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UNESCO: Asmara and its Italian colonial past added to World Heritage list

KRAKOW, JULY 8 – Asmara, “a Modernist City of Africa”, has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list. Located at over 2000 metres above sea level, the capital of Eritrea developed from the 1890’s onwards as a military outpost for the Italian colonial power.

Desperate too build quickly, the colonial government allowed radical architectural experimentation that would not have found favor in the more conservative European environment. After 1935, Asmara underwent a large scale programme of construction applying the Italian rationalist idiom of the time to governmental edifices, residential and commercial buildings, churches, mosques, synagogues, cinemas, hotels, becoming the world’s prime building ground for architectural experimentation during the Modern Movement. Almost a “playground” for Italian architects of the time, the UNESCO site encompasses the area of the city that resulted from various phases of planning between 1893 and 1941, as well as the indigenous unplanned neighbourhoods of Arbate Asmera and Abbashawel. Hanna Simon, the country’s representative to Unesco, said the recognition brought the city “tremendous pride and joy” as well as “a profound sense of responsibility and duty.” Critics of the government say it lacks the financial resources to maintain the historic structures.

Among the iconic buildings, Mario Messina’s Cinema Impero and the Frank Lloyd Wright Futuristic inspired Fiat Tagliero gas station by Giuseppe Pettazzi are featured in the photos above. There is an Art Deco bowling alley, while the Bar Zilli building looks like an old-fashioned radio set, with windows like tuning buttons.

Below is one the villas designed around 1910 by architect Paolo Reviglio. Originally nicknamed “The Castle” and now occupied by the Ministry of Water Resources, it had a rather sinister history: during the Ethiopian Dergue regime, the building was appropriated by the government and turned into one of the most feared prisons in Eritrea.

“It is an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context”, UNESCO said in the motivation of the inscription.

With one of the highest concentration of modernist architecture anywhere in the world, Asmara is Eritrea’s first entry to the World Heritage List.


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