Review: Modern Architecture and its Representation in Colonial Eritrea

Author(s) Sean Anderson
Publisher Ashgate
Year 2015

The book is a synthesis of the results of a long process of study and reflection on the architecture of modernity. For Anderson, (European) modern architecture is a means and the representation of an authoritarian society, which tends to dissolve the boundaries between the exterior (or controlled exteriority) and the interior (or protected inwardness) of the city. The Italian modern architecture that sprouted between the two World Wars is the most eloquent witness to the political implications of modernity because it represents a society that actually invented and engendered the historical form of Fascism. If modern architecture is interpreted as a means and representation of authoritarian society, it is in imperial geography or colonial politics that it reaches its zenith. In this instance, modernity will be fostered by the presence of the “Other”, of the “Timelessness”, which Anderson says is the ideal passive object of the cultural and political supremacy of modernity. As he writes, “ Modernity is read as a function of the colonial and colonialism as a framework of the modern”… and “The languages of colonialism and modernism can each be read as embodying the characteristic of the other” (Introduction, p. 7).

It seems Anderson is attracted by Eritrea because its capital city, Asmara, is the only one among all the colonial cities of the ephemeral Italian colonial empire that was planned and built without any possible comparison with a pre-existing historical urban identity or somehow culturally acknowledged by the colonial power. Asmara, therefore, presents the opportunity to clearly observe the strengths and weaknesses of modern Italian architecture. This is likely the reason for almost three quarters of the book being dedicated to Asmara.

The book is made up of four chapters and a preface, which the author affirms can be read in any order. His intent is to invite readers “to inhabit an interior of Asmara of their own making.” The first and the third chapter, in fact, were previously published as separate issues. The first was published in 2007 and titled “Probing Ground;” the third was published in 2006 with the title “Modernità and Interiorità in Colonial Asmara.” The illustrations in the book with their respective annotations are arranged so that they can be read independently and autonomously. The true autonomous second text is, however, formed by the notes that give detailed information, additional considerations, eloquent explanations and conceptual refinements. The preface is almost a mysterious thespian prologue: it deals with the dispute between Italy and Ethiopia, and the restitution of the Axum Obelisk, a grand granite obelisk looted from Ethiopia in 1937 by Mussolini and returned in 2005. Perhaps it intends to introduce the reader to the present state of relations, made of bland yet stubborn resentments, between Italy and former Italian colonies.

The first chapter is dedicated to interpreting the colonial footprint in Eritrea, looking at the relation between the colonial self and the landscape, not only in terms of new infrastructure but also by a sequence of narratives: travel notes, diaries and memoirs. This chapter, as well as the fourth one, decisively contributes to the originality of the book. Among the other writers of travel notes and memoirs, a woman stands out. Her name is Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi. Anderson starts building the multifaceted portrait of a colonial Italian woman around her, which is completed in the third chapter.

The second chapter deals with the foundation and development of Asmara city. Anderson avoids publishing any maps or schematic drawings and refers to specific locations with text. He seems to be engaged in presenting Asmara as a conceptual place rather than as a complex urban artefact, thus maintaining the reader’s imagination in a floating intellectual space where the concatenation of concepts is more important than that of places.

The third chapter is dedicated to the colonial interior, which in Anderson’s vision is much more complex than a simple domestic space. In that inside of the colonial conscience, the colonial woman lives and the colonial architect has expressed his ideas on society, technology and modernity. This is maybe the chapter in which a reader acquainted with Eritrea and Italian modernity meets the greatest difficulties. The author seems quite convinced that the colonial situation, in other words the fascist success, is the cause and the source of the modern transformation of the (Italian) house and domestic life. But certainly the author knows that fascism in Italy only accelerated an already present tendency to diffuse to the middle class a simplified and more economical version of the Milanese upper class lifestyle, domestic architecture included. On the other hand, it is not very convincing that the image of the Italian colonial woman is portrayed as a confused accessory of the colonial substance. On the contrary, it is said that in the Italian colonies each “comare Maria” (housewife Maria) became “Donna Maria” (Lady Maria), where Donna, in this case, is the old and noble feminine title in which survives the meaning of the Latin word Domina (she who owns and dominates).

The fourth chapter is one of extraordinary documentary and conceptual interest. It deals with the description of the frequent illusory colonial exhibitions, lavish and counterfeit – yet always eloquent – set up in the Italian cities before World War II. The chapter ends with a sense of despair: the little bunch of African people, “imported” in 1940 as living equipment and furniture of the Mostra d’Oltremare, were blocked in Naples by the war. Their memories re-emerge, after the war, as lost and abandoned stones of an antique monument in a foreign country. As a consequence, the reader is to reflect on the significance of the Axum Obelisk mentioned at the beginning of the book.

The book is a strong work defined by immense documentation and an implicit passion for the subject. In general, the literature about Eritrean cities and architecture takes into consideration the changes that happened from the colonial time to the present as facts, and the physical development of the urban settlements as mere design events and problems. Therefore, this book stands out among other books and issues about Eritrea for its conceptual power and philosophical interpretation of the field of modernity and colonialism. Almost at each page, the book engages the reader in a vigorous, silent debate with the author. Note, however, that certain English translations of the Italian quotations need further justification with appropriate evidence, for example the note “L’Africa ci attira invincibilmente.” (n.23 at p. 246 ) is translated by Anderson as “Africa attracts our own invincibility.” This translation attributes the “invincibility” to the Italians, while in the original text the adjective refers to Africa.

Overall, the book is recommended for reviving and deepening the personal research of any enquiring scholar interested in the meaning and difficulties of modernity and especially of modernity and colonialism, with reference to Italy and Eritrea.


Dr Belula Tecle-Misghina is a freelance consultant to professional architectural practices which specialise in architectural design, urban design and restoration. She holds a PhD in Architectural Composition and Design Theory, awarded  in  2010, from the Faculty of Architecture at Sapienza University of Rome. In July 2014 her book ‘Asmara, an urban history’ was launched in Durban, South Africa.





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