Asmara: Decentering Modernist History



One of the world’s historic places, Asmara City, is well known for its well preserved buildings. Its various remarkable Art-Deco structures have made it a destination for many tourists around the world over the years.

Asmara is believed to have more than 4000 buildings that are of great significance to the nation’s history and the world. For this reason, tremendous efforts have recently been made to register Asmara in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Today’s Q&A will give you a brief chat Iseias Tesfamariam from had with Dr. Edward Denison, a Lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL).

Dr. Denison presented a paper regarding the UNESCO application for Asmara at the International Conference on Eritrean Studies (ICES) held on July 2016. He has been working with the Asmara Heritage Project (AHP) since 2013.

Q: Would you please tell us what your paper was about?

My paper was about the current UNESCO World Heritage application for Asmara, but it situated this subject within the wider context of modernist history as a means of challenging prevailing Euro-centric attitudes and approaches. In short, this aims to see Asmara not as a colonial city designed by Italians, but as a heritage asset of global significance liberated and conserved by Eritreans. The title was ‘Asmara: Decentering Modernist History’.

Q: You conducted a personal tour of Asmara’s historical perimeter for the ICES conference participants who had signed. What was the purpose? How was it received by the participants?

Actually the tour was largely conducted by my brilliant colleagues from the AHP, in particular Dawit and Kibreab. The purpose of the tour was to give conference participants the opportunity to explore and experience Asmara while being given an expert account of the city’s history, buildings and public spaces. The feedback I got from the participants was very positive, especially in relation to the depth of knowledge conveyed by the AHP staff.

Q: Eritrea wants Asmara to be included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. What is the significance of being added, and what would be the benefits of being nominated?

UNESCO’s World Heritage List is the preeminent global register of cultural sites possessing ‘outstanding value to humanity’. There are many benefits of being on this list.

From Eritrea’s perspective, this application has added significance because it would be the country’s first World Heritage Site. This lengthy and complicated process demands the implementation of legal and procedural measures to ensure the safeguarding of cultural and natural heritage assets at a national level.

The approval this year of the country’s first heritage laws is therefore an important and positive consequence of this process. It also helps to establish the institutional frameworks for heritage protection nationally and the development of human resources with experience in this important field.

From Asmara’s perspective, the benefits are fundamental, with the aim being to permit the long-term sustainable development of the city. This requires the complete overhauling and updating of the building regulations (which were previously the 1938 regulations) and various planning guidelines. This involves, among many other things, creating a Conservation Master Plan and Integrated Management Plan, as well as undertaking extremely rigorous and extensive studies of the city’s existing buildings, streets, public spaces, utilities, etc.

The database that the AHP has created containing all survey data and archival records (80,000 scanned documents from the Municipal archives) is an extraordinary testament to the AHP’s professionalism and Eritrea’s love of Asmara.

Only when a truly comprehensive picture of the city has been established can municipal authorities confidently permit new developments that enhance its physical, social and cultural character without the risk of threatening them.

Finally, being recognized positively on the world stage should be the cause of great pride. If Asmara is successfully inscribed on the World Heritage List, it will do a great deal to promote a positive image of Eritrea to the global community, which in turn can lead to all sorts of long-term positive outcomes, opportunities and friendships.

Q: Were there any other cities that had similar claims and benefited?

Yes, there are over 1,000 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, though this includes natural sites. There are comparatively few urban sites and even fewer modernist (twentieth century) urban sites. Tel Aviv is indeed one such site and its global image has undoubtedly benefited enormously from being one of the first modernist cities inscribed on the list in 2003.

An added significance for Asmara is its location in Africa, which is grossly under-represented on the World Heritage List. Modernism in Africa has generally been overlooked and the subject demands much more research. Asmara is a genuine pioneer in this regard and this is what makes its case as a modernist site outside Europe and beyond the Euro-centric gaze so exciting and comparatively challenging for a heritage industry that is both institutionally conservative and culturally western-centric. Eritrea’s application for modernism in Africa is a provocative, progressive and thrilling prospect.

Q: There were consultants who came to Asmara. Was the visit part of the nomination process?

During the preparation of the Nomination Dossier, the AHP has worked with a number of esteemed local and international consultants. However, your question may be alluding to the Field Assessor sent to Asmara in the summer by ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites).

ICOMOS conducts the scientific assessment of nominations on behalf of UNESCO and these are conducted on-site and off-site. The assessment was extremely rigorous, focusing on a range of issues including the delineation of the site boundaries and buffer zone. We will not know the outcome of this assessment until ICOMOS publish their report, but I can say with certainty and confidence that Eritreans and the city of Asmara made their country proud, as ever, by presenting a warm and welcoming face to their international guests.

Q: Many tourists usually like to take pictures of the ‘Alfa Romeo’ building. What is it about this particular building that fascinates tourists?

Few buildings in Asmara are in a critical condition, as the climate is blessedly kind on building materials (unlike Massawa). However, many structures are in need of repair and regular maintenance. A few require more urgent and extensive restoration, which will require considerable resources.

Alfa Romeo is one such structure, where the plaster work, roof, windows and services all require complete restoration. It is always funny to see which buildings capture the public’s imagination. Alfa Romeo is certainly a popular example, perhaps due to its corporate familiarity to foreigners, but you also can’t ignore the role of architecture. One can’t help but marvel at that magnificent and monumental chamfered doorway crowned by a pair of flag poles. Such confidence!

Q: At Merha’s presentation during the ICES conference (The History of 1921’s Massawa Earthquake), you commented that people need to look into indigenous knowledge. Would you please elaborate more on this subject?

This highlights the essential issue regarding the criteria under which Asmara has been nominated for World Heritage Listing. The use of local building materials and techniques incorporated into the modernist architecture provides evidence of the interchange of human values on developments in architecture in Eritrea as well as bearing unique testimony to Eritrea’s cultural traditions. This includes the extensive use of local basalt in the construction of buildings (sometimes plastered sometime left exposed – the best example of which is the extraordinary Spinelli Store), but can be seen most idiosyncratically in Degghe Selam at the entrance to the compound of Enda Mariam Cathedral where the wooden posts protruding from the wall recall the traditional ‘monkey-head’ technique that was once popular in the highlands and now only survives in the Kidane Mehret Church in Senafe.

Degghe Selam was designed by Odoardo Cavagnari, the city’s Head of the Civil Engineering Office, who also designed Teatro Asmara (1920) and the city’s first major urban plan (1913).

Q: What is the significance of RIBA’s Presidential award on research and history?

On 6 December, it was announced at an awards ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) that the AHP’s work won the RIBA President’s Medal for Research – among the most prestigious accolades granted in recognition of architectural research globally.

This is an exceptional honor and testimony to the world-class standard of research conducted by the AHP in the course of preparing this nomination. The judging panel wrote:

‘This is a prodigious piece of research and cataloguing that goes beyond focusing on the history and significance of the UNESCO definition of ‘outstanding universal value’.

It is much nuanced and sensitive to the local context in its evaluation … If it is to judge the city and its buildings by World Heritage Site criteria, it appears to do it very well. Overall this is an exemplary and unique piece of work that has the potential to have a transformative effect on Asmara in the global, public imagination.

Q: Thank you for your time.

You’re welcome.

RIBA President’s Medal for Research
A collaboration work between Dr. Edward Denison (center) from Bartlett School of Architecture; Medhanie Teklemariam and Dawit Abraha from Asmara Heritage Project won the 2016 RIBA President’s Medal for Research.