Ask anyone in Asmara what their favourite building is and the answer is always the same: ‘the Fiat’. It’s difficult to disagree. Sitting squarely on the edge of a roundabout in Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea and the centre of Italy’s former African empire, the Fiat Tagliero Service Station is a glorious sight. Art deco lettering spells out its name in both Italian and Amharic in a font worthy of a Fellini film poster, while two thirty metre concrete wings soar across the former garage forecourt below, mimicking an aeroplane.
Built in 1938 by architect Giuseppe Pettazzi, the Fiat building’s wings strike a gallant pose, full of the bold attitude of the era. Thanks to leaps and bounds in technology and transportation, from airmail to diesel engine trains, the world in the 1930s had never felt so immediate. 1938 was the year of Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’, the first nylon bristle toothbrush, the ballpoint pen and a Europe on the brink of war. Over in Italy, Prime Minister Mussolini and his Facist party were no longer flirting with their imperial ambitions to conquer as much of Africa as possible, launching themselves full force from their inherited Italian colony of Eritrea and its new capital city Asmara. He called the city ‘La Piccola Roma’ – Africa’s little Rome.
We spend a lot of time out of the house – having cappuccino and macchiato in the cafés, walking through the city, meeting on Harnet Avenue
Mussolini encouraged architects and engineers to transform Asmara into an urban utopia, full of cinemas, cafés, imported bicycles, sycamore trees and world-class architecture. Blueprints for the uber-Futurist Fiat building were so ambitious however, they were initially met with scepticism. And understandably. Its two unsupported wings relied on a feat of engineering never witnessed before, in Europe or in Africa.
‘It’s the reason I became an architect. It’s a very peculiar building. Structurally it was very bold. Structural engineers nowadays wouldn’t dare to build a cantilever half the size of that,’ explains Mesfi Metuasu, a local architect and urban planner who has been working with Asmara’s buildings since 1995. Unfazed by critics, Pettazzi remained confident in his design, so much so that he insisted on standing beneath one of its wings as its supports were removed. If his design failed, he would have been crushed.
He wasn’t. Or so the story goes. Like many of Asmara’s buildings, the Fiat and its history have been neglected over the years; the official records are in disarray and the building was barely accessible to anyone outside the country. The Italians were not the first, or the last, to lay claim to Eritrea.
Colonised by the Ottomans, the Egyptians, the Italians, the British and then the Ethiopians, after thirty years of conflict with the Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian army, Eritrea finally won its independence in 1991. Asmara’s buildings were revealed once more – leaving architects around the world gobsmacked.
Eritrea’s modern history has been brutal to its people but freakishly kind to its architecture. The conflicts placed Asmara’s buildings in a time capsule, and a walk through the city’s streets leaves your sense of time and place feeling a little skew-whiff: art deco cinemas, futurist service stations, a building shaped like a wireless radio, bowling alleys with wooden pins, pizzerias, palm trees. Little building took place in Asmara post-1960, saving the city from the embarrassments of late 20th century development that blemish other capitals. Mussolini’s Little Rome remained intact, although a little rough around the edges, and the Italian dolce vita seeped into the very psychology of the city.
‘Not everyone is conscious of the architecture in Asmara. But whether conscious or unconscious, everyone’s lifestyle here is influenced by the character of the urban space. We spend a lot of time out of the house – having cappuccino and macchiato in the cafés, walking through the city, meeting on Harnet Avenue. The buildings have their role,’ explains Metuasu, drinking espresso in his government office. ‘The historic heart makes it function. The buildings influence what you see, how you move and the character of the city. Even on weekdays it’s very active.’
Walking along the streets of Asmara on a cool, dark August evening (very dark: the government electricity shuts down every evening and the working streetlamps are few and far between) you feel the city’s sweetness. Its stillness. Its streets are busy but without the clatter of Sudan’s Khartoum or Ethiopia’s Addis Abada, Eritrea’s northern and southern neighbours. The hours pass by smoothly. ‘You appreciate the nature of Asmara when you go to other cities. Cairo is chaos. This is cool,’ smiles Metuasu.
And at night, the cafés and streets stay full. Especially on Harnet Avenue. Previously known as Mussolini Avenue and Haile Sellassie Avenue, its former names are a painful reminder of the racial segregation the city once endured, when no Eritrean was allowed to enter the street without being arrested. Now, it’s full of friendly faces.
‘We drink tea and traditional coffee at home so when I go out and meet my friends we all drink cappuccino,’ says Luwan Berhe, 24, an assistant at The Gallery art gallery and bookshop, who says her favourite building is ‘the Fiat’, obviously. ‘Bar Royal is one of the most popular cafés right now. It was built in 1953. If you come after 7 or 8pm you won’t find a single chair.’ Berhe is right. Summer in Asmara is lively: its 5.6 million population swells with visitors from Eritrea’s worldwide diaspora.
Spreading from Somalia to Seattle, it’s a closely-knit community. The Eritrean bond is strong. As a capital city it’s therefore relatively safe: crime is proudly non-existent and the streets are as calm as a village. The birds sing and the leaves rustle in the Rift Valley breeze even on the most built-up Internet café-cladden streets. Fiat Bambinos, vintage Ladas and Volkswagen beetles, used for driving lessons, cruise and stutter down the wide, ordered and palm-tree lined streets. Bicycles are everywhere.
‘Wherever there’s a road in Eritrea, there’s a bicycle,’ laughs Filmon Mihreteab, a sharply dressed translator with a love for Paulo Coelho and spaghetti bolognese. Eritrea is cycling mad and the breathtaking slope of the 100km road from Asmara to the Red Sea sees a lot of cycling shorts. ‘There’s no word for bicycle in Eritrea. We call it “bicycletta”, like the Italians.’ Over a slice at Napoly Pizzeria, Mihreteab explains how the Italians left a permanent thumbprint on Eritrean life. However, in Asmara, a cappuccino doesn’t always just mean a cappuccino.
‘The cafés are full at night, sure. But people aren’t really interested in the cappuccino, they’re interested in the conversations you can have. If you want to sit in a café, you have to order something – and cappuccino is just the cheapest thing.’ Cafés such as Victoria, which still uses an old Gappia coffee machine, and Tre Stelle (Italian for ‘three stars’), charge ten nakfa for a cappuccino and eight nakfa for a macchiato – a little less than a dollar.
Visitors to Asmara are rare. Direct flights operate via Eritrean Airlines only (who have no website), via Cairo, Dubai and Frankfurt. Most tourists are henna-splattered brides and their grooms on honeymoon from Sudan, as well as curious architecture students. Efforts are being made to preserve the city, but slowly. The Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Programme, fuelled by the recently published hardback ‘Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City’, is currently lobbying to have Asmara’s architectural superstars listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Quite rightly. ‘When people are conscious of the beauty of the buildings, they will fall in love,’ says Metuasu. Like most cities, the best way to discover its human history is often through its buildings. Asmara and its art deco timewarp is no exception.
This article appears in the issue42Buy Now