Asmara’s Modernist Architecture

Alfa Romeo, Asmara, Eritrea © Edward Denison
Alfa Romeo, Asmara, Eritrea © Edward Denison

Asmara’s historic urban landscape appears almost exactly as it was when it was built

The Modernist city of Asmara was built in large part in the late 1930’s by Italians with a futuristic outlook in the highlands of Eritrea on the Horn of Africa. A complete urban landscape and a hyper-modern city in its time, Asmara represents one of the most concentrated and well-preserved collection of Modernist architecture anywhere in the world. Situated in the heart of a country at the crossroads of African, European and Middle Eastern cultures, the city is a testimony to this exchange, and to the innovative approach to the challenges of modern urban requirements in an African setting in the early twentieth century.

Header photo: Alfa Romeo © Edward Denison

Italy’s occupation of Eritrea began in 1889. Asmara, an ancient highland village at that time, was made capital of the country in 1900. Plans for a modern urban centre were drawn up but it wasn’t until 1935, when Italy under Mussolini decided to use Eritrea as its base for the invasion of Ethiopia, that Asmara was transformed into the most modern city on the African continent, almost overnight. Some 70.000 Italians arrived to make a new life for themselves, turning Asmara into a huge building site in the years between 1935 and 1941. Hundreds of buildings in the Modernist – or Italian Rationalist style – were constructed during this short span of time.

The Italian rulers were expelled from Eritrea by the allied forces in 1941. The country was subsequently placed under British administration before it was federated with Ethiopia in 1950, following a UN resolution. After several decades of conflict, the State of Eritrea finally declared its independence in 1991. It has since then been a one-party state. Eritrea’s long and slow progress towards independence may in fact account for Asmara’s built heritage being so well-preserved as it is.


Fiat Tagliero, Asmara, Eritrea © Edward Denison
Fiat Tagliero © Edward Denison


The Modernist Movement

Using Asmara as a blank canvas on which they could experiment and realize their visions, the city planners and architects of Asmara owe their inspiration to the Modernist movement, the most important style of architecture and design of that time and perhaps of the 20th century as a whole. In Asmara, Modernism comes to expression in an array of buildings ranging from hyper modern petrol stations, cinemas, theaters and religious structures, to residential and public buildings.

One of Modernism’s most influential figures and a beacon in the world of architecture – especially in the years when Asmara was conceived – was Le Corbusier. Founded on many of his ideals, the Modernist style is characterised by asymmetrical compositions with cubic or cylindrical shapes, flat roofs and the use of reinforced concrete. The surfaces typically have little or no ornamentation. Metal and glass frameworks and horizontal bands of windows are favoured. White or cream tend to dominate a fairly limited colour palette and the interior has an open, uncluttered plan. Modernism also encompasses Futurism, Constructivism, De Stijl and Bauhaus. In Italy, this style is known as the Rationalist style.


Cinema Impero © Edward Denison
Cinema Impero © Edward Denison


World Heritage application

The State of Eritrea submitted its first ever application to UNESCO for inscription on the World Heritage list in January 2016. The 1,300-page Nomination Dossier was compiled by Dr. Edward Denison, Medhanie Teklemariam & Dawit Abraha of the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UK). The research for the bid won the Royal Institute of British Architect’s President’s Medal for Research in December 2016.

For a site or property to be nominated for inscription on the World Heritage list, its “Outstanding Universal Values” must be extensively and thoroughly documented. It must meet – and clearly express – at least one of the ten selection criteria for inscription as stipulated by the World Heritage Convention. The selection criteria are in essence a reflection of a site’s Outstanding Universal Value(s).

Asmara is proposed for inscription on the World Heritage list under Criteria ii, iii and iv.
See all Criteria here


Criteria for inscription

Criterion (ii) states that a site must exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design. Criterion (iii) says that is must bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared, and (iv), that it must be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.

The Nomination Dossier submitted by the State of Eritrea justifies each criterion for inscription of Asmara as follows:

Criterion (ii):
Asmara exhibits an outstanding example of the interchange of cultural influences brought about by the encounter with modernity in an African context. The exchange is expressed in the unity of an innovative urban planning process and distinguished Modernist architecture combined with local natural and cultural conditions to create a distinctive urbanism based on human scale.

Criterion (iii):
As a well-preserved total urban landscape and modern capital of Eritrea, Asmara bears exceptional testimony to the universal aspiration for and attainment of national self-determination founded on the protracted development of indigenous cultural and political consciousness through multiple encounters with regional civilisations and colonial experiences. Asmara was once a centre of established cultural traditions and trading networks spanning the region, before becoming the locus of uniquely varied foreign agendas of global significance before and during the Second World War and throughout the Cold War.

Criterion (iv):
Asmara is an outstanding example of the transition in architecture and town planning at the turn of the twentieth century in response to the universal encounter with modernity in an African context. The synthesis of modern town planning and architecture in a total urban landscape is an exemplar of early modernism adapted to local cultural and geographic conditions. As an urban landscape, Asmara encapsulates key stages of modernity’s development and principal characteristics, including colonialism and global conflict, scientific responses to planning and infrastructure, rapid technological and urban development, and pioneering transportation and communication.


Mazzetti Bldg, Eritrea © Edward Denison
Mazzetti Bldg. © Edward Denison


It remains to be seen when, rather than if, Asmara: Africa’s Modernist City will become a World Heritage site. For a continent totally under-represented on this list, an inscription of Asmara would be Eritrea’s first and an important and much welcome addition to the African list of World Heritage sites.


Asmara Info

Destination Asmara
Country Eritrea
Location Zoba Maekel Administration Region.
70 km from the Red Sea coast, ca 2300 m above sea level.
World Heritage Sites Tentative list: Asmara and its Modernist Architecture
Tentative list: Qoahito Cultural Landscape
What to see and do
When to visit
How to get there
Tour suggestions

All photos © Dr. Edward Denison
Edward Denison, Medhanie Teklemariam & Dawit Abraha (2017) Asmara: Africa’s Modernist City (UNESCO World Heritage Nomination), The Journal of Architecture
Asmara (UNESCO)