"For the first time, the rich, modernist heritage of the Eritrean capital Asmara is introduced in an exhibition, which explores through four thematic units the city as it is today and its historical social context, architecture and special culture, and the problems and challenges resulting from its function as the capital and the increasing pressure to expand. The exhibition is based on the book Asmara – Africa’s Secret Modernist City by Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren and Naigzy Gebremedhin (Merrell, 2003)."
I visited RIBA twice last week to drink in this excellent Asmara exhibition. There are several fine models, amidst layers of text detailing the extraordinary modern history of the Eritrean capitol. The focus is on the wonderful modernist and art deco buildings built by the city's Italian rulers in the first half of the 20th century, which left Asmara with perhaps the world's largest concentrations of such architecture. It's sadly decaying now, and it would certainly benefit from the UNESCO World Heritage List (I'm not sure whether this submission was successful.)
One could argue that the exhibition misses an opportunity to tell a fuller story of Asmara too, and particularly the shanty town architecture in which the city's residents generally live. It's a fairly harsh juxtaposition. We see some of this in what looked to be a good documentary, 'City of Dreams', showing on a small LCD screen at one end of the exhibition. (Note, though, that this review of the documentary makes the same point).
Either way, the narrow focus still features some wonderful architecture. I took a series of snaps of the models and some of the exhibition boards, which are collected here.
Two models stand out: the Fiat Tagliero and AGIP service stations (mentioned in an earlier piece on service station design.)
The Fiat Tagliero service station (1938), with two 17 metre concrete wings, is by Giuseppe Pettazzi. Those wings are something; free-standing and still structurally sound. Allegedly, Petazzi "stood at the outer ridge of the wings with a revolver at his head when the supports were removed during construction works; he was ready to shoot himself should the wings have collapsed." Can't see Zaha doing that, somehow.
In addition to its thrilling sculptural qualities, and the symbolic optimism for transit in general and flight in particular, I love the synthesis of typography and branding into the architecture.
See also this AGIP service station, again because of the imaginative way the branding is integrated into the building - that beautiful skyline silhouette lettering - and the fine lit sign at the roadside, pointing towards the building's elegantly functional shape.
At RIBA, London, until 18th August.
Photos of the exhibition [Flickr]
See also: ArchiAfrika on the exhibition.
Book: 'Asmara: Africa's Secret Modernist City' [Amazon US|UK]
Some earlier exhibitions at RIBA: Mario Botta, December 2005; The Work of Von Gerkan, Marg and Partners in China, August 2006