By Peter Orosz,
The Fiat Tagliero Building, built in 1938, is an architectural ode to the automobile like Fiat’s Lingotto factory in Turin. But the Tagliero is thousands of miles from Italy’s industrial heartland—and it is but one of the many magnificent Futurist structures in Asmara, the highland capital of Eritrea.
Shockingly modern automotive-themed buildings are not the first things that come to mind when one thinks of colonial architecture. Yet that’s precisely what the Tagliero is. Between 1890 and 1941, Eritrea—a country the shape of an oil can stretching along the west coast of the Red Sea—was an Italian colony. And under Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, architects who were too avant-garde for Europe were shipped off to the province of Africa Orientale Italiana to show in the Eritrean Highlands what a modern city looks like.
This they did with reckless abandon. In a few years, until Eritrea was lost to the British in 1941, Italy’s crazy ones, misfits, rebels, troublemakers and square pegs in round Bauhaus holes saw things way too differently and built a city which makes most cities look timid and traditional even seventy years later.
Consider the Tagliero. The work of Giuseppe Pettazzi, it is shaped like an airplane with concrete wings which reach 50 feet, completely unsupported. Legend has it that Pettazzi’s plan was deemed structurally unsound by local authorities, and that at the construction site, Pettazzi held a gun to the foreman’s head to force him to stick to his original plans. Time proved him right: seventy-three years on, after British then Ethiopian occupation, after a horrendous border war which concluded ten years ago, the building still stands.
The rest of Asmara more than matches the Tagliero’s bold lines. The coffee table book Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City has 240 pages of similar structures, from Italian cinemas to apartment buildings to Alfa Romeo service stations. It is a riot of modernity and it offers a terrible dilemma: all this spectacular beauty is the product of a Fascist dictatorship which acted like all colonial powers did, suppressing and exploiting the local population.
On a brigher note, they did something else too: they taught them how to make a proper macchiato. Which is apparently still all the rage in this wonderful city.
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