11 photos: Eritrea's Modernist playground - CNN.com

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Eritrea's capital, Asmara, has weathered colonialism and decades of war, and emerged an independent nation with one of the world's best preserved collections of Futurist and Modernist architecture.


Asmara's bounty of Modernist buildings is due in part to the influence of Italian architects, who took a 1913 city plan and created a Futurist playground during the 1930s.

Futurism, which held up modern technology and rejected the past, was a concept created in the beginning of the twentieth century, but later fell out of favor with Italy's fascist government. As a result, some architects could experiment with Futurist ideas only on the fringes of the Italian colonial project.

Though some cities have sections that have been given over to Modernist architecture, Asmara is rare in that it has been designed in its entirety as a Modernist creation.

The most famous building in the city is the Fiat Tagliero, a car service station. Its shape is evocative of an airplane -- a typical Futurist motif. Though not in current use, the building is in good working order after having been renovated in the early 2000s.

A "uniquely protracted" post-colonial situation prevented Eritreans from resenting their colonial heritage, argues Edward Dension, a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Art. He suggests that this is due in part to the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Today Eritreans are proud of their Modernist heritage, and Dension, working under Medhanie Teklemariam at the Asmara Heritage Project, is bidding for the city to become the nation's first UNESCO World Heritage site.

The heritage movement started in 1996 in an unlikely way: through ex-prison inmates who petitioned against the demolition of their onetime detention center, Caserma Mussolini.

In 2001 the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project was instigated. Funded by the World Bank, it began documenting the city's rich heritage, unknown to most of the world due to Eritrea's turbulent and secluded past.

The initiative was succeeded by the Asmara Heritage Project, which submitted it's application to UNESCO on February 1. It will be 18 months before the team behind the bid finds out if they were successful.

"Africa is underrepresented on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and also in Modernist history," Dension argues, suggesting that "Asmara's bid is just one of many that will increasingly try to redress this imbalance."


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