seat of government!), it seems likely that any cosmopolitan glory it might achieve is likely to forever remain unnoticed by most of the world.

However, since Asmara is a nearly new city, built in the twentieth century by Italian colonists who favored the Modernist tradition, it is a remarkable paradise of futuristic stylishness.  Because Asmara had to be built quickly, experiments with architectural design and ornament were allowed that would have never found favor in stodgy old Europe; and because new buildings were built on clear ground, architects and city planners did not have to work around any pesky existing infrastructure.  Everything was sparkly and new (at least in the wealthy, Italianized parts of town), and stylistic innovation was well-tolerated.

Asmara : Africa’s Secret Modernist City celebrates this Italian-built metropolis, with its clean modern lines, creative use of simple ornament, and stylish integration with the landscape.  Buildings of this tradition, but erected after the Italians lost power (from 1941 to 1991 Eritrea was controlled by Ethiopia, and saw decades of civil war) are also examined.  Unfortunately, the book’s focus doesn’t allow for a very thorough discussion of the “native quarter,” where most ethnic Eritreans lived during the Italian colonial era.  Neither is there much information about how the building of the (originally) Italian city affected Eritreans, or what the usage patterns of the different parts of the city are now. 

It is entirely reasonable for the authors to have limited their scope in this way — it is not their responsibility, after all, to provide a comprehensive history of the city and its culture — but since Asmara has not been written about as much as many other capitols, it is hard to know if readers could easily find this kind of depth elsewhere.  In any case, if you are interested in the cultural history of Asmara and how architecture has impacted life there, you may not find this book very satisfying.

Then again, if you want to see how Modernist architecture as practiced by Italian colonists melded with Eritrean culture and landscape to form the physical backbone of the nation’s principal city — especially if you want to see specific examples of buildings, their interiors, and their neighborhoods, the book may well delight you.

Asmara : Africa’s Secret Modernist City includes a terse introduction to Eritrean political history, and the history of the development of the city of Asmara from the 1890s to the present, focusing on architecture and civic planning.  This introductory section is followed by forty pages of portraits of buildings, arranged chronologically from 1889 to 1991.  The entire book is full of gorgeous photographs, with liberal use of maps, site plans, and architectural drawings to explain design concepts.  A chronology of Eritrean history, a bibliography, and an index follow the main text.


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