It was last October, as he stood on a hillside in the Eritrean Highlands taking a photograph of the view overlooking the capital Asmara, that photojournalist Stefan Boness was struck by how little the landscape had changed. “I felt like I was taking the same photograph that I had taken many years before in the same spot,” he says.
Having just returned from Addis Ababa, the bustling capital of neighbouring Ethiopia where the cityscape was unrecognisable in its transformation, the stillness and silence of Asmara was stark. “It’s like the city had frozen in time,” explains Boness. During the 30 years that Eritrea fought for its independence from Ethiopia (1961-1991), there was no modernisation in Asmara. “There really has been very little building since it gained its independence in 1993,” he remarks.
Located at the tip of an escarpment on the northwestern edge of the Eritrean Highlands, Asmara is an extremely compelling yet isolated city, boasting the highest concentration of intact modernist architecture in the world. During the period of Italian Colonial rule (1890-1947), talented young Italian architects were encouraged to use Asmara as a blank canvas to experiment with building form and structure. With no strict planning permissions or guidelines to follow, the city flourished and expanded in a plethora of architectural styles.
“The architecture of 1930s Eritrea does not fit neatly into any stylistic category,” says Boness. “The city centre features a mixture of expressionist, rationalist, futurist and cubist elements. In Asmara you can find avant-garde buildings right next to reactionary architectural elements and sometimes a symbiosis of both.”
Although incredibly cruel to its people, Asmara’s history of war and destruction has been surprisingly kind to its architecture. Futurist architecture — inspired by speed, the violence of the modern age and new technologies — swept through the Eritrean capital. With its soaring concrete wings and art-deco lettering, the Fiat Tagliero Service Station, designed by Italian architect Guiseppe Pettazzi in 1938 and inspired by the aeroplane, is the best example of futurist architecture in the city. However, it was not only futurism that flourished in Asmara. Expressionism also emerged in the form of the famed Capitol Cinema and rationalism in the precise geometry of the Ministry of Education.
“Italy had a remarkable impact on Eritrea and much of its culture still prevails today,” he adds. “Take, for example, some of Asmara’s proud old men.” Dressed to the nines in their European suits, handmade leather shoes, classic hats and walking sticks, they exude Italian style and elegance. “They still enjoy their daily macchiato with old friends in one of the city’s many coffee bars, followed by a passeggiata — a stroll up and down Independence Avenue,” a tradition that started when the Italians arrived and has been upheld ever since.
It was in one of these coffee-bars, Bar Vittorio — an Italian-style 1930s art-deco building featuring a beautifully painted mural — over a cup of steaming Italian-style coffee that Boness decided to start documenting Asmara and its extraordinary buildings. “Asmara is a wonderful timepiece,” he says. “Due to Eritrea’s conflicts, it is like a museum of modern architecture. You can wander around again and again and still discover new things, such as a previously overlooked building or an interesting design detail.” As Asmara is still very much inhabited, not all of the architecture is accessible and some of the most interesting buildings are tucked away behind crumbling walls. In recognition of the monumental importance of Asmara’s cityscape, efforts are being made to list its architecture as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
“It is like Asmara belongs to another era,” remarks Boness. This is particularly apparent in the lack of advertising in the capital. Even with the proximity of a Coca-Cola factory that lies on the periphery, no advertising for the brand is seen in the centre. Only politically charged slogans and fractions of graffiti exist in the city. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Asmara has managed to stay untarnished by the effects of modern advertising.
When he first started taking photographs of Eritrea and Asmara, Boness had a camera “that took about 10 photos per film. This meant I really had to think about composition and subject matter, but it also made me consider what I wanted to achieve with every shot,” he explains. It is in this manner, with this careful attitude towards photography, but with a more up-to-date camera, that Stefan Boness plans to return to Asmara to continue to capture the city, its magnificent buildings and its enduring Italian spirit.