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.


Young violinist hits a winning note in Riyadh

Updated 23 July 2018
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Young violinist hits a winning note in Riyadh

  • Chloe Chua of Singapore is considered the world's foremost youngest pianist
  • Since the opening of its doors to global talent, people in Saudi Arabia have been enjoying electrifying performances of various world-class musicians and singers.

RIYADH: The cultural landscape of Saudi Arabia is changing at a rapid pace and it is fast becoming a hub of cultural activities. 
Since the opening of its doors to global talent, people in Saudi Arabia have been enjoying electrifying performances of various world-class musicians and singers.
The Saudi authorities are leaving no stone unturned to promote local talent and to make the Kingdom part of the global cultural revolution. 
On Saturday, the General Cultural Authority organized yet another unforgettable concert at the King Fahad Cultural Center, which saw the world’s youngest violinist, Chloe Chua from Singapore perform to a spellbound audience. The 11-year-old talented violinist has been a student at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts School of Young Talents (SYT) strings section since the age of four. 
She is studying with Yin Ke, string program leader of SYT and recently won the first prize in the Menuhin Competition Geneva 2018. She has been awarded prizes in numerous other competitions, coming first in the 24th Andrea Postacchini International Violin Competition (May 2017) and third in violin group A of the 2nd Zhuhai International Mozart Competition for Young Musicians. 
Chua was accompanied by the internationally distinguished pianist, Gordon Back. Back is an official accompanist at major international violin competitions such as the Queen Elizabeth competition, the Carl Flesch Competition (London), the International Tchaikovsky Competition (Moscow), the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (US), and the Menuhin Competition (UK).

VIEW OUR PHOTO ALBUM: Chloe Chua's Concert in Riyadh

The pieces of music, which included Beethoven, Mozart and Johan Svendsen, were inspired by different stories and different musical rhythms and drew rapturous applause.
The program began with a 15-minute performance by Eman Gusti, a 20-year-old Saudi pianist who started playing at the age of nine. 
“No one on earth can imagine how I felt when I heard the audience applauded. It is such a great honor,” Gusti told Arab News.
She said she finally felt she had a place to express her passion and an umbrella (the General Culture Authority) to belong to. “Saudi women have a great space to express their enthusiasm in interactive situations and places. I am very happy to be part of this golden era.” 
After her segment, the main performance started with Chua and Back. “I am very happy to perform in Saudi Arabia,” Chua said afterward. “I chose these seven pieces because they are very good in terms of the music, rhythm and themes. I wanted to show that classical music can be a joy to everyone. I chose music because it makes everybody happy, and I can travel around the world to make the world happy.” 
Now Chua and Back are set to perform in Jeddah today. “I am very excited about seeing Jeddah and playing music in front of an audience there,” she said. 
It was the first time Back had played in Saudi Arabia. “It is a very wonderful experience,” he told Arab News.
When asked whether music can bring people from different countries and diverse cultures together, he said: “I think it can, because with music you do not need any language. It transcends languages. It can also unify people. 
“Hopefully I will come back to perform again here in Saudi Arabia,” he said.