Eritrea’s unique architecture under threat

Updated 12 October 2013
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Eritrea’s unique architecture under threat

Eritrea’s capital Asmara boasts buildings unlike anywhere else in Africa, a legacy of its Italian colonial past, when architects were given free rein for structures judged too avant-garde back home.
Modernist architectural wonders in this highland city include a futurist petrol station mimicking a soaring aircraft and a funky art-deco bowling alley with checkered, colored glass windows.
“The city is a living museum of architecture,” said Medhanie Teklemariam, an urban planner in Asmara’s city administration.
Yet while many of the buildings survived a decades-long liberation war from Ethiopia that ravaged settlements elsewhere, preservation and restoration projects have been hampered, threatening to erode the country’s rich cultural heritage.
Medhanie said money remains a critical obstacle, along with a lack of local technical expertise required for specialized restoration projects.
“To undertake a major restoration of all these buildings is very, very challenging because of one, the funding issue and, second, technical capacity,” he said, sitting before a map of central Asmara.
But Medhanie is pushing for change. He is lobbying for the historic city center to be included on the United Nations World Heritage list and working to renew a European Union-supported project to restore a market building and the Capitol, an Expressionist-style cinema.
He sees the preservation of Asmara’s precious buildings — mainly from the first half of the 20th century — as a matter of maintaining the country’s national fabric.
“This heritage... it is very important for Eritrea’s identity,” he said.
World Heritage status would also be a rare opportunity for Eritrea to win positive international exposure. The Horn of Africa nation normally makes headlines only for its raft of repressive policies.
“The international reputation... would be boosted,” said Edward Denison, a photographer and co-author of “Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City.”
Most of the buildings in the former Italian colony were constructed between 1936 and 1941 as part of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s plan to expand his foothold in Africa.
Asmara used to be known as Piccola Roma, or “Little Rome.” In the 1939 census, more than half the city’s inhabitants were Italian — 53,000 out of a total of 98,000.
Italian architects were brought over and encouraged to experiment with innovative designs that were frowned upon in conservative Europe.
Asmara gained a reputation as an “experimental playground” where wacky designs were welcomed.
Today, Eritreans have a deep appreciation for the buildings — even though many were built by compatriots carrying out forced labor under colonial rule — and are proud of their unique city.
While some buildings sit unused, such as the Teatro Asmara, with its high arched awnings and Roman-style pillars, many of them remain functional.
Tables are busy at Cinema Roma, as regulars sip macchiatos on the terrace beneath the marble facade. Inside, dated American movies and Eritrean shows are screened to visitors who watch from plush red seats.
According to Denison, the buildings could be a major boost for the sagging tourist industry.
“The opportunities are boundless, and Eritrea is very aware of that with the various other cultural and natural attractions that it has. I think architecture is a key component of that,” he said.
Luckily, the city’s slow development has preserved many of its old buildings, most of which have been left untouched since Eritrea’s war for independence kicked off in 1961.
Dennis Rodwell, architect and author of “Conservation and Sustainability in Historic Cities,” describes Asmara as a “time warp.”
But preservation efforts have been held back in part by Eritrea’s staunch principle of self-reliance. Rodwell said that outside support is sometimes seen as “a threat rather than an opportunity.”
The $5-million World Bank-funded Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project ended in 2007 as funding dried up and relations between the World Bank and Eritrea soured.
EU funding earmarked for architectural restoration projects remains frozen for review.
Denison, the photographer, agrees that preservation efforts could be improved through greater collaboration with outsiders, but notes Eritrea’s rebel-turned-politician leaders have long struggled to balance “self-reliance and collaboration internationally.”
Yet despite stalled progress in recent years, he says he is hopeful that Eritrea’s rich architectural heritage can be preserved.


The top trends from New York Fashion Week

Halima Aden walking for Sherri Hill NYFW 2019. (Getty Images)
Updated 9 min 5 sec ago
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The top trends from New York Fashion Week

  • Saudi designer and blogger Tamara Al-Gabbani on the big hits from the Big Apple
  • The modest fashion trend was a dominant theme this season

DUBAI: The modest fashion trend — which has grown its presence across catwalks over the last two seasons — was the dominant theme of Tom Ford’s show. His latest collection is reminiscent of sophisticated power dressing, coupled with the glamorous presence of ultra-lux velvet and silk in color blocking pinks, reds and purples. A delicious taster for this winter.

Bahraini brand Noon by Noor also showcased various modest item — soft silks in a neutral palette with a few surges of color and stripes.

Elsewhere, frills and frothy frocks were taking over. It was tutu heaven at newcomer Tomo Koizumi’s show, but the trend had already been established at Victor & Rolf’s dramatic display of frilliness at Paris Couture Week in January. Rihanna’s been rocking it for years, so could 2019 be frothiness’s crowning moment? I think so.

Its recent rise could also be seen during awards season on celebrities including Rachel Weisz, Katy Perry and Jennifer Lopez. The emergence of this new trend was also seen at Christian Siriano, and Sandy Liang.

Scooby, Scooby Doo, where are you? Serious psychedelic Seventies vibes were in full force at Coach and Kate Spade. Stuart Vevers has breathed new life into Coach since he joined five years ago, and this collection could take Coach to center-stage. Stronger than ever before, Coach is soaring to new heights; a luxury brand that is bang on the money with their accessible price points, A-list collaborations with the likes of Selena Gomez, and creative styling and design. Consider Coach a wise investment for your wardrobes this year. Thank me later.

The 70’s theme and happy spirit at the Kate Spade show was received with love, in memory of the acclaimed designer who sadly passed away last year, and provided a chance for new creative director Nicola Glass to bring her own positive energy to the brand. She certainly took it, producing a wearable and fresh take on the brand. I adored the trousers.

Michael Kors cemented the Seventies trend shift with his Studio 54-inspired collection, and boy, was this a party. Sparkly sequins, shaggy fluffy jackets, asymmetric cuts and a Barry Manilow finale. Ladies and gentlemen, Copacabana 2019 has arrived.

Dubai was the inspiration behind Oscar De La Renta’s collection, a combination of both arabesque and contemporary. And with only one ball gown making an appearance — modeled by Bella Hadid — it seems as though Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia are taking the De La Renta brand on a different trajectory with refined ensembles, suits, layering, arabesque prints and, yet again, the presence of modest tailoring. Think wearable but Jackie O -level glam.

Speaking of color, frills and modesty, we saw Christian Cowan send our favorite hijab model Halima down the catwalk in an extravagant contemporary neon-and-black suit and sparkly hijab. Halima also walked for American designer Sherri Hill in long beaded gowns fit for a bridal shower.

Marching to the beat of his own drum, Ralph Lauren launched his Spring-Summer collection to both attendees and online customers simultaneously. And why not? With 50 years of success under his belt, Ralph can do whatever he wants. His collection was an elegant myriad of monochrome, with a touch of gilded gold. So simple, but so desirable. The setting? A sophisticated coffee shop set up. Don’t mind me while I nonchalantly stroll down in lamé for my morning coffee. Fabulous. Thanks Ralph.