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Sightseeing in Asmara

The building that set my thoughts in motion is off Asmara’s main streets.

A block made of two thick L shaped parts (resting on their sides, as if reclining) put together foot to foot, which form the building that rises to three stories. Standing opposite the building, you have the impression that the contractors pushed a huge quadrant of a slab into place as they formed the roof of the ground floor. One also cannot escape the thought of a stationary lift, waiting for passengers at the ground floor, tucked between the two points of the L-shaped wing, with the quadrant forming the floor of the elevator. Above the lift is nothing but an unused space, which serves as a balcony for the people in the third-floor.

The lift is not high enough and doesn’t reach the third floor but occupies the first and the second floors. A flight of steps (that lead to the doors of the lift) complete the picture. Another lift, its twin, a replica, is tucked between the two points of another L-shaped structure, the second half of the building. A second set flight of steps provides another entry point into the building, from the second wing. As you stand appreciating its beauty, you cannot fail to think of the architect as a professional playing with lines, shapes, and figures, which he magically translated into a wonder.

A building just a few metres away from Khulafa al Rashdeen Mosque is as impressive, if not more impressive, as this. It is a G+3 building, with that magically beautiful curved part bridging its right wing to its left. The middle part gives the building a beauty it could not have achieved with its absence. Its right flank has three tall, brick-made towers that rise from the first floor on to the second. Open balconies, with doors that lead to them, occupy the space between the towers. To cap the building with beauty, the third floor sits like a crown on the head of the building. As you stand appreciating the building, you have the impression that you are looking at a picture book of buildings, and you cannot turn to the next page for the sheer mesmerizing beauty of the building in the page.

A number of people have written about buildings in Asmara, especially about buildings built by the Italians. By citing such buildings as Cinema Roma, Cinema Odeon, Fiat Tagliero and Cinema Impero, they have implied that the buildings to see are congregated on the Harnet- Semaetat Avenues in Asmara’s streets. They imply that other parts of Asmara lack such impressive buildings. Moreover, by dwelling on the background and the inspiration, they forget to stress the fact that lay-people can derive tremendous enjoyment just by observing Asmara’s buildings, without the assistance of such background information.

Walking through the streets of Asmara, enjoying its beauty, you are struck by the large number of beautiful buildings in the city. You are also struck by the fact that you can get as much pleasure by observing a city’s built environment as by listening to music, or reading literature, or watching works of art. You come to the realization that by observing a country’s buildings, you develop the habit of going into the mind of the people who conceived and built them. You cannot fail to picture the people engrossed in their work, like a child wild with joy, enjoying his game. It is impossible not to reach the conclusion that they tried one idea after another until they were satisfied, gratifying their curiosity, and meeting standards of beauty and perfection they set for themselves. One also feels that the spirit of experimentation, innovation, and creativity compelled them to try different things. In addition, it is inescapable to come to the conclusion that they brought joy to their work, for it is impossible for people (who do not love their work) to produce such beauty.

Buildings in Asmara can be classified into two categories based on the intentions of the people that conceived them. One group of buildings serve only functional purposes (built with little or no consideration for art or beauty in the mind of their architects). The Bahti Meskerem Square, (formerly Abyot Adebabai, Amharic for Revolution Square), is a big stadium like structure in the eastern part of the city built in the 1980s. Used for huge public meetings, with its huge canopy-like structure, under which Ethiopian Government officials and functionaries sat during the gatherings, it has open spaces with concrete seats for the general public (on both sides of the canopy), which they occupied during the long hours of such meetings. Nothing graces the Bahti Meskerem Square and has nothing that attracts people’s sense of beauty. The same is true with the Vegetable and Grain Markets near Meda Eritrea (Eritrea Square). Buildings with no walls, but roofs supported by concrete pillars, these places, as the names suggest, serve as market places. As such, they are serving their functions but you see no art or beauty in them. (By contrast, another market, just a few meters to the north of these two places, with its numerous arched entrances is beautiful.) These kinds of buildings lack details and variety that engage an observer’s sense of beauty. Every part of the buildings looks exactly the same. One building looks like a carbon copy of the one next to it. The impression they exude is one of drabness and unattractiveness.

The second category of buildings, like the building in the first category, are built to serve some functional purposes. But, they do not stop at that for their architects have other purposes in mind for them. Through their creations, the architects try to communicate their understanding of beauty, by manipulating lines, shapes, and figures which they create out of concrete, brick, and other natural and manmade objects. One of the things that amazes an observer of these buildings is that such people can create beauty just using these everyday objects, arranging them in patterns pleasing to the eye. They make you think not only in terms of their primary functions but also as beautiful edifices. Many people in Asmara (momentarily) forget that the Catholic Cathedral is a church, a place of worship, and not a beautiful clock tower. I have stopped thinking of the Kitkat block as a place full of electronics, shoe and electric shops and boutiques since I discovered the fact that it looks like a speeding train. For me, it has become a speeding locomotive, with the windows (in the western part of the block) on the top floor, forming the driver’s seat.

In other words, as objects of attention (to the observant) such structures dim the fact that they were built for other purposes.

As you wander through the streets of Asmara, you are compelled by the beauty you encounter at every corner of the city. At every corner, one comes face to face with such wonders, which invite you to stop and watch with open heart. As you leave that spot, you have already decided to look for other such buildings, which are many. You are made to stop and soak in the wonder an architect has achieved through his creativity. You are made aware of the hard work they put in to create the beauty they visualized in their mind, and how successful they have become. In other words, you do not just enjoy the beauty they created but also evaluate the success of their work.


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