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.


No hard feelings: Paris fashion star Abloh reaches out to Kanye West

The relationship between West and Abloh has been tested after the later was named head of menswear at Louis Vuitton in March. (AFP)
Updated 19 June 2018
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No hard feelings: Paris fashion star Abloh reaches out to Kanye West

  • Abloh will show his own Off-White label in Paris Wednesday before making his debut bow with the world’s biggest luxury brand on Thursday
  • Abloh grew up in Illinois where his seamstress mother taught him her trade as he studied engineering and later architecture. He has made it clear his clothes will be much more street

PARIS: Virgil Abloh paid tribute to his friend and longtime collaborator Kanye West as the US designer took star billing as Paris men’s fashion week began Tuesday.
Relations between the pair have been tested since Abloh was named head of menswear at Louis Vuitton in March, with the rapper saying it was “hurtful” to lose his muse and erstwhile artistic director.
West has made no secret of his own ambitions to lead a major luxury brand as a designer, and revealed last month that he had also once been in talks with Louis Vuitton’s owner, French fashion magnate Bernard Arnault.
Abloh — the son of Ghanaian immigrants — will show his own Off-White label in Paris Wednesday before making his debut bow with the world’s biggest luxury brand on Thursday.
As he put the finishing touches to his collections he posted a photo of Kanye West to his 2.3 million Instagram followers with legend, “The architect of it all.”
West’s wife Kim Kardashian responded with emojis of a heart and two fires to signal her approval. The rapper — who has his own Yeezy line for Adidas — remained silent.
But he told US radio star Charlamagne tha God in a wide-ranging interview last month that there were no hard feelings.
“These things are hurtful when you are working with a talent like... Virgil and somebody comes through and says ‘Bam! I am going to take Virgil.’
“There is some validation in that someone that I came up with is now the head (of menswear) of Louis Vuitton,” West added.
Abloh, 38, is only the second black man to rise to the top of a big Paris fashion house, with French designer Olivier Rousteing responsible for both Balmain’s men and women’s lines.
As well as his nod to his former employer, Abloh dropped hints on social media that he was about to give the aristocratic Vuitton label a strong dose of black empowerment and streetwear style.
Vuitton’s previous designer, Briton Kim Jones — who makes his own debut for Dior Homme on Saturday — often referenced British colonial and safari chic in his clothes.
Abloh grew up in Illinois where his seamstress mother taught him her trade as he studied engineering and later architecture. He has made it clear his clothes will be much more street.
He posted films on Instagram of cotton plants and ceramic neck chains, in what could be seen as references to slavery, as well as a Louis Vuitton record box inspired by hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash, “where you can put your coat in while DJing, shielding it from smoky clubs and spilled drinks.”
Abloh had worked hand in glove with West for more than 15 years. They designed clothes together on Photoshop and were $500-a-month interns under Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi in Rome in 2009 even though the rapper already had a string of Grammy awards under his belt.
West said that he only found out about Abloh taking over at Vuitton as the appointment was announced in March. “He (Abloh) made the call two minutes before it hit the Internet... He had told me he was looking at Versace too... but he knew he was going to Louis Vuitton,” he added.
West admitted days later in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter that the news had weighed on him. “It’s not bad or good,” he said.
Abloh has built up a celebrity following at Off-White with high-profile collaborations with Nike, Jimmy Choo and Moncler. Such has been the buzz that fashionistas jostled each other to get into his show in Paris last March.
Not everyone, however, is sold on streetwear’s inexorable rise. New York Times critic Guy Trebay said a “lot of what turns up on the runways lately looks less designed than crowdsourced.”
The young German and Swedish brands CMMN SWDN and Gmbh kicked fashion week off on Tuesday evening after a dance show by choreographer Mathilde Monnier inspired by shoemaker J.M. Weston.
French label Pigalle also tried to rethink the catwalk by presenting its new collection during an hour-long music and dance show at one of the French capital’s most prestigious concert halls.