Asmara was inscribed on the World Heritage list on July 8th 2017

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 Building © 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.


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


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.


Asmara, Eritrea, Mazzetti apartment bldg. © Edward Denison
Mazzetti apartment bldg. © 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.


Asmara Eritrea - Cinema Impero © Edward Denison
Cinema Impero © Edward Denison


A World Heritage site

The World Heritage Committee inscribed Asmara: a Modernist City of Africa on the World Heritage list on July 8th 2017.
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.


Asmara Eritrea - Theatre interior © Edward Denison
Theatre interior © Edward Denison


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
This article was first published 8 July 2017.