Due to its majestic buildings, Asmara, which is inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list, is known as an ‘‘exceptional example of early modernist urbanism”. Asmara is dotted with art deco villas that line its avenues and streets. Thousands of buildings were constructed during Italian colonialism.
Asmara was an ideal blank canvas on which Italian architects could practice and realize these modern ideals. From 1935 up to 1941, thousands of buildings were constructed in the city, most of which reflect various modernist styles and some of which represent inimitable architectural forms, such as petrol stations mimicking airplanes, commercial buildings designed as trains, cavernous cinemas with fine period plasterwork and Art Dem interiors, fine ultra-modern hotels and offices, and government buildings.
The rapid transformation of Asmara from a relatively minor town into one of Africa’s modern and sophisticated cities at that time overlapped with equally momentous events in the world of design and architecture, which involved the global proliferation of Modernism and its various forms, including Futurism, Rationalism, Novecento, and Art Deco. The spirit of this new age of travel and adventure was embodied in these new architectural forms. The Italians had a dream of making Asmara their small Rome. The Italian people are known for their hard work and creativity. But they also loved to be entertained. So it was necessary for them to build places to entertain themselves. Cinemas were one of the kinds that were used as entertaining places. But also they were using it as a means to spread their culture and ideologies. They built five cinema halls for Italians and one for the local population.
If you walk around the main streets of Asmara you become enchanted by the exciting good looks of the cinema halls. They are one of the main attractions for tourists and add color to the beauty of Asmara. The cinema halls in Asmara are used as landmarks in giving directions to people travelling in and around the city. They also serve as rendezvous for people who want to meet up in front of or inside them.
One of the cinema halls, Cinema Impero, was originally designed to be a colossal cinema complex with two galleries, a bowling alley, a bar and various other entertainment facilities. The building is a little more modest although it is still one of Asmara’s largest. It still houses a film theatre today, and it is considered by experts one of the world’s finest examples of Art Deco styles. It is located on the Harnet Avenue.
Cinema Impero is still structurally sound after so many decades, escaping damage during the several conflicts that have affected the Horn of Africa over the past century. The building’s structure has not been substantially altered since its construction, as designed by architect Mario Messina. It is most distinguished by its striking façade and the stucco plasterwork in the main hall. Forty-five round lights decorate the front with ‘Cinema Impero’ in illuminated letters, mounted vertically on the façade. Several pairs of doors lead into the cinema. Each door has an impressive large semi-circular handle forming a full circle with its partner when both are closed.
The cinema hall with the largest capacity in Asmara is Cinema Capitol, which can seat 1800 people. Its cavernous interior supports a retractable roof for ventilation and the opportunity to watch movies under the evening sky. Both the distinctive exterior and the interior fixtures and fittings are in much need of renovation.
The first major venue offering entertainment to the population of Asmara, though limited to the European population, was Asmara Theatre, constructed in 1920 and designed by Oduardo Cavagnari. The eclectic exterior encases an elaborate interior with three galleries and a fine painted ceiling. Like many of Asmara’s oldest and finest buildings the theatre is in urgent need of restoration. This cinema is still working as house of theatre and other cultural activities. One of the few claims to art deco styling in Asmara can be found in the bar of Cinema Odeon. It remains one of the few original interiors left in the city. The large form of Cinema Odeon is, by contrast, tucked away in a side street off Sematat Avenue. Like Cinema Impero, the original design of Odeon was larger than that which was eventually built.
Cinema Roma, on Sematat Avenue, is one of the few large buildings in Asmara to have undergone recent extensive renovation. At the café inside the cinema there is a huge projector which was used during the colonial time.
Cinema Hamassien, built in the north-eastern most corner of the city in 1936, was designed for the Eritrean population in Asmara. Other cinemas planned for the local population were never built. The building now houses a printing press and is in need of restoration.
Cinema Dante is Asmara’s oldest cinema and has recently been renovated. It stands as testament to the size and scale of the cinemas in Asmara before the boom in the late 1930s, when the larger cinemas were constructed.
Today, most of the cinema halls screen films and some of them screen football games such as the Premier League, the Champions League and the World Cup.
The urban design within the Historic Perimeter of Asmara has remained untouched since its original implementation and subsequent evolution throughout the 1930s, and the architectural elements exemplify a superlative example of Modernist architecture in a complete urban setting. These exceptional tangible components have nurtured a unique and distinct intangible social environment founded on Western Modernist design ideals realized in a highland African setting and have become the essence of beauty for Asmara.