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From Book Shelves: Reading about Modern Architectures in Eritrea

For the author of this book, Sean Anderson, modern architecture is a means and the representation of a society, and, us we can comprehend from the contents of the book, this in turn tends to dissolve the boundaries between the exterior and interior relationship of the city—Asmara.

Asmara–one of the most renowned African City for embracing the finest architectural legacies of modernity–is still a living international museum. Emboldened by the modern architecture that sprouted between the two World Wars, visiting the city is the most eloquent witness to the political implications of modernity as it represents a society that actually invented and engendered the historical form of Fascism.
Here in this book, Anderson affirms his attraction to Asmara, among other former Italian colonies, is that it is planned and built without having any other foundations of experiences from other pre-existing city. Thus, to reconcile his professional stance that elaborates only “modernity is read as a function of the colonial and colonialism as a framework of the modern”… and the languages of colonialism and modernism can each be read as embodying the characteristic of the other,” the author chose visiting Asmara unflinchingly (Introduction, p. 7).

Therefore, for Asmara is embellished with various buildings that clearly postulate the strengths and weaknesses of modern architectures of 1920s, Anderson committedly wrote about architectural buildings of the City, and emanated from this, the author has clearly dedicated three quarters of the book to Asmara.

Including to other papers which were published earlier, he let readers to debate with the contents which unfolds Asmara’s buildings architectural aesthetics. Divided into four chapters, the book wave supporting illustrations and their respective annotations, and, as they are prepared in good manner, they can be read independently and are helpful.
And, following to the true autonomous second text which is formed by the notes that give detailed information, additional considerations, eloquent explanations and conceptual refinements, the first chapter of this book is dedicated to interpreting the colonial footprint in Eritrea, looking at the relation between the colonial self and the landscape, not only in terms of new infrastructure but also by a sequence of narratives: travel notes, diaries and memoirs. This chapter, as well as the fourth one, decisively contributes to the originality of the book.

As the second chapter deals with the foundation and development of Asmara city, embracing to me, delves to the contents of the book enthusiastically. But here, Anderson avoids publishing any maps or schematic drawings and refers to specific locations with text. And in this way, Anderson seems to be engaged in presenting Asmara as a conceptual place rather than as a complex urban artifact, thus maintaining the reader’s imagination in a floating intellectual space where the concatenation of concepts is more important than that of places.

The third chapter is dedicated to the colonial interior, which in Anderson’s vision is much more complex than a simple domestic space. And in fact, this is maybe the chapter in which a reader acquainted with Eritrea and Italian modernity meets the greatest difficulties.
After having an acquaintance with Asmara/Eritrea in the aforementioned chapter, the next one is, undoubtedly, enriched with extraordinary documentary and conceptual interests of Asmara as epicenter of the academic and professional narration. Thus, it deals with the description of the frequent illusory colonial exhibitions, lavish and counterfeit – yet always eloquent – set up in the Italian cities before World War II.

Emboldened by the legacies of Asmara, the book is a strong work defined by immense documentation and an implicit passion for the subject. In general, the literature about Eritrean cities and architecture takes into consideration the changes that happened from the colonial time to the present as facts, and the physical development of the urban settlements as mere design events and problems.

Therefore, this book stands out among other books and issues about Eritrea for its conceptual power and philosophical interpretation of the field of modernity and colonialism. Almost at each page, the book engages the reader in a vigorous, silent debate with the author. Note, however, that certain English translations of the Italian quotations need further justification with appropriate evidence.

Overall, the book is recommended for reviving and deepening the personal research of any enquiring scholar interested in the meaning and difficulties  of modernity and especially of modernity and colonialism, with reference to Eritrea and its untapped treasures. That is what judiciously inspired the writer to share this book which is published by Ashgate in 2015 with readers.

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