“Asmara should be regarded as a central part of the modernist canon ” Edward Denison

Asmara, or as the Italians call it, the little Rome, is a city with marvelous architectural wonders. Not long ago, in fact, the city was recognized by UNESCO, which added it the prestigious World Heritage list. Increasingly, tourists from around the world are flocking to see Asmara’s rich architectural sites.

Today, Q&A speaks to a group of architects and others interested in architecture. The group, which is from the Research Collegium at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, is studying Asmara’s unique historical buildings and architecture. The research project will also involve a comparison of Asmara’s architectural heritage with Scandinavian architectural designs. 

(Dr. Gertrud Olsson) Thank you for being with us today, Dr. Gertrud Olsson. Would you please introduce yourself?

Thank you for having us. Well, to start with, I am an architect and a researcher in architecture and different areas. I am interested in colors, tiles, the connection between different cultures and its modernity. I am a member of the Research Collegium at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul.

When did you decide to come to work in Eritrea?

We have been reading about the historical architectural buildings of Asmara and the Ottoman Empire expanses for a very long time now. However, we have been planning and preparing to come here with a project for about three years. It is a wonderful thing to be here, to walk around the beautiful city and talk to the friendly people. I just want to say that the Eritrean people are kind and fun to be with. We have enjoyed our stay to the fullest. We had an amazing time in Asmara. We had the chance to visit Adulis to see the influence of the Ottoman Empire cultures.

Eritrea has many interesting and spectacular architectural sites which are in good condition, particularly bearing in mind the time in which they were built. There are a number of cinemas that are very interesting when it comes to conservation. Some of them are in a good state and some are in need of urgent restoration. When one country possesses as impressive a heritage as Eritrea, it is necessary to look after the buildings so that they are maintained for the coming generations.

(Prof. Johan Mårtelius) It is nice to meet you Professor Johan Mårtelius, would you please tell us a little about yourself?

It is my pleasure, I am an architect and I am also a professor in Architectural History at the Royal Technical University in Stockholm. I specialize in Ottoman architecture and architectural historiography. For three years, I have been working as the Director of the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul. That is one of the reasons I am here today, besides my great interest.

  • What is your group’s mission?

It was quite many years ago that Edward Denison published a book about Asmara and how it should be considered an important puzzle to the modernist norm. Accordingly, we had many discussions about how we could do something in the country regarding architecture. I am glad to say that it is nice to finally be here. One of our main purposes was to visit the main architectural sites to observe and document them, in terms of structures, materials, spaces, and other aspects.

Our study looks to explore the modernist architecture in Asmara in an international and regional framework. If our studies are a success, we plan to publish them. Of course, this will help spread recognition of Eritrea’s unique, modernist architecture and design. We are going to first write the articles in Swedish and then translate them to other languages. Part of the project is to see the traces of the Ottoman Empire, which we have seen more in Massawa than in Asmara.

  • As an architect, what architectural site fascinated you the most?

To be honest, every single day, everywhere we went, we kept being amazed by every building that we saw. I would be lying if I said that I had a favorite one because there are just too many to select from. I mean, we have seen and read about the buildings before in books, but to actually see the excellence of the buildings and how they are connected is just mesmerizing.

  • (Greger Widgren) Hello. I see that you are not an architect, unlike the others in the group.

Yes, my background is different. I am a former lawyer and Deputy Director-General at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I used to be fascinated by the stories I have heard and read about the beautiful historical sites of Asmara. I am glad to be here. It’s my first time, like the others. It is extremely interesting to see so many unique buildings. I didn’t expect it to be so much in just one city. It is remarkable to see so many historical buildings all over town.

  • How do you think your projects will influence the country?

Eritrea has been isolated for a long time now. Not many people know about it. We hope that we can do more to expose its beauty to the world. This is only the first step. We have been here for a week and we had a lot to cover during our stay. I hope that all goes well and we can be here to continue to work.

  • In your projects, you plan to compare Eritrea’s architectural sites with Scandinavian ones. Would you please elaborate on that?

Modernity in architecture is sometimes labeled as an international style, which is in some aspects true. But there are also many regional styles and other features to be considered, as well. We think that Asmara is capable of being compared with some of the countries with great architectural styles.

  • What other aspects will you include in your project?

We are going to consider the relationship between the Italian architects and local Eritreans. Also, we are going to include details about the buildings that we see and we plan to do an exhibition of the buildings.

  • Anything you would like to add?

From the minute we took a step in Asmara, we had a great reception from everyone. I want to express my gratitude to all the people who supported and guided us. In particular, we are thankful to the people from the Asmara Heritage Project.