Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, has a ton of modernist surprises in store for architecture and design fans. Everything is sugar-coated with plenty of 1940s Italia flair You actually keep your eyes open in the cinema. Unless you’re the goosebump type and shivering in scary spots. The man in the front row already looks sensitive. Narrow and long, as befits the people of Asmara, in the highlands of Abessinia.
Italy? Africa? The main street of Asmara, Liberation Avenue
Signore Yussef is also slightly melancholic. That he dreams without feet in the front row cinema chair and drops his eyelids like theater curtains has to do with other things. “I was just the little boy from Asmara who was allowed to go to the cinema for the first time 60 years ago,” he says. “It was a few months before Ethiopia occupied us, the Italians were long gone. It was ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ with Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole. “A few years later, Yussef himself stood in the small technical room as the master of the black monster that can now be admired in the foyer of the Cinema Impero. When the next generation later took on the job as a projectionist, Mr. Yussef switched on the lights on his own behalf.
Signore Yussuf, former projectionist in the Cinema Impero
The man with the soft jacket and chic scarf is waiting for visitors from abroad who are gradually becoming more frequent. He shows them the box seats on the upper floor and the stucco antelopes on the walls of the elegant cinema, which the Italian architect Mario Messina had actually thought of much more violently: for 1,800 people and with three floors. But the Cinema Impero also makes an impression.
Typical of the capital of Eritrea: the modernist Cinema Impero
Architectural icon: Cinema Impero
I hear pigeons cooing in the upper tiers of the dim cinema and rub my eyes a little later when I step outside again. This has to do with Eritrea’s glaring light and the bright blue sky, at an altitude of 2,325 meters, but above all with the capital Asmara itself. Rusty shop signs in ornate italics point to the nearest latteria and a neon tube sticker promotes a gelateria. A brick-red campanile looms behind it. Under modernist facades from the Italian Futurismo era, East Africans order macchiato and scan the showcases with pasticcerie.
Movie memories at the box office of the Cinema Impero
The Cinema Impero is just one of several architectural icons of this special city. The modernist building is very typical of Eritrea’s capital – which has long become an open-air museum for architecture fans. Only a few places worldwide can boast a similarly closed ensemble of futuristic buildings; within a few years they were stamped out of the highlands in the 1930s. The radical vision of fascist urban planning was primarily linked to calculus. The construction of cinemas played a special role. In sync with Hollywood, the medium of film was the propaganda tool par excellence before World War II.
Could also be in Italy: the cathedral
Asmara as Mussolini’s showcase
Asmara did not become a real city until 1889, when the Italian colonialists established a military base there and made Asmara the capital of Eritrea in 1900. Then Mussolini came. His plan for Asmara was: Africa showcase in colonial competition. Neither the British, nor the French, nor the Ottomans should be able to keep up with Asmara in terms of architecture, the later launch pad for the infamous Abyssinian campaign. This was ensured by a myriad of Italian architetti and engineers who brought futuristic factory buildings, sophisticated cinemas and bars to the military post from 1935 to 1941, rationalist villas, boulevards, petrol stations and monumental administration buildings that brought architecture fans to their knees.
Relaxed bar atmosphere in the “Bar Zilli”
Asmara is home to one of the largest preserved ensembles of modern European architecture, comparable to the art deco pearl Miami South Beach, the Bauhaus beauty Tel Aviv, Tangier, Le Havre or Napier in New Zealand. In 2017, the entire inner city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Like an ocean liner with portholes: the building that houses the “Bar Zilli”
Famous: petrol station Fiat Tagliero
Semicircular stems are typical of modernist Asmara, they are reminiscent of ship’s sterns. Jagged canopies exude dynamism, even if bird nests have long been attached to them. Sometimes ceramic collages on facades create a cracked crackle look and special building proportions for hidden messages. If you take a closer look at the Ministry of Education, once the headquarters of the Fascist Party, you will discover a large lying “Fachisten-F”. Asmara’s most famous landmark is a gas station. Abandoned for decades, cordoned off by an ugly construction fence, overgrown with weeds, and moreover located outside the small city center – the “Fiat Tagliero” from 1938. It spectacularly spreads the long and narrow concrete wings with a span of 30 meters on both sides. Her message was: Now cars are filling up here. But the future belonged to aviation.
Architectural icon: the famous “winged” petrol station Fiat Tagliero
Italy in the bars and cafes of Asmara
A block away is an ocean liner with portholes directly on the asphalt, the rear of which houses a famous bar: the “Zilli Bar”. If you push yourself through their revolving door, you catapult yourself back almost a century. Waitresses in old-fashioned costumes are used here. The selection on the drinks menu is as uncomplicated as you can expect from the bar range of the pre-consumerist era.
A guest in the “American Bar”, located on the main street of Asmara
The “Zilli” makes you want more bar oases. Spherical sugar bowls and cylindrical ice cream cone containers shine in the grand “Bistro Alba” on Asmara Street. It is located right next to the “Bar Posta” with the heart-spades-spades-carving on the counter and not too far from the “American Bar”. Here we have already landed on Asmara’s main street, Harnet Avenue, which was once called Viale Mussolini and is actually just a village street blown up into a boulevard.
The most beautiful post office building in Africa
What you also discover: that the Italians brought much more into the country in the few decades of their rule than a modernism marathon and wonderful patisserie recipes. Beyond the colonial Miseria, they also brought an Italian attitude to life. Dolce far niente was also well received in the highlands of Abyssinia, giving Asmara the refined way of life of elegant strolling and looking, even producing the archetype of the Italian dude.
Spherical sugar bowls and cylindrical ice cream cones in the “Bistro Alba”
In addition to the Medebar flea market, the prominent Al Kulafah Al Rashidin mosque and increased levels of full veiling reveal that around half of the residents are Sunni Muslims and chaos destinations such as Somalia are not particularly far away. After all, I discover a clean flagship store for “Eritrea Honey”. And also Mr. Kidane, who is 68 years old and has spent his whole life behind the Genoese vegetable scales in his grocery store.
Simple, simple, nostalgic – interior in the “Bistro Alba”
He would like to know whether I was in the market town of Keren. Or at least in Massawa, the Ottoman pearl on the Red Sea? No? A shame. The heart of As Asmara sticks for the rest of the day: The Post, discovered by chance, turns out to be the most beautiful east of the Rift Valley, complete with shiny lockers and a central writing desk for which the Italian architects came up with ring-shaped supports. Pink marble adorns the walls. The entrance is flanked by stained-glass windows that atomize the highland light into soft circles of different colors.