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.


Natalie Portman backs out of Jewish prize over ‘recent events’ in Israel

Updated 20 April 2018
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Natalie Portman backs out of Jewish prize over ‘recent events’ in Israel

  • The Genesis prize, launched in 2013, is awarded to “extraordinary individuals who serve as an inspiration to the next generation of Jews.”
  • Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev accused Portman of subscribing to the ideology of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that promotes sanctions on the Jewish state.

Jerusalem: Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman has canceled her participation in a Jerusalem ceremony where she was to receive a $2 million (1.6 million euro) prize, saying she was troubled by “recent events” in Israel, organizers said.
The Genesis prize, launched in 2013, is awarded to “extraordinary individuals who serve as an inspiration to the next generation of Jews,” according to their website.
Recipients contribute their winnings to causes of their choice.
The prize foundation was informed by one of Portman’s representatives that “recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel,” it said in a statement late Thursday.
The US-Israeli actress, an Academy award winner, “cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony,” Genesis was informed, forcing them to cancel the ceremony set for the end of June.
The foundation did not say which events distressed Portman, but Israel has come under scrutiny over its use of live fire over the past three weeks during protests and clashes on the Gaza border.
Thirty-five Palestinians have been killed and hundreds wounded by Israeli forces since the protests began on March 30, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
Israel says its open-fire rules are necessary to defend the border, but the European Union and UN chief Antonio Guterres have called for an independent investigation into the deaths.
Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev accused Portman of subscribing to the ideology of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that promotes sanctions on the Jewish state.
“I was sorry to hear that Natalie Portman has fallen like ripe fruit to the hands of BDS supporters,” Regev said in a statement given to Israeli journalists.
Portman was effectively joining the ranks of those “relating to the tale of Israel’s success and wonder of rebirth as one of darkness and darkness,” Regev said, a reference to “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” the book by Israeli writer Amos Oz that Portman made into a film in 2015.
But Rachel Azaria, a member of the centrist Kulanu party, which is part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, said Portman’s cancelation should constitute a “warning light” to Israel.
“She’s speaking for many in US Jewry, especially the young generation,” Azaria wrote on Twitter. “Losing them might be too high a price.”
Born in Jerusalem to a doctor father and an artist mother, 36-year-old Portman proudly brandishes her Israeli background.
She won a best actress Oscar for 2010’s psychological ballet thriller “Black Swan.”
The million-dollar Genesis prize money had been doubled by an additional contribution in December, and Portman had announced her intention to dedicate the money to programs advancing women’s equality.