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.”

Eritrea, battered by three decades of conflict with Ethiopia and a subsequent, bloody, 1998-2000 border war, had a gross national income per capita of just $220 a year in 2005, according to World Bank figures.

With many pressing development needs in the largely rural country, preserving the capital’s colonial architecture understandably ranks low as a priority to many.

Eritrea last year spent $400,000 for the renovation of Asmara’s historical buildings, according to state media, which stressed the need for “keeping intact” existing styles.

However, the fiercely self-reliant Eritrean government recently declined an extension to a $5 million renovation project by the World Bank — a decision Mr. Palumbo calls “sad.”

“The historic center of Asmara is still at risk,” he says. “New developments may encroach and eventually destroy this unique setting.”

The Eritrean capital figured into the dream of Italy’s World War II fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, to create an African capital for a second Roman Empire. Colonial settlers even dubbed elegant Asmara “Piccola Roma,” or “Little Rome.”

Its sometimes eccentric structures are a legacy of that period when Asmara had a graceful but racially segregated city center with wide palm-lined boulevards, flower-covered villas and stylish cinemas.

“There was this major freedom to experiment,” says Mr. Gebremedhin, co-author of “Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City.”

“Although their instructions were to create a sort of architecture that [would] convey the will of fascism, far from Rome, these … young Italian architects let their imagination soar.”

The experts believe Asmara’s architecture could be tapped as a potentially lucrative tourist draw.

“It can be a magnet for attracting tourists; it could be a major place where tourists can come,” Mr. Gebremedhin adds.

For the moment, however, Asmara is a difficult destination to market.

Eritrea’s tense border stalemate with its neighbor Ethiopia, stringent travel restrictions and repeated accusations by human rights organizations — including religious persecution and the arrest of critics — mean that only about 4,000 Western tourists visited last year.

Eritreans, however, are hopeful for the future.

Asmara’s residents are enormously proud of the city they fought so long to liberate, and residents say they will fight equally hard to protect its character if threatened by modern development.

“There is no other city like this in the world,” says an elderly former fighter, drinking cappuccino in a shady street cafe opposite the imposing Ministry of Education, once Fascist Party headquarters.

“It is no colonial city now. We fought for our independence, so it is Eritrea’s, and so we must take care of it.”

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