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The Sleeping Beauty – Imaging the City in the Context of Neo-Colonialism



Asmara owns an internationally renowned architectural ensemble that ranges among the highest concentrations of modernist architecture in the world. The city centre hosts an exceptional variety of architectural styles, including a number of iconic buildings from the 1930s that have remained largely untouched. The Italian-built city and its formal, colonial buildings already seem to belong to a different and distant age. The reason for this lies in a 30-years civil war against Ethiopia and – as a result – in the poverty of the country. In 1952 the United Nations decided that Eritrea be federated with Ethiopia as an autonomous unit. By 1961 the federal arrangements were so emasculated that the autonomous status of Eritrea was non-existent. The final act of dismemberment came with the dissolution of the Eritrean Assembly; Eritrea was declared the 14th province of Ethiopia. The armed struggle then took a life of its own. One of the longest wars of independence of the 20th century followed and ended in 1991 when Eritrean freedom fighters marched into Asmara, ending Ethiopian rule. The result of this war was the country's independence in 1993. In the early 1990s when Eritrea got independent researchers from all over the world ‘re-discovered’ Asmara. In 1997 the state of Eritrea invited the World Bank to collaborate in order to create a preservation programme and thus initiated the ‚Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Programme (CARP)’. This programme has led to the production of a number of important publications, films and studies, particularly related to the image of ‚bella Asmara’ (beautiful Asmara). CARP’s ambition to forge Eritrea’s national identity through the valorization of the colonial heritage coincided with an upcoming interest in colonial architecture in Africa among global heritage organizations (EU, World Bank, UNESCO).

     In 1993 Eritrea declared its independence from Ethiopia after decades of violent conflict. Eritreans use the ‚Italian icon’ of the city to establish a sense of superiority against the Ethiopians. A symbol of Eritrea’s newly won sovereignty is ‚bella Asmara‘. The Asmarini describe their city as the embodiment of Eritrea, not Italy (‚Asmara is Eritrea’).1 They see their city as the embodiment of the country, not as something alien, it is seen as an expression of ‘national sacrifice’, and thus as an integral part of the national development.2 In this article we will be concentrating on one of the key processes in the cultural circuit’:  the practices of representation. Besides being an ‘image’ which shows us / represents the city, ‚bella Asmara’ is also an ‚image’ which tells us about how representation works. It produces its own kind of knowledge. Representation here is not a ‚true’ reflection or imitation of reality; the discourse of imaging in bella Asmara is going far beyond simply trying to mirror accurately what exists. 3

     The concept of representation through images has come to occupy a new and important place in the study of the colonial city. It is a ‘system of representation’ because it does consist of individual concepts, but of different ways of organizing, clustering, arranging and classifying concepts, and of establishing complex relations between culture, society, economy, politics and ideology. It explores the relationship between modernism and the project of modernisation in architecture; intertwining these in the context of colonialism and decolonisation and trying to look beyond the history of building and the format of a standard interpretation of architecture in the sense of architectural history. The article is the result of an ongoing research project funded by the Austrian Science Fund.4 The crisis in high modernism that came about in the era of decolonisation prompted us to begin an investigation into the housing developments under colonial rule, mainly in Asmara in the 1930s. Our study well explains this period and place as a laboratory, as an incubator, and a site for investigation that would later influence a rethinking of the international role of the modern movement in architecture. It also presents ideas about human and artistic development, but foremost gives an in-depth re-visit of the modern movement; the idea of the habitat, the transfer of ideas from one continent to another, from one generation to another, from the objectives of the military to those of organizations of modern planning, It does so with an almost-candid and surely critical rereading of architectural history.

     Asmara illuminates the urban transfiguration of the colonial dilemma, and thus the dilemma of every European city. On the one hand, we can hence investigate this architectural ensemble as time seems to have stopped. Hence, it is easy to create a set of cliches that reach into the micro texture of Asmara: Espresso machines, Cappuccino, Cinquecento taxis and the daily ‘passeggiata’ melt into a specific atmosphere. Gebremedhin, one of the initiators of the preservation programme for Asmara, gets to the heart of it: Eritreans (…) have (…) successfully adopted the modernist architecture of Asmara and reinvented its life space in their own manner! 5 Many visitors are surprised by Asmara’s illusion of a parallel universe, one that can only be described in terms of ‘time having stopped’. The city centre seems to resemble an Italian one.In his paper Gebremedhin presents arguments why the colonial city should be preserved although it was deliberately created as the abode of a racist and Fascist regime that wanted a place under the African sky for Italians and excluded Eritreans.6

     In 1997 the city listed its buildings and thus revealed that the historic centre consists of about 400 buildings, which are architecturally significant. The survey showed that 40 per cent of the buildings were owned privately. The Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Programme (CARP) came into being in 1997 when the State of Eritrea invited the World Bank to collaborate with it in forming a strategy for the preservation of Asmara’s architectural heritage. A ‘Historic Perimeter (HP)’ was established immediately, covering an area of five square kilometers. A moratorium on new buildings within the ‘Historic Perimeter’ was proclaimed. The CARP survey examined the style of the buildings under three headings: Eclecticism; Modernism with its subset of styles including novecento; and Art Deco, razionalismo, neofuturismo and monumentalismo. Of course, the colonial time represents a key stage in the emergence of Eritrean modernism, and the colonial architecture demonstrates a broad range of responses to complex ideological and cultural conditions. Eritrea conserves those modernist tendencies within a post-modern world as an experiment which uses political strategies in order to defend the nation-building-project against the influence of globalization. Asmara presents itself as paradigmatic space. Therefore, this city allows an analysis of our quotidian reality in a sarcastic way like no other does. Asmara provides space for reflection as well as for an empirical analysis of contemporary society. It is not archive of memories, but rather an incident that is constantly repeating itself. The book Asmara, Africa’s Secret Modernist City, describes this as follows: “Asmara is, by any standard, not simply a most convivial city, well planned and executed; its physical character - its architecture and urban spaces - also reflects strongly a range of international influences”. 7 


In reality, Asmara has totally changed in the last 30 years. Asmara is now Greater Asmara - one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. How can we define the position of the CARP within the context of Greater Asmara? What is the relationship between this centre and the rest of the city? Is CARP a World heritage or an African heritage? Our project takes up the idea that Asmara is not only the frozen city that preserves the past. The tension between the formal and the informal city, between architecture by architects and architecture built without architects has existed since the very beginning of the modern project of urbanism as a profession of town-creation, but in the romantic representation of bella Asmara – the frozen city – it did not exist. We should turn our views from the grand master narratives and superpowers to the art of minor practices and everyday improvements. 8

     The notion of new discovery should not obscure the fact that it is not simply a return to Italian architecture originating from the interwar period. Created in a laboratory of European modernist fantasies, the ‘historic perimeter’ of Asmara stands for a timeless example of modernity. Rabinow in his work ‘French modern’ extends Foucault’s rather Eurocentric scope and zooms in on urbanization in France’s African colonies. He argues that the colonies ‘constituted a laboratory of experimentation for new arts of government capable of bringing a modern and healthy society into being.’9  Based on ideologies of progress and development through the organization of urban space, the state developed the norms and forms of modernity. In her study Mia Fuller applies Rabinow’s theories on Italian colonialism in Asmara and indicates how the Italian colonial government relied on practices of modern architecture. In the 1930s Asmara experienced a building boom as Italy invested in its infrastructure in Eritrea in order to invade Ethiopia: 10 The colonies served the colonisers as a ‘laboratory’ for testing modern techniques, which they regarded as being easier to realise in reference to the legal ‘state of exception’. The laboratory paradigm had to be expanded, however. On the one hand it presumed a binary structure which equally underestimated the contradictions on the part of the colonial power and on the part of the colonised. 11


The Secret Modernist City – The Romantic Image of Asmara

Today, the Eritreans have inherited the modern architecture of Asmara and many of them live in the former colonizer’s houses. The description of Asmara generated a set of tropes such as the Secret City, the Forgotten City, the Frozen City or the City of Dreams. In most cases those images are a combination of a romantic spirit of discovery, and an exploration of the exotic, combined with colonial nostalgia. How can we interpret the city of Asmara? Mia Fuller describes today’s Asmara as a vehicle of complex local appropriations and rejections of the past against a larger backdrop of the future that is not linked only to Italian colonialism. The ‘photographic representation’ – the icon of the Italian city is the ‘perfect snapshot of the past’12 – is the result of many local and foreign actors who have developed their own strategies for the appropriation of Asmara. Realizing Asmara’s potential Gebremedhin’s (who was the manager of CARP) first decision was to hire Edward Denison, a British photographer with a background of travelling in Eritrea: A big part of our work (…) was about getting (the modern heritage of Asmara) into the international domain: We gonna get the support of UNESCO, we gonna get the support of the World Monuments Fund. (…) So we sent out masses of emails to these organizations. 13 In 2003 Denison and Gebremedhin co-authored a book with the title Asmara. The Secret Modernist City. This book was meant to celebrate Asmara. The book literally reads like a call for support. The rhetoric, combined with the aesthetic appeal of the highly visual content created the romantic image of ‘bella Asmara’. Indeed, CARP capitalized on the popular reception of the book to create global support. 14 Denison attributes the development potential of the modern architecture of Asmara to his perception of the city as a ‘nice’ and ‘safe’ place to life. Therefore, he emphasizes the European character of the city. 15


The Shared Heritage

The ambition to forge Eritrea’s national identity through the valorization of the colonial heritage of Asmara coincided with an upcoming interest in colonial architecture in Africa among global heritage organizations. Culture should be regarded as a direct source of inspiration for development; and in return, development should assign to culture a central role as social regulator to culture. In the late 1980s the World Bank announced a ‚holistic approach’ to development and turned its attention to cultural heritage as a tool for what was called post-conflict reconstruction, poverty reduction or nation building. 16 The World Bank considered Eritrea a natural experiment for testing this new approach (the same rhetoric was used by the Italian colonizers!). And even the UNESCO World Heritage list entry of the historic perimeter of Asmara refers to an era when ‘Italian architects could (...) realize modern ideals.’ 17 Somewhat paradoxically, for transnational organizations the appeal of the modern architecture of Asmara appears to be nostalgia. 18 The historic perimeter of Asmara stands for the colonial utopia of progress. According to Boym, ‘restorative nostalgia’ manifests itself in the total reconstruction of monuments of the past.19 The ‘untouched’ historic heritage can reconstitute the ‘blank canvas’ allegedly available to colonial architects in the past. This time Asmara would be a field of a new experiment for transnational organizations to test their approaches to ‚nation building’. 20 After the World Bank in Washington had terminated its loan to CARP in 2007, the European Union launched a follow-up national heritage programme. Five million Euro were investigated exclusively in the restoration of modern architecture in Asmara.

     The modern architectural heritage of Asmara is instrumental both to the transnational organizations and to the national Eritrean government. In particular, we want to know what happens when a young nation state in Africa is forced to operate  in the same global space as the emergent transnational players. More specifically, the Eritrean government crucially depends on the appropriation of the modern architecture of Asmara as national heritage for the re-territorialization of national sovereignty. On the other hand, national and international organizations – with their approaches to nation building in Africa - are essentially dependent on Asmara’s colonial heritage. CARP’s policy of creating a global sense of shared heritage lead to the governmental reaction of a radical policy of self-reliance in which the government crushed down on CARP’s rallying of global assistance. Authorities became more and more apprehensive about foreign influence. Globalisation is the third phase in the relationship between the dominant countries and the dominated. The search for and the reconstruction of identity has become paramount. Now that national independence has been achieved and the dust from the struggle against Ethiopia has settled, problems of national and community harmony have begun to surface.


The National Heritage

 The no-peace-no-war-situation in contemporary Eritrea leads to a less hopeful situation. Of course, national identity as perceived by a government is inherently tied to the image of a splendid cultural past. According to Wallerstein, a state can create a national culture through its monopoly of policies: 21 A national identity based on shorter-term political interest and the ideology of struggle emerged as the driving force behind most nationalist movements. Once independence was achieved, the glue that bound together the various groups no longer held. 22 One Eritrean commentator put it right when he said: “Asmara is our Jerusalem, the goal of our pilgrimage!” Eritrean people see their city as an expression of ‘national sacrifice’ and thus an integral moment of Eritrean nationalism. Bella Asmara has become a symbol of Eritrea’s newly won national sovereignty. 23 Eritrea’s government has turned the cultural capital of Asmara into the static symbol of Eritrean nationalism. In turn, Eritrea’s policy of self-reliance at all cost (including serious human rights violations) disappoints the World Bank’s interest in ‘post-conflict reconstruction’ and the concept of the ‘shared heritage’. The Eritrean government sustains on-going conflict over its border with Ethiopia. Identities and aesthetics in today’s Asmara still demonstrate references to the colonial past. 24 In a ‚high modernist mission’ the government never distinguishes between physical and moral pollution. Plastic bags are forbidden, beggars and prostitutes are transferred to the countryside or to the military camp of Sawa. Features of architecture become features of the nation. Cleanliness, order and security in Asmara lead to a restrictive definition of urbanity and public space in Asmara. 25 Our project, therefore, centres on the relationship between the aesthetic regime of modernism and the project of modernisation – as well as on the highly charged intertwining of both in the context of colonialism and neo-colonialism.The major and visible alterations of Asmara’s street view concern the walls around properties, which many owners heightened for reasons of safety under the Ethiopian occupation. Actually, the global call to preserve the modern heritage of Asmara has effectively provided the Eritrean government with a concrete means to discretely exercise disciplinary power domestically. An orchestrated press campaign was launched to reduce the height of walls around private houses: Asmara is an open city, so walls should only be one meter and twenty high. The 1938 master plan dictates this. (…) The government is now urging to abolish the walls. 26 The Asmarini ‘imitate the colonial master’ and his rhetoric, and, therefore, we can speak about neo-colonialism. Strong elements within the revolutionary forces inspire the nationalization of society in the name of progress. It is the rationalization – usually also conceived as the solution to problems of poverty and ‘backwardness’ in the periphery – that provides the impetus for revolution. Eritrea, therefore, exemplifies features of modernity that have already disappeared from the Western world. This results from an interest in the symbolic value which was attributed to architecture as a means of urban planning in the colonial period; a concept which not only stood for the aesthetic project of modernism, but also represented the planability of social progress and the dawn of a new society. A naturalized belief in progress is used against the influence of globalization. The Eritrean government but also the transnational organizations like the EU, the UNESCO, and the World Bank, base their problematic politics of national sovereignty on colonial nostalgia. There is belief in the capacity of cultural heritage to transform Asmara into ‘a most modern city’ again. Boym understands heritage as ‘institutionalized nostalgia’. This time Asmara is a field of experimentation for national and transnational organizations to test new approaches to nation building through cultural heritage and its representation.






1 M. Fuller: Italy‟s Colonial Futures: Colonial Inertia and Postcolonial Capital in Asmara, in: /uc/item/4mb1z7f8?query=Asmara%20is%20what;hitRank=1#page-1 (12/ 10/ 2011), p. 8.

2 Rausch C.: Modern Nostalgia: Asserting Politics of Sovereignty and Security in Asmara, Washington and Brussels 2011.

3 S. Hall: The Work of Representation. In: Representation. Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices, London 1997, p. 13-75.

4 Also see: www.architekturtheorie.eu / txt.architekturtheorie.eu / www.architekturtheorie.tv

5 Gebremedhin N.: Asmara, Africa‟s Secret Modernist City Prepared for the African Perspectives:

Dialogue on Urbanism and Architecture, The Faculty of Architecture, TU, Delft 2007, in: /fileadmin/Faculteit/BK/Actueel/Symposia_en_congressen/African_Perpectives/Programme/Built_Heritage/doc/APD_wp_5_gebremedhin_paper.pdf

6 Gebremedhin 2007.

7 E. Denison., G. Y. Ren and N. Gebremedhin: Asmara, Africa’s Secret Modernist City, London: Merrell Publishers  2003, p.50

8 Also see: P. Volgger: The Sleeping Beauty, in: txt.architekturtheorie.eu

9 P. Rabinow: French Modern. Norms and Forms of the Social Environment, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1989, p. 289

10  M. Fuller: Moderns Abroad: Architecture, Cities and Italian Imperialism, London 2007, p. 144.

11 S. Karakayali: Colonialism and the Critique of Modernity, in: T. Avermaeta, S. Karakayali and M. von Osten: Colonial Modern. Aesthetics of the Past – Rebellions for the Future, London 2010, pp. 39.

12 B. Groys: Die Stadt im Zeitalter ihrer touristischen Reproduzierbarkeit, in: Topologie der Kunst, München/Wien: Hanser 2003, p. 145.

13 Interview Denison, in: C. Rausch: Modern Nostalgia: Asserting Politics of Sovereignty and Securita in Asmara, Washington and Brussels 2011, p. 8.

14 Also see: Travelling exhibition ‚Asmara – Africa’s Secret Modernist City’. Various locations (starting 2006); R. Ofori and E.Scott: Asmara – City of Dreams, Washington 2005.

15 Denison, p.8.

16 J. D. Wolfersohn: The Challenges of Globalization: The Role of the World Bank/ Address to the Bundestag, Berlin/ Germany: The World Bank Group 2001, in: C. Rausch: Modern Nostalgia 2011, p. 5.

17 Tentative UNESCO World Heritage List Entry, Eritrea: ‚The Historic Perimeter of Asmara and Its Modernist Architecture’. UNESCO World Heritage Center, in: http/whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/2024/.

18  S. Boym: The Future of Nostalgia, New York: Basic Books 2001.

19  C. RAUSCH: Modern Nostalgia: Asserting Politics of Sovereignty and Securita in Asmara, Washington and Brussels 2011.

20 C. Rauch: 2011, p. 20f.

21 I. Wallerstein: The Nation and the Universal. Can There be Such a Thing as a World Culture?, in: A. D. King: Culture, Globalization, and the World System, London 1991, pp. 91- 106.

22 N. Alsayyad: Culture, Identity and Urbanism. A Historical Perspective from Colonialism and Globalisation, in: T. Avermaete, S. Karakayali, M. von Osten (Eds.): Colonial Modern. Aethetics oft he Past Rebellions for the Future, London: Black Dog Publishing 2010, p. 80.

23 Ibid, p.83.

24 C. Rausch 2011, p. 24.

25 M. Treiber: ‚The choice between clean and dirty. Discourses of Aesthetics, Morality and Progress in Post-revolutionary Asmara, Eritrea’, In: Dürr, Eveline; Jaffe, Rivke (Eds.): Urban Pollution. Cultural Meanings, Social Practices. Berghahn Oxford 2010, pp. 23-143.

26 C. Rausch 2011, p. 14.