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Review of Sean Anderson, Modern Architecture and its Representation in Colonial Eritrea


By Christine Matzke

Sean Anderson, Modern Architecture and its Representation in Colonial Eritrea: An In-visible Colony, 1890-1941. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate (hb £70 – 978 1 4724 1496 0; ebook PDF – 978 1 4724 1497 7; ebook ePUB – 978 1 4724 1498 4). 2015, xxi + 288 pp. Includes 143 b&w illustrations.

Modern Architecture and its Representations in Colonial Eritrea book cover

"Books, in all guises," Sean Anderson notes, "are a means of storytelling" (p. xix). In this monograph under review, Anderson tells a (hi)story of public and private spaces in colonial Eritrea (1890-1941), and how this helped create a very particular form of modernity. It is a story of physical locations, the built environment and their representations, but also of hidden geographies and the in-/visible bodies situated in all of them. Above all, this study tells us about the production of such spaces inside and outside the colony; not only through the impact of architecture, material and social engineering, but also through written narratives and the staging of collections and colonial expositions, largely in Italy itself.

Books on colonial architecture in Eritrea, particularly the capital Asmara (UNESCO World Heritage site since 2017), abound and, in a way, form the backdrop to Anderson’s fascinating study. They range from meticulous documentations (under the aegis of the Eritrean Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project [CARP], for example, or the Italian Institute for Africa and the Orient [IsIAO]) to works which evoke the Eritrean capital more imaginatively through photography and creative writing. Anderson is at the intersection of both – scholarship of the built environment and the arts –; and yet he does something very different. While most works, whether ‘academic’ or ‘artistic’, celebrate the grandeur of the cityscape (and eventually engender a nostalgic longing in those familiar with the Eritrean capital), Anderson looks at how Asmara was produced by the twin connection of "modernity and memory, both of which framed unseen spaces in the colonial domain" (p. 6). Though concerned with the physical environment, Anderson is particularly good at reading the ‘absences’ and ‘emptiness’ of space, and how they too created material structure and meaning. Asmara, then, is read as an "interior" (p. 7) rather than an "exterior", and as a "space of collection" (p. 7) rather than a trial ground for urban construction.

The book is divided into an introduction and four chapters which can be read in sequential order, but also, so the author assures us, from back to front (or in any order you like). It is a rare publication that encourages readerly experimentation, but those who dare to will be less prone to fall into the trap of constructing a chronological ‘master-narrative’ of colonial architecture in Eritrea. Instead, they will begin to appreciate the spaces under discussion on their own terms, and will gradually discover links between the individual sections. Chapter 1,  ‘Displaced in the Sun’, looks at how travelogues and diaries by European expatriates mapped Eritrean spaces in narrative, and how this helped create what Edward Said has termed ‘imaginary geographies’ –  newly constructed locations in the colony, often at the intersection of the mythical and the mercantile, into which ‘Italian atmosphere’ and ‘character’ (p. 19) were inscribed. The chapter title, ‘Displaced in the sun’, is obviously a word play on the Italian expression posto al sole (place in the sun), a highly romanticised idea of colonial Africa and a crucial colonial projection. (It is also one of the many covert, tongue-in-cheek references to relevant publications in the field; here, among others, a 2003 essay collection by Patrizia Palumbo on Africa in Italian colonial culture).

Anderson initially takes us through a number of colonial texts by men, and explains how they affected an understanding of Eritrean space and eventually "the building of divergent modern visions in Asmara." (p. 20). While these writings provide a traditional – read: ‘male’ and ‘external’ – visualisation of the nascent colony which spoke of "renovation" (p. 25), "military measures" (p. 27) and the need for Eritrea(ns) to "become" Italian through lifestyle and technology, Rosalia Pianavia Vivaldi’s 1901 memoir, Tre anni in Eritrea, provides a different, because rarely gendered view. Arriving in 1893 as the wife of the region’s Italian commander, she develops her own – ‘modern’ – vision of the colony from within her domestic sphere which she contrasts with the seemingly ‘empty’ homes occupied by indigenous women. Chapter 3, ‘Modernità e Interiorià: The Interiors of Africa Orientale Italiana’, returns to this theme by further examining how the domestic realm became a "mirror of the colonial project" (p. 148). Rarely represented in textual or visual documents – unlike the colony’s outer façades – Anderson first approaches colonial interiors as discursive spaces from a literary-philosophical point of view, before tracing the presence of both Italian and, increasingly after 1930, Eritrean women in Asmara’s fascist (and pre-fascist) interiors.

While important sites for the collection of 'Italianità', these inside environments remained largely concealed to the outside eye, a notion Anderson also employs in the second chapter: ‘Asmara: In-visible City’. In terms of architectural history, this is perhaps the most conventional chapter of the book, taking us through a three-part timeline of the city’s built environment, from ‘Making the Modern: 1890-1922’, ‘The Surface of Technology: 1922-1936’ to ‘Surveillance and Spectacle: 1935-1941’. While this chronology helps us understand the architectural palimpsest Asmara de facto is, and how it set the stage for the spectacle of fascist imperial grandeur, it also makes us aware of the hidden and unseen spaces of the cityscape. These range from the concealment of the Mai Bela River as a potentially "disease-ridden" (p. 127) water supply to the "disappearance" of Eritreans from the prestigious parts of town through rigorous racial and spatial segregation. (Anderson visually captures another moment of "disappearance" on the cover illustration of the book; a segment of Cinema Capitol, built in 1937-38, with two women hurrying away around its left corner reproduced on the spine).

Later, in Chapter 4: ‘At Home in the Mirage’, these out-of-sight Eritrean bodies re-, or rather ‘dis-appear’ (cf. p. 205) as ‘authentic exhibits’ in colonial expositions in Italy, themselves suspended between the colonies they supposedly represented and the cities in which they were staged. Anderson demonstrates how with each exposition the overseas territories increasingly "colonized the interior of Italy" (p. 15), rather than merely affirming the country’s "right" to take possession of colonial spaces. That this did nothing to alleviate the enforced "nomadism" and "lack of place of the colonial subject, be it person or building" (p. 243) can be seen in the fate of the East Africans "on display". On closing the Naples exposition in 1943 they were moved to, and seemingly forgotten in, "an abandoned villa, formerly part of a concentration camp in Treia, Macerata" (p. 243). Here, Anderson’s narrative simply breaks off, with the reader experiencing another "dis-appearance" of human bodies in the "mirage", whether in Italy or the Eritrean capital. Such an ending somehow prompts a call for further investigations into how denizens made their home in Asmara, then and today, particularly since colonial conceptions of this urban space were geared towards precluding its inhabitation.

It is Anderson’s contention that "this city has not been 'lost' or 'forgotten' as some recent authors contend. Asmara remains a memory for those who have left the city as well as those who occupy it today" (p. 10). "Preservation, as a means to rehabilitate a building’s condition inside and out", he perceives on the other hand as "a metonym for colonialism itself" (p. 15). While this is not discussed further in the book and remains open to debate, Anderson has presented us with a finely nuanced and beautifully written study that will equally engage students of architecture, cultural geography, Italian colonial history and Eritrean cultural studies. If I have one issue with the book, it is the quality of the copy-editing. For a hardback publication of such intellectual vigour, and of such visual and haptic quality (not to mention price!), the number of typos and reference errors is rather irritating.

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