- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2007

ASMARA, Eritrea — With soaring 60-foot-long concrete wings that mimic the shape of an airplane, the Fiat Tagliero garage, built in 1938 in the Eritrean capital, is one of the most unusual gas stations in the world.

Architectural critics hail the filling station as one of the most remarkable surviving examples of the futurist style.

In Asmara, however, it is only one of many extraordinary structures.

Frustrated avant-garde architects from architecturally conservative early-20th-century Europe used Asmara to experiment with radical new designs.

They left a legacy valued by Eritreans and experts worldwide but lesser known outside this little-visited country, whose image is overshadowed by its 30-year struggle for liberation from arch foe Ethiopia.

“Visually, time seems to stand still here,” says photographer Stefan Boness, whose book “Asmara, the Frozen City,” captures many of the city’s architectural gems.

“When I show images of Asmara to designers and architects, they get very excited at what they see.”

As for quality, “The architectural heritage of Asmara would deserve World Heritage status,” says Gaetano Palumbo, a director at the World Monuments Fund, an international body that protects endangered works of historical architecture.

Architect and writer Naigzy Gebremedhin says “most people in the West … think there couldn’t possibly be something like this in Africa.”

“There’s this mental image that in Africa you might find wildlife, you might find some other things, but modernist architecture which survived, no. But … this is beginning to break down.

“Asmara is no longer a secret,” Mr. Gebremedhin says.

First settled more than 1,000 years ago, Asmara was developed by Italian colonizers in a massive construction boom in the 1930s.

Many buildings have designs that have “survived many decades virtually untouched,” Mr. Palumbo adds.

Original features can be found on almost every street of this mountain city of 450,000 inhabitants, which remains steeped in its Italian legacy although Eritrea was administered by the British as a U.N. trust territory after World War II and became federated with Ethiopia in 1952. It became a capital when Eritrea acquired its independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

“Without care, much that is important could be lost,” Mr. Boness warns. “While some buildings have been renovated, others need attention.”

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