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.


‘Crazy Rich Asians’ hoopla elicits mixed feelings in Asia

Updated 21 August 2018
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‘Crazy Rich Asians’ hoopla elicits mixed feelings in Asia

  • The Warner Bros. film has grossed more than $35 million since its August. 15 world debut in Los Angeles
  • The film has drawn criticism for its inaccurate portrayal of Singapore’s ethnic diversity, with some calling it a misrepresentation of the country’s minority race

SINGAPORE: The craze for “Crazy Rich Asians” is hitting Asia, with a premiere in Singapore followed by openings in several neighboring countries later this week.
Much of the movie was set in this wealthy city-state. The red carpet premiere Tuesday night for the over-the-top romantic comedy was expected to draw an enthusiastic crowd after its box-office bonanza in the US
Directed by John M. Chu, the film was adapted from Singaporean author Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel of the same name. It follows Chinese-American Rachel Chu as she travels with her boyfriend Nick Young to Singapore to meet his family and discovers they are ultra-wealthy.
The movie is drawing a mixed reaction. Admirers of the film say that as the first majority Asian-cast film in over two decades to be released by a major Hollywood studio it upends Hollywood’s usual stereotypes of Asian characters. Critics say it misses a chance to showcase the city’s ethnic diversity.
The $30 million Warner Bros. film has grossed more than $35 million since its Aug. 15 world debut in Los Angeles and came out tops with its release in US theaters over the weekend.
That surpassed expectations, said Fiona Xie, who plays the starlet Kitty Pong as one of 12 Singapore-based members of its cast. It’s “liberating to just be part of a powerful positive movement,” she told The Associated Press.
“As an Asian actor, I think it’s great, and a step in the right direction,” Nat Ho, who plays a small role in the film, told The AP.
The film has drawn criticism for its inaccurate portrayal of Singapore’s ethnic diversity, with some calling it a misrepresentation of the country’s minority races. Even though a majority of its residents are Chinese, a quarter of its population are Malay, Indian, or Eurasians, with many migrant workers from surrounding countries like Bangladesh or the Philippines.
“There’s this whole notion of the movie being a triumph for representation, which is very problematic. The only Indians and Malays you see are servants,” said Nicholas Yong, a Singaporean journalist and author who saw the movie before its Singapore premiere.
Even though its glamorous depiction of Singapore could give its tourism a boost, it was not entirely welcomed.
“To us, ‘Crazy Rich’ should not just be about the opulence and luxury showcased in the film, but Singapore’s actual richness in terms of our diversity,” said Singapore Tourism Board’s spokesperson Lynette Pang.
While the country has enjoyed economic progress, the wealth gap in the city is widening, and the super rich with their extravagant lifestyle are a tiny, privileged minority.
Writing in the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong, which has more than its share of tycoons and elite wealthy families, commentator Alex Lo said he enjoyed the film with “guilty pleasure.”
“But amusement aside, it strikes me the whole purpose of the film exercise is to glamorize and legitimize the super-rich in Asia, many of whom are ethnic Chinese in real life,” he said.
“Should we, as the audience and hoi polloi, be tantalized and awed by the display of mega wealth, which has been described, by most accounts, as accurate. Or should we rather be repelled?”