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Asmara – A Modernist City of Africa

The beautiful city of Asmara is known for its rich tangible cultural heritage that enabled it to win the 2016 Royal Institution British Award “RIBA President’s Medal for Research”. Asmara’s urban character and strong urban form exhibit a human scale in the relationship between buildings, streets, open spaces, and related activities adapted to the local conditions. It embodies both colonial and post-colonial African life style, with its public spaces, mixed-use fabric and place-based material culture. These spaces and use patterns also bear witness to interchange and cultural assimilation of successive encounters with different cultures as well as to the role played by Asmara in building a collective identity that was later instrumental in motivating early efforts for its preservation.

A collaboration work between Dr. Edward Denison from Bartlett School of Architecture Eng. Medhanie Teklemariam and Eng. Dawit Abraha from Asmara Heritage Project made Asmara UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. Dr. Edward Denison is a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture and an independent architectural, urban and cultural specialist. He is Director of the MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments, Co-coordinator of Year five Thesis, Module Coordinator of Multiple Modernity’s Architecture on the MA Architectural History, and a PhD Supervisor. He contributed greatly to the Asmara inscription campaign that has now reached its successful conclusion. The scope of research necessary to compile the 1,300-page nomination dossier for an entire capital city was recognized by the RIBA in 2016 when it awarded Dr. Denison the President’s Medal for Research. 2018, Dr. Edward came to Asmara with 12 students from UCL university of Britain as a coordinator of their year five thesis that focuses a Asmara as a modernist architectural site.

Asmara’s urban layout, with its different patterns associated to the planning phases, illustrates the adaptation of the modern urban planning and architectural models to local cultural and geographical conditions. The ensembles attesting to the colonial power and to the presence of a strong and religiously diverse local civic society, with its institutional and religious places, the elements of the urban architecture (Harnet and Sematat avenues; Mai Jah Jah park; the walking paths; the old plaques with traces of the street names), the buildings, complexes and facilities resulting from the 1930s programmes (the post office building at Segeneyti Street), the cinemas (Impero, Roma, Odeon, Capitol, Hamasien), the schools, the sport facilities, the garages, the residential complexes and buildings, the villas, the commercial buildings, the factories; the cores of the community quarters (e.g. the Italian quarter and market square and mosque square); the major religious buildings, marking the landscape with bell-towers, spires, and minarets, and the civil and military cemeteries illustrate the diversity of the populations and of their rituals.

Asmara, a Modernist City of Africa, represents an outstanding example of the transposition and materialization of ideas about planning in an African context that were used for functional and segregation purposes. The adaptation to the local context is reflected in the urban layout and functional zoning, in the architectural forms, which, although expressing a modernist and rationalist idiom, and exploiting modern materials and techniques, also relied on and heavily borrowed from local morphologies, construction methods, materials, skills and labor. Asmara’s creation and development contributed significantly to Eritrea’s particular response to the tangible legacies of its colonial past. Despite the evidence of its colonial imprint, Asmara has been incorporated into the Eritrean identity, acquiring important meaning during the struggle for self-determination that motivated early efforts for its protection.

Asmara’s urban layout and character, in combining the orthogonal grid with radial street patterns. and picturesque elements integrating topographical features, taking into account local cultural conditions created by different ethnic and religious groups, and using the principle of zoning for achieving racial segregation and functional organization, bears exceptional witness to the development of the new discipline of urban planning at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context to serve the Italian colonial agenda. This hybrid plan that combined the functional approach of the grid with the picturesque and the creation of scenic spaces, vistas, civic plaza and monumental places, served the functional, civic and symbolic requirements for a colonial capital. The architecture of Asmara complements the plan and forms a coherent whole although reflecting eclecticism and Rationalist idioms, and is one of the most complete and intact collections of modernist/ rationalist architectures in the world.

All the significant architectural structures and the original urban layout, including most of the characteristic features and public spaces, have been retained in their entirety. The site has also preserved its historical, cultural, functional and architectural integrity with its elements largely intact and generally in relatively acceptable condition, although a number of buildings suffer from lack of maintenance. Limited negative impacts have been the occasional inappropriate restoration of older structures and the construction of some buildings in the late 20th century that are inappropriate in size, scale or character. Despite continuing developmental pressures, the establishment of the ‘Historic Perimeter’ around the centre of the city in 2001 and a moratorium on new construction within this perimeter by the municipal authorities since then have safeguarded the site’s integrity.

The integrity of the intangible attributes associated with the local community that has inhabited parts of the site for centuries has been maintained through a process of cultural continuity that, despite successive waves of foreign influence, has been successfully assimilated into a modern national consciousness and a national capital.

Asmara’s combination of innovative town planning and modernist architecture in an African context represents important and early developmental phases of town planning and architectural modernism that are still fully reflected in its layout, urban character and architecture.

Climatic, cultural, economic and political conditions over subsequent decades have favored the preservation of the artistic, material and functional attributes of the city’s architectural elements to an almost unique degree of intactness, which allows for future research on the history of construction of its buildings.

The authenticity of local intangible attributes manifested in language, cultural practices, identity, and sense of place have been retained through Asmara’s evolution from an indigenous centre of economy and administration, through a colonial capital, to a modern African capital.

The protection of Asmara has been granted by the Regolamento Edilizio 1938, issued at the time of Cafiero’s plan, and by the moratorium on new construction issued in 2001. The Cultural and Natural Heritage Proclamation 2015 provides conditions for the legal protection of the property through ad-hoc designations.

All in all, the Asmara Heritage Project and the Department of Public Works Development hold responsibilities for issuing building permits and granting permission for maintenance works in compliance with existing regulations. Planning instruments at different scales are crucial in complementing the legal protection of Asmara and its setting and in guaranteeing its effective management: the Urban Conservation Master Plan and the related Asmara Planning Norms and Technical Regulations under development are key tools in this regard. Both need to ensure that the intactness of Asmara’s urban and built fabric, its human scale and specific modernist yet African character, are preserved, though favoring proactive maintenance, conservation and rehabilitation of its urban fabric and spaces. Given the several administrative/technical structures and instruments already in place, the envisaged management framework needs to build on existing experiences and structures and ensure coordination and clear mandates which avoid duplication.

Overall, with the working assumption of Asmara being on the World Heritage List, a buffer zone is also put in place to protect the Asmara city center so that development doesn’t affect it as that could lead to the stripping off from the World Heritage List.

Reference: Dr. Edward Denison’s research papers.

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