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2019 INTERNATIONAL STUDY TRIP: Asmara - The Secret Modernist City

Saturday 23 February 2019

2019 International Study Trip

Gillian Darley words
Mike Stiff illustrations
The Architecture Club members

The arrival of The Architecture Club in Asmara late on February 23, or was it early on February 24, was a bit like that nursery rhyme ‘Ten Green Bottles’ but this time on rewind. First four, then six, then a few more. It was not until late Monday that our leader, Dr Edward Denison(scholar, author, campaigner and encourager of local Asmaran initiatives for some twenty years) arrived with others from Istanbul, where they’d been delayed by snow and where their luggage still lingered, much thanks to Turkish Airlines.

2019 INTERNATIONAL STUDY TRIP: Asmara - The Secret Modernist City
Teatro Asmara foyer

On Sunday, the group now swelling gradually to thirteen, we had started with a wander, a glimpse of high-altitude Asmara, bright sun, strong, sharp air and jacaranda trees on every side. Guided then and on every day afterwards by the excellent Biniam and Petros, Edward’s colleagues from the Asmara Heritage Project, we began to grasp something of the early Italian ambitions for the town around 1900. The hundred-year-old Hamasien Hotel, its daft pointy roof signalling the whereabouts of our own nearby hotel, self-evidently had roots in the Savoy, while the Seventh Day Adventist Church headquarters and the beguiling Africa Pension were clearly going off in different directions. We met our first ageless tortoise and were surprised by the amount of fancy revivalist brickwork and black random rubble blocks, heavily pointed white - giraffe style. Completely at odds with the image of clean modernist massing and render as promised. By the time we got to the Florentine Renaissance arcade and the pretty stepped gardens of the old Opera House (Teatro Asmara) with its ‘Ingresso’ and ‘poltrone’, its congenial café bar and the promise of more beyond (we returned later in the week) it was beginning to look decidedly confusing.

Even before he arrived, it was clear that much of what has been achieved in Asmaran conservation is due to Edward. The elegant Deco inspired graphics on the Hotel map turned out to be the work of Edward and his wife, Guang Yu Ren. Their heroic work proved to UNESCO that Asmara merited World Heritage status (accorded in 2017) after they had worked for six months among the records in the basement of the Municipality back in 2001. And around and alongside them, were a number of remarkable Eritreans, most of whom we met over the week, people like Medhanie Teklemariam (Coordinator of the Asmara Heritage Project), a planner, a stalwart, close colleague of Edward’s. Going out to the School of Engineering later in the week we met the Dean, a graduate of Newcastle, Dr Kahsay Negusse. His hope is to develop a department of architecture and planning in some form, but it remains a long haul. The new Chinese built School of Science shows which way the wind is blowing out on the campus. Edward told us of at least two major restoration projects (Teatro Asmara (c.2005), Cinema Capitol (2010), and the Market (2010)) that had been ready to go, outside funding in place, only for the plug to be pulled. There’s been an ambivalence towards such inherently collaborative ventures, especially when the money comes from across the seas. But perhaps there is a shift coming; last year’s accord with Ethiopia has raised hopes on every side.

2019 INTERNATIONAL STUDY TRIP: Asmara - The Secret Modernist City
Fiat Tagliero

To telescope our astonishingly rich week, on foot and (for some) on cycles, we saw the key modernist buildings of the late 1930s by which Asmara is best known, some central to the city plan, some quite hidden away from view. While fearless members scaled the pinnacles of the Fiat Tagliero, (renovated in 2003 but looking sadly unloved) we also explored the theatres and cinemas which do such good business showing football matches on the big screen, rococo decorated hotels, Deco bars and that grim reminder of Eritrea’s place at the heart of international empire building, the mountains of Russian and American hardware known as the Tank Cemetery, visited as lightning streaked the sky as we picked our way through the animal skins and carcasses left by the resident dogs.

We visited Keren, the WW2 cemetery and the mayor, having looked at traditional village house construction known as the hidmoon the way - in itself a nearly vanished record of the heavily forested landscape of which nothing remains. We took the Asmara steam train for the first few kilometres towards Massawa, through a dramatic landscape, allowing the old men who labour over the Italian built rolling stock, the brakeman and those who keep the track in order, to revel in one of the all too rare days in which they can demonstrate their seemingly ageless skill to admiring passengers.

Down from the mountains on a three-hour bus journey to Massawa, we started at the museum which covers everything from Red Sea fish and folk textiles to the story of the EPLF and its long fight in which Eritrean women played such a key role. Salutory relics such as Haile Selassie’s commandeered portside villa (built by a Swiss adventurer and Egyptian envoy, Werner Munzinger, in 1875) and the Banco d’Italia, a Venetian palazzo blown to smithereens, set a different mood. Old town Massawa, without the benefit of UNESCO protection, is a memorial of days in which Turks and Arabs were dominant in this Red Sea port (now almost lifeless and, it is worth remembering, immediately opposite the Yemen). Yet in the midst of its desolation are occasional signs of quiet renovation, we ate a superb fish lunch, while over the water sits a range of oversize hotels and villas constructed in Silvio Berlusconi’s glory days. We learned about traditional seismic construction, at risk of being forgotten when concrete takes the place of timber between the layers of coral.

2019 INTERNATIONAL STUDY TRIP: Asmara - The Secret Modernist City
Haile Selassie’s Massawa villa

And, everywhere from Asmara to Keren were the enduring footprints of the Italians, at the table, on the skyline, in the language and through the current evidence of the Roman Catholic church (although Christian Eritreans are majority Copts) and an Italian school.

Club members embarked enthusiastically on Eritrean food, and over the days we ate in different settings, including on the last night, at the memorable Ghidey Santa Antonio Restaurant, in a domestic setting where we reclined on sofas, beneath walls hung with every symbol of the country and its last seventy-odd years of endeavour. There, quaffing mead, we celebrated our incredible good fortune in being introduced to Eritrea, learning about and understanding its chequered history and delighting in the people, as Petros, hand on heart, sang his aria of Asmara to Clare, the most intrepid of our fellow travellers.