Italian Imperialism & Concrete Culture in Asmara

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To understand the impact of Italian Imperialism on the modernist movement in Asmara is to recognise the ways in which Imperial architecture creates an image of authority and omnipotence in the eyes of colonial subjects within the Empire. This is especially true of the Italian rationalist architecture in Eritrea. The purpose of creating a European city within Africa was to assure Italian migrants to East Africa that expansionism equalled progress and another attempt to annex neighbouring Abyssinia (The Empire of Ethiopia) to the Italian Empire was the next bold move after Italy’s surprising defeat by the Ethiopians in the Battle of Adwa 1989  (Robertson 1977: 7). “Aesthetics purportedly related to the fascist regime began to infiltrate sponsored by private impresarios, cultural institutions, and government agencies” (Epolito  2012: 4). This was true of the architecture developed in other prospective Italian colonies as Benito Mussolini’s intention for the South American countries to join the Italian Empire during the 1920s. However, unlike Asmara, the influence of Italian architecture in cites like  São Paulo was not as great due to Brazilian critics who were vocal of their dislike for the  Italian Futurist style. Whereas the extent of Italian influence on the landscape of the Eritrean capital was so great that Asmara soon became known as ‘Piccola Roma’ or ‘Little Rome’. This status given to Asmara by Mussolini’s Fascist government established the city as the capital of the Africa Orientale Italiana in 1937 (Boness 2006).


It is considered that Fascist architecture is a result of “influences from political ideology through artistic experimentation” (Denison, Yu Ren and Gebremedhin 2003: 16). One of these political ideologies being the 1909 Futurist manifesto by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti which is said to have influenced the formation of the fascist political ideology as well as the Italian modernist movement through its contempt for preserving the past as well as its admiration of industrialisation and technological advancement in the future. Futurism inhabits a positive attitude towards speed and movement; terminology often associated with transport as well as progress in Society. Futurists, therefore “famously reject the past completely. For Futurists, it is the future which is alive and which should be the focus of artists'' (Wilson p. 110). It can be argued that the Italian modernist architects who were promoted to ‘discard the past’ and its restrictive attitudes towards art and architecture, later contradicted themselves by using the gridiron plan for the layout of Asmara. By using this specific road system, Mussolini’s intentions of building a second Roman Empire were made more obvious as this form of town planning, a symbol of civilisation and orderliness, was developed in Ancient Rome and progressed throughout the Roman empire. However, Mussolini’s political ambition as an ‘Empire builder’  did not sit well with visionaries such as Marinetti who saw it as another way of living in the past. The radical poet later distanced himself from both the Fascist and Futurist movements,  leading to the fragmentation of the political and cultural movements. It can be considered that the varied styles of modern architecture in Asmara reflect the changes in the various art movements during the modernist era. For example, many of the villas followed the Novecento  Italiano style created in Milan and used for villas in Como, Italy. Whereas the Fiat Tagliero building is one of the few examples of futurist architecture in Africa (Boness 2006). 


Despite Benito Mussolini’s “thundering of Italian military might, Italy can be described as the weakest of the great European powers” (Robertson 1997: 4). In addition to the nation's booming population, the lesser political position held by Italy amongst Western-European powers was one of the great driving forces behind the expansion of the Italian Empire. Mussolini’s regime effectively used propaganda to manipulate the Italian people and instill racist ideologies such as Social Darwinism to justify invading foreign land and relentlessly subjugating the indigenous populations of these darker nations. Architecture and civic planning were also used by the Italian Empire to subjugate indigenous East Africans. Monumentalism in the novecento style was often elevated as the architecture of progression. Critique of the futuristic concrete forms and structure insinuated ‘Italian superiority’ over organic ‘uncivilised’ towns of indigenous  ‘barbaric’ Eritreans (Denison, Yu Ren and Gebremedhin 2003). An example of such architecture used to perpetuate social exclusion and imperialism is the Casa del Fascio by Bruno Sclafani. Located on Harnet Avenue in the centre of Asmara, the modernist structure was initially designed to be a social club for members of the Fascist party in 1928. As the fascism movement evolved and morphed into an explicit anti-democratic ideology, the Casa del Fascio also changed; becoming the building for the Ministry of Education. The concrete building with its narrow windows and flat facade is often identified as one of the more “austere of Asmara’s buildings” (Denison, Yu Ren and Gebremedhin 2003:123). 


The aggressive form of imperialism practised by Benito Mussolini’s regime is evident in the short duration in which Asmara was built. By 1936 construction began and within seven years of rapid development, the city flourished with a more colourful version of Rationalist  Architecture and began to resemble the futuristic utopian dream Italian colonial architects had hoped for (Jagoe 2007). By 1938 the Fiat Tagliero Garage designed by Giuseppe Pettazzi had been built to resemble a plane about to take flight - this design reminiscent of the “gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propellers sound like flapping of the flag” described by poet and author of the 1909 Futurist Manifesto, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.  During the modernist era concrete as a building material was explicitly linked with architectural movements such as Brutalism and Monumentalism which exploited the material to create solid, heavy structures without much attention to the rough aesthetic of the material. This use of concrete to create oppressive geometric shapes is less visible with the Fiat Tagliero Garage as its large cantilevered wings of “continuous concrete surface is given its weight-destroying coat of paint” (Scully 1977: 32). Vincent Scully was originally referring to the Guggenheim  Museum in NewYork, another famous modernist building, however, the method of adding a  brightly coloured paint to a rough concrete exterior of a building changes it from a formal monument aesthetic into a machine age building mimicking the appearance of an aircraft and the dynamic motion and of flight. European architects used the city as a blank canvas to experiment during the modernist era,  resulting in a city inundated with different styles of modernist architecture (The Washington  Times 2007).


Closely studying the architecture and civic planning of Asmara it is obvious that the city was more about the ambition of Italian colonisers rather than serving the needs of the native Eritreans. Other than the construction of the Grand Mosque in the city centre and the expansion of the Viale Mussolini in 1937, the architects creating villas, government buildings and factories paid little attention to the highland culture of Asmara and made few evident attempts to incorporate the East African culture into the modernist architecture. It can be reasoned that the modernist colonial architecture worked by creating architecture that is explicitly European, cultural hegemony is formed which creates passive colonial subjects who believe they are ultimately profiting and progressing from being part of the Italian Empire. However, this is not often the case as the indigenous population in Asmara lived segregated quarters away from the affluent Italian migrants who inhabited the modernist villas closer to the city centre. The lack of sanitation and poor living conditions of the native population forced architect Guido Ferrazza to try and find a solution to improve the living conditions of all the inhabitants of Asmara regardless of race (Denison, Yu Ren and Gebremedhin 2003).  However, a greater allegiance between Fascist Italy and Hitlerite Germany led to the introduction of the Race Manifesto in 1938 which declared Italians as members of the Aryan race and therefore superior to all other races. This negatively impacted the lives of the black Eritreans as the policy explicitly encouraged racial segregation (Robertson 1977). This also meant further marginalisation of the Eritrean people who were in need of better civic planning and more adequate housing in their ‘native’ quarters (Boness 2006). Allied Forces brought an end to the colonial rule of Italy in Eritrea in 1942 yet the failure of the Italian Empire was evident in the change in architectural style after 1940. The rate of buildings constructed in the city had slowed down significantly. This meant the innovative designs witnessed in previous years ended with the exodus of Italian migrants from the city.  However, leading up to the end of Italy’s rule in East Africa it was apparent that Italian architects had become bored of the eccentric styles of Futurist architecture and were determined to create more examples of Rationalist architecture. This could be seen as a response to Mussolini’s strict government as architects replicate the modernist architecture of Italy precisely as opposed to using Asmara to experiment creatively as previously done. However, it must be noted that the focus of Mussolini’s regime shifted from the Africa Orientale Italiana to the unstable future of Europe following World War Two.