Friday, 14 November 2008

The Unpublished 1: Eritrean Art Deco

This is the first instalment of an occasional series, in which I self-publish travel articles that I've never been able to place. This week we turn our eyes to the far-off African nation of Eritrea, and discover a surprising architectural treasure trove...

When you think of the great art deco cities of the world, you might consider Miami, Florida. You might also think of Napier, New Zealand, which was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in the 1930s. New York also has some fine examples of the architectural style. But you’re unlikely to think of Asmara, in Africa.

Asmara is the capital of Eritrea, a tiny state on the southern shores of the Red Sea. Founded in 1993 after the defeat of Ethiopia in a war of independence, this African nation is slowly recovering from the conflict. There are several thousand Eritreans resident in Australia, with the majority living in Melbourne.

What few remember, however, is Eritrea’s colonial past. In 1890, the coastal province became an Italian colony. The Italians were playing catch-up with the Britain and France, creating an African empire of their own. Asmara became the jewel in the crown, with thousands of Italian settlers as the 20th century rolled in.

Modern architectural styles followed. As the Italian administration created its administrative centre, it worked from a blank slate. And what better way to express the confidence of this “new Roman Empire” than the soaring structures of art deco?

Art deco was characterised by bold, futuristic lines which streamlined the classical structures of the past. Onto this simple template were added designs from the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Latin America.

More distinctive was its inclusion of symbols of modern technology: wheels, cogs and cars. It suggested a confidence in progress and the future, memorably expressed in the lines of rocketships in the Flash Gordon comic strips. It’s ironic that this confident style began just before the onset of the Great Depression. By 1940, it had reached its end.

In Asmara, however, this was the perfect style to express the assurance of the Italian state. With Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922, the two went hand in hand. The dictator never visited the far-flung colony, but there would be plenty of grand buildings to pose in front of if he had.

This is the miracle of art deco Asmara. Despite the passing of time and a 30 year war of independence, its architectural heritage has remained untouched. Highlights of the art deco era include a futuristic service station with sweeping wings, and the imposing Cinema Impero. Pink plaster and curving door frames dot the central city, in both residential and commercial buildings.

The building of a new nation is not easy, however, and the art deco heritage has been threatened by development and a lack of resources for conservation. To redress this, the Eritrean government has sought World Bank funding to catalogue and preserve the city’s modernist past.

The Eritrean embassy to Australia confirms its importance to the young nation: “Art deco buildings are highly preserved, and the government has established a special department for the purpose.”

Aside from its cultural and historic benefits, preserving early 20th century heritage may have a tourist spin-off. If a regional New Zealand city like Napier can market its art deco structures successfully, why not an African city within reach of the warm waters of the Red Sea?

Since a second conflict with Ethiopia in the late 1990s, Eritrea has become a more peaceful place. Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs advises travellers to avoid the borders with Ethiopia and Sudan, and to be mindful of terrorism in general.

But Asmara remains an inexpensive place to travel. Budget accommodation starts from a few dollars a night, and five star lodgings also exist. Car hire is needed to get to the more remote attractions, though food is cheap wherever you go.

It’s light years away from the high energy of New York, the sunbaked beaches of Miami or the greenery of New Zealand. But Asmara offers the chance to see the 20th century’s greatest architectural style amid the exotic charms of the Red Sea coast.

Note: As this article was written in 2004, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current security situation before travelling to Eritrea.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.