Archive for October 7th, 2008

Eritrea: Art Deco time capsule

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Eritrea, the small country nestled between Sudan, Ethiopia and the Red Sea, was Italy’s one venture into colonialism. Architecturally, it seems to have paid off.

The desert air and the years of warfare have managed to keep the country in something of a time warp. There’s almost no crime, no pollution, no big crowds, the weather is like Hawaii, the hotels are cheap and in the 30’s Italians packed the place with crazy cool architecture.

Asmara [the capital] became an Art Deco laboratory during the 1930s for designs that seemed, well, just too out there for mainland Italy. Rationalism, Novecento, neo-Classicism, neo-Baroque and monumentalism are among the varied avant-garde styles played with here. The result today is hundreds of aging, sherbet-colored buildings that are still standing, some needing a coat of paint — or two — but otherwise intact. With its plentiful palms and sunshine, the whole city has a decidedly Miami Beach vibe, minus the miniskirts and Ferraris.

The star of the show, and for good reason, is the Fiat Tagliero gas station, designed in 1938 by Giuseppe Pettazzi to look like an airplane, a spaceship or possibly a bat. Mr. Pettazzi’s extraordinary flourish was the concrete wings that jut out a total of more than 90 feet. The municipal authorities at the time required him to build pillars under the wings so they wouldn’t collapse, which was an unforgivable insult to Mr. Pettazzi. According to local legend, Mr. Pettazzi installed detachable pillars, and at the station’s opening, he pulled out a pistol and forced the builder to remove the supports. Needless to say, the wings are still there.

There’s a coal-fired steam engine built by the Italians beginning in the 1880’s, still chugging along. Oh, and there’s Italian everywhere! Language, food, all the good stuff.

I simply must make my way to Eritrea someday, perhaps when diplomatic relations with the US are smoother than they are right now.

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