Africa's "Miami" boasts Art Deco trove

Africa’s “Miami” boasts Art Deco trove

Mon May 19, 2008 3:24am BST
 
By Andrew Cawthorne
 
ASMARA (Reuters) – When Italian architect Giuseppe Pettazzi inaugurated
Eritrea’s plane-shaped “Fiat Tagliero” service station in 1938, he
stunned onlookers by pulling out a gun.
 
There, the story behind Africa’s finest piece of Futurist architecture
goes hazy.
 
In one version, Pettazzi stood defiantly on one of his 18-metre (59 ft)
concrete “wings” — used as decorative shades for cars entering the
garage — and threatened to kill himself should the structure collapse
as wooden supports were pulled away.
 
In another, the excitable architect held the gun to the head of a
disbelieving builder, who had hesitated to pull away the struts for fear
the long slabs would tumble down.
 
Either way, the wings stayed up, nobody was shot, and Pettazzi’s design
skills were vindicated.
 
Seven decades on, this extraordinary piece of Italian Art Deco, which
resembles a plane at takeoff, is still standing in Asmara, the central
capital of this former Italian colony.
 
The “Fiat Tagliero”, named for the car firm and the old gas station’s
owner, is one of 400 buildings that make the remote Eritrean capital one
of the world’s most fascinating centres for Art Deco and other
architectural styles.
 
One of a tiny number of books on the subject — “Africa’s Secret
Modernist City” by three Asmara-based writers — calls Asmara “the Miami
of Africa” in reference to the U.S. city’s fame for Art Deco, a design
in the Modernism trend known for stylish geometric shapes, bold curves
and soft colours.
 
“The Italians felt they would be here for hundreds of years, so they
built and built, and left us this remarkable legacy,” said Samson Haile
Theophilos, who has written about Eritrean architecture, as he purred
lovingly over the Fiat building.
 
“But I want to stress the workers, skilled and unskilled, were all
Eritrean, so we consider this architecture ours.”
 
Asmara’s Art Deco boom came during 1935-41, the last six years of
Italian colonial rule of the vast Horn of Africa region then known as
Abyssinia.
 
ITALY’S “URBAN UTOPIA”
 
Unrestrained by European norms, and confident they were laying
foundations for the continued expansion of their African colony, Italian
architects turned Asmara into an experiment.
 
A 1937 garage looks like the bottom of a ship with porthole windows. The
distinctive “Bar Zilli” imitates a 1930s radio set with windows like
tuning knobs. Office blocks are modelled on space rockets.
 
“Desperate to build quickly, the colonial government of the time allowed
radical architectural experimentation that would not have found favour
in the more conservative European environment,” says “Africa’s Secret
Modernist City”.
 
“Asmara therefore became the world’s prime building ground for
architectural innovation during the Modern Movement … a blank canvas
on which its Italian colonizers were able to design and build their own
urban utopia in east Africa,” adds the 2003 publication.
 
But Fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s grand plans for an African empire
with Asmara as capital crumbled with World War Two.
 
British forces overran the Italians, who were allied with Germany’s
Adolf Hitler at the time, in Eritrea. Asmara’s architectural experiment
came to an end.
 
Remarkably, in the intervening decades of near-constant turbulence for
Eritrea, the buildings have remained untouched.
 
Neither the 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia nor a devastating
1998-2000 border war between the neighbours, brought major fighting to
Asmara, a city of some 500,000 on a high plateau.
 
Compared to Miami by some, Asmara could also be likened to another city
whose architectural style has stood relatively still since a seminal
moment in its history: Havana after the 1959 Cuban revolution.
 
Like Havana, a few high-rise structures built after independence have
tarnished Asmara’s Art Deco aesthetic. The government has said it would
like Asmara to be declared a world heritage site.
 
“F” FOR FASCIST
 
While Art Deco is perhaps the most eye-catching, two other “made in
Italy” styles make Asmara a true architectural treasure trove:
Neo-Classical designs brought by Rome-inspired architects from the
1890s, and the Monumental style that dovetailed with fascist ideas.
 
“Monumental buildings were meant to dwarf you when you go in and
emphasize the power of the occupant,” said Samson. “You could almost
imagine ‘Il Duce’ (Mussolini) striding out.”
 
Lying on the main Harnet (Liberation) Avenue, the former Fascist Party
headquarters — now Eritrea’s education ministry – has a soaring main
tower, jagged roofline and imposing entrance.
 
If an onlooker was in any doubt about the structure’s purpose, a twist
of the head to the left would reveal that this Monumental building was
shaped – on its side – as the letter F.
 
Not surprisingly, Asmara residents are ambivalent towards their
architectural heritage.
 
On the one hand, they are proud of their forefathers’ workmanship, enjoy
strolling around a city considered by many the most beautiful in Africa,
and know the architecture could be a major tourist draw in the future.
 
But the buildings also remind the residents of Africa’s youngest nation
of their colonial subjugation.
 
“I remember well all this building around 1935 when so many Italians
were coming and they were preparing to invade Ethiopia,” said
101-year-old Eritrean Zeray Kidanemariam, who said he worked as a porter
for Italians for decades.
 
“But they did it for themselves. We were forced to live in poor areas.
To them we were just niggers, nobodies.”
 
(Editing by Jack Kimball and Clar Ni Chonghaile)
 
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top
issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/ ) 
 

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