Putting Pen To Paper | Homage To Architects of Yester-Year

There is something particular and emotive about the skilled human touch. Despite living in a modern age, where computers, 3D rendering softwares and large plotters bring a level of precision and consistency I am still quite charmed by the hand drawn sketches of the skilled draftsman and architect of days gone by.


As a continuation to the story about Asmara’s architecture, Another Africa shares with you the beauty of the many sketches and ideas some built others only imagined documented in the book Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City.

So how is it that the city of Asmara became the playground for modernist architectural expression. To find out, we have to go be back to the turn of the century when Eritrea was colonized by the Italians. Asmara, a small provincial village in the late 1800’s was set to become the East African utopia; the foothold for an Italian expansion into the continent. Within a matter of forty years it would transform to become one of the most modern and sophisticated metropolis’ on the African continent.

For Italian architects practicing at the time and particularly between 1935 to 1941, it represented a unique playground free from a set architectural language, historical constraints and traditional rules like it’s European counterparts. These architects were encouraged to be radical and experimental, an element that to this date distinguishes Asmara’s architectural landscape and language.

According the surprised British Ministry of Information in 1941, upon taking over from the Italians, Asmara looked like “a “European city” with wide boulevards, fantastic cinemas, imposing fascistic buildings, cafés, stores, two-lane streets and a first class hotel.”

From the 1920’s onward architects built in the Art Deco, Futurism, Neo-Classic, Novecento and Rationalist styles of the day which still remain standing despite being in a state of despair. In 1997, the buildings were designated heritage sites by the government together with the assistance and consultation of The World Bank. The organization born, The Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Program (CARP), works solely towards coordinating the preservation and rehabilitation of the cities architectural heritage sites of which there are more than four hundred.

The Architectural Styles (1920’s ~ 1940’s)

The early 1920’s saw a shift towards a truly modern Italian style, Novecento. An imitation based on Italian Classicism and Neo Classicism that used simplified forms of ornamentation, decoration and panelling. For example, it used asymmetrical construction that was also consciously fragmentary. Windows, niches, panels etc. and other obvious elements of a facade appeared like exact forms in sharp relief. The period also saw the rise in Futurism, which took its references from the modern industrialized world, its new technologies and machines. For example the aircraft, a form that influenced the Fiat Tagliero service station in Asmara.

During the 30’s, the young Italian architects tasked with the job of developing this new utopia, had the opportunity to work on many large-scale infrastructural projects including administrative centers, banks, schools, churches, the post office, theatre and judiciary offices. The style they mainly followed, “Razionalismo”, The New Architecture, presented them with the chance to move away from the classical traditions of both Italian and local African architecture. Razionalismo incorporated a new understanding to spacial concepts. It applied scientific insights in areas such as technology and hygiene together with artistic concepts a practice that evolved from an analysis of its daily uses and function. Stylistically, it used the language of spheres, cuboids, cylinders, cubes and pyramids. Prior to 1935, the initial developments in Asmara were based on formal historical styles such as Italian Gothic, the Renaissance, Baroque, Romanesque and Classicism.

The Implications of Modernism in City Planning

Asmara’s architecture exemplifies European town planning of the 20th century. Though modernism in Europe presented itself as a movement for emancipation, in Asmara it represented the instrument of modernizing a colony. A reality that took form in a city divided into an Indigenous quarter vs Italian. Though the anthropological roots of the cities architectural development and city planning were created with the aim of segregation, its inhabitants have since adopted it over time as part of the unique heritage of this small nation. This city designed through modernism and segregation, has evolved to become a city that is home to people of different cultures, religions and ethnicity.

All architectural sketches are courtesy of Asmara Africa’ s Secret Modernist City by Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren, Naigzy Gebremedhin published by Merrell Publishers Limited 2003.

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