Asmara and Addis Ababa

The Afterlife Colonial Fascist Architecture. A Critical Manifesto

Emilio Distretti and Alessandro Petti

Future Anterior
Volume XVI, Number 2 Winter 2019

 

The nomination. On July 8 2017, during the first session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Krakow Poland, Asmara the capital of Eritrea was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The winning application, titled ‘Asmara – Africa’s Modernist City’ refers to the Modernist fascist colonial architectural and urban transformation of Asmara that occurred during the Italian colonial occupation (1890-1941). The nomination and its inscription were the culmination of a long project of documenting and cataloging of more than 4000 modernist buildings begun since Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in 1991.

The listing of Asmara as UNESCO World Heritage Site is an unsettling story that has raised a series of contradictory questions around the outstanding issue of colonial heritage: does the nomination constitute a new chapter in the Eritrean national struggle for liberation and self-determination? Does it mark the conclusion of a long path of decolonization from fascism marked by the re-use and re-appropriation of colonial buildings and infrastructure? Or, on the contrary, is it a post-ideological and economic initiative that aims to revive the bygone “colonial times” for western tourism? Is Asmara’s inscription within UNESCO criteria an act of submission by non-European cultures and civilization to European universalistic, colonial and Eurocentric values?

While acknowledging the impossibility of separating those questions and rejecting the objective of offering neat and comfortable solutions to these dilemmas, we recognize that Asmara’s nomination exercises an unsettling power, as it re-unites ex-colonizing and ex-colonized societies around common questions: Is there an afterlife of fascist colonial architecture? Is there a possibility for its re-use without falling into the celebration of fascist ideology? What kind of heritage really is fascist colonial architectural heritage?

Asymmetric Doubles. The recognition of fascist colonial architectural heritage in Asmara reactivates, the entangled histories of ex-colonizing and ex-colonized societies. During fascism, the regime used architecture and urbanism as a way to create “unity” between the “metropole” and its “peripheral” worlds. This relation took the form of an asymmetric double. The fascist project consisted of the construction of synchronized, parallel and juxtaposed colonial geographies. It was done through the repetition, replication and duplication of the same structures, built and spatial forms on both Italian and African soils: urban schemes for new towns, Rome and Addis Ababa as twin capitals of the new empire, piazzas, casa del fascio, churches, villas, leisure centers (cinemas and theatres) and monuments.  Italy saw the establishment of New Towns in the Agro Pontino near Rome, in Sardinia and in Sicily as a modern project of redemption of the land and its inhabitants. Similarly the new agricultural settlements in Libya, together with the master plans of Asmara and Addis Ababa, were meant as tools for the modernization and civilizing of the local population. A new map of the Empire was drawn: a network of urban and rural centers, buildings and monuments, resembling an electric modern grid of antenna/transmitters connecting Italy to its colonies.

A series and sequences of architectural doubles.

However, the fascist rhetoric of doubles was contradicted by the harsh reality of the dictatorship and colonial domination. In Italy, the foundation of the New Towns and the celebration of a new urbanity followed the reclamation of the marsh lands in the South, where the local population was demonized as “uncivilized” and “wild”. Meanwhile, in the colonized territories, architectural modernism could unchain its “dark side” with no restrictions: racial segregation, the annihilation of local cultures, life and economies considered traditional and “irrational”, the dogmatic division between public and private spaces, the violent separation between secular and non-secular spheres, and the weaponization of religion as a tool of ‘divide and rule’ against the native population.

Again, the colonies were used as the laboratory where modernist principles of zoning and tabula rasa were tested at full power. In this way, the model of forced urbanization brought by the New Towns in the South of Italy, would eventually inform a model of colonization in Africa where the Black native gives away to the White settler.  Thus, behind the façade of ‘sameness’ projected by Italy’s scheme of architectural doubles, colonial policies and legislation marked the clear difference between Italian metropolitan citizens and colonial subjects, separating legally and spatially the colonizers and the colonized. While sharing the same modernist civilizational principles, the beneficiaries of colonial architecture were Italians only, such that the New Towns built in Italy had their alter egos in the White Cities erected in Addis Ababa (only as a master-plan) and Asmara; the ‘double’ was meant to serve the settler only, as an asymmetric double indeed.

 

Defascistization and Decolonization. Under the shadow of Modernism, fascism’s architectural doubles and its histories of dispossession and violence cut across the Southern and Northern hemispheres, while their legacies still represent an open wound.  Historically, processes of decolonization and defascistization in the Italian context have been abruptly interrupted or demonized from their very inception. Italy having “lost its colonies” in Africa (Eritrea, Somalia, Libya and Ethiopia) and in the Mediterranean (the Dodecanese and Albania) as a result of its military defeats in WWII, the question of decolonization has been reduced to a mere geopolitical shift/transition, while colonialism has been minimized as a minor event in Italian history. At the same time, despite the facade, following the war, of the defascistization of Italy’s laws and political system, the advent of the Cold War and the 1946 general amnesty for fascist crimes froze any real change, putting the whole process of defascistization on hold.

In Italy, this long-lasting political and cultural impasse is very visible through the continued use of fascist architecture. Unlike Germany, where the symbols of inconvenient pasts have been removed, dismantled or in some cases entirely destroyed, in Italian urban spaces it is very common to find fascist buildings, monuments, and memorials that have been left untouched[1]. The same fascist architecture and urban planning designs, the object of the Asmara nomination, have been un-critically re-used by post-fascist Republican governments to host Italy’s new liberal institutions. The relics of fascism and colonialism have been normalized within Italian cityscapes, often escaping the critique and consideration of anti-fascist politics.

Today the re-centering of fascism and far right movements in the North, and the increasing arrival of migrant bodies from former colonized countries, made it more urgent than ever the need to reopen the processes of decolonization and defascistization. While historic fascism is over, the principles and rationalities of fascist rule – through capitalist and patriarchal domination, racial and gender discrimination, institutional racism, repression of minorities and the discipline of the “other”– have survived the absence of formal fascism. Following the lesson of Anibal Qujiano’s and Walter Mignolo’s decolonial option and theories of ‘coloniality’, we recognize that the principles of fascism – like colonialism  – have survived the rule itself.

In such a context, questions around the afterlife of fascist colonial architectural heritage are more critical than ever. What should be done with this troublesome heritage? Is it possible for critical preservation discourses and practices to form a barrier against the risk of eternally perpetuating this very ideology, and against the danger of self-absolution and nostalgia? Who has the right to reuse this heritage?

As a way to answer these questions, we believe that new debates on the question of the afterlife of fascist colonial architecture should necessarily aim to put a spotlight on the urgency to come to terms with ongoing struggles for defascistization and decolonization. To do so, requires recognising that fascist architectural heritage constitutes evidence to the linkages, correlations and the historical continuities between fascism, the colonial past (Italian, European and Mediterranean) and the (post)colonial present. Hence, radical theories of decolonial preservation, should place architectural fascist and colonial heritage as a potential cultural battlefield of regenerated and combined practices of defascistization and decolonization.

Heritage. Starting from architectural knowledge and practice, it might be now the time to reopen these processes. Despite an outward appearance of “immobility” and “staticity”, architectural heritage constitutes a field of knowledge that is not simply limited to registering and archiving history into material forms. It also informs a method of inquiry, where buildings and monuments become epistemic tools to re-think and question the aftermath of the event that these material configurations were meant to represent. But most importantly, as explained by David Harvey, the production of heritage connects to the re-use and re-interpretation of spaces, sites and physical remains that occur as the result of political and cultural transitions. Heritage is therefore the expression of a tension enacted by re-use and re-appropriation[2]. The challenge posed by the question of the afterlife of fascist architecture sits exactly at this intersection.

Alongside the questions of new meanings and functions, practices of re-use and re-appropriation of fascist architectural heritage depend on another outstanding issue:  many of these buildings, almost a century old, are falling apart. Alongside the example of Asmara, this makes the questions around the re-use of fascist buildings, their demolition or preservation more urgent than ever from the simple perspective of preservation, conservation (and restoration) of architectural structures. For decades architectural preservationists have been debating and striving to identify common denominators around preservation theory and practice, generating a series of side-effects[3]. Firstly, the creations of unitary values and standards have coincided with the imposition of a Eurocentric paradigm (as proven by the UNESCO principles) lacking critical balance and recognition of non-Western historic and aesthetics values and traditions. But also, it has created a unilateral and hegemonic understanding of “heritage preservation” in terms of authenticity, where the applicability of restoration principles is confined to a very Eurocentric view of heritage based on “truthfulness” and “originality”[4]. Needless to say, this has created additional contestations. On the one hand the concept of authenticity has disqualified cultural diversity, relegating the question of non-western heritage (especially from postcolonial worlds) to invisibility and physical eradication. On the other hand, it has also offered a model of preservation (and hence heritage) anchored to a specific and narrow interpretation: as a return to the authentic, the object needs to recover its functions[5], namely the original and “correct” use.

 

Repair. As a way to tackle these problems and overcome the impasse around the destiny of fascist buildings, we realized that an epistemological and ontological turn around the question of “preservation” had to be taken. To do so we shifted our focus to an alternative locution, which – very practically – combines the reverse of a damage to a real re-use: the repair. The repair very neatly addresses the need to fix a damage, an injury, a loss or harm. This can manifest with objects and buildings, but also with people. Any act of repairing exercise a restorative and redemptive power. Because it addresses a physical absence or a loss, it requires a human correction or amend. Many times, this loss is the cause of destruction. Destruction made by neglect, erosion or violence. We argue that the repair that the fascist buildings in Eritrea, Ethiopia and in Italy will necessitate reflects exactly these three elements. While reflecting an evident state of physical and material decay, these buildings evoke the violent destruction and annihilation (such as the dispossession of native lands and properties, genocidal practices, racial segregation, and destruction of local social and cultural tradition and bonds) caused by the Italian colonial oppression of the colonized populations in Africa and the Mediterranean, and the brutality of the dictatorship in Italy as well.

The repair we have in mind draws inspiration from postcolonial non-western knowledge and practices. Work in this direction has been done on museum objects and collections from artists Judy Watson in her series the holes in the land and Kader Attia’s theory of repair and visions on injury, wounds and mutilations. Despite their different perspectives, both artists use heritage to challenge colonial cultural paradigms. Watson’s intervention in the British Museum ‘liberates’ looted aboriginal objects through the celebration of indigenous tradition[6], while Attia draws attention to the aesthetic value of non-western indigenous repaired objects that are excluded from European modernist canons of classification. In both practices and theories, the repair originates from dispossession and damage and must lead to re-appropriation and re-use. Furthermore, Attia’s critique addresses the Occident’s desire to use the repair to put things “back in order”[7], reflecting the inner modernist principle to shape different world orders. Instead, Attia offers an antithetic understanding of repair that does not imply taking back things to the origin, but on the contrary it will bring another and new aesthetics to the object. A new aesthetics that necessarily materializes by re-use and re -appropriation.

 

Prosthesis. In occasion of Manifesta 12 in Palermo in 2018, within the frame of the Decolonizing Architecture advance course at the Royal Institute of Art of Stockholm, we have invited historians, activists, architects and politicians to discuss the afterlife of fascist buildings.​ At the Casa del Mutilato of Palermo, originally designed by Giuseppe Spatrisano in 1935, a scissor lift, usually employed in architectural restoration works, was used and added as a necessary prosthesis to the building, becoming a public podium for collective assembly.

Technically, a prostheses functions as an artificial device that replaces or augments a missing or impaired part of the body. It consists of an addition, and it materializes as a form of repair. Drawing inspiration from medical knowledge and practice, we understood that this same concept could be applied to architecture. In so doing, the prostheses reveals its double function:  firstly, it could bring to the fore historical narratives that have been marginalized, challenging the dominant narrative inscribed in the building and the perpetuation of neo-fascist and neocolonialists rhetoric. Secondly, the prostheses could challenge the Western paradigm of preserving and restoring architectural heritage based on perfection. Through the prostheses, it is possible to override the principles of modern preservation grounded on the dogma of returning broken objects to their initial state, the chimera of perfection and authenticity.

Reparations. The act of repair goes beyond the sphere of the physical reparation of decrepit buildings. The destruction these buildings represents is not a metaphor, but it addresses the outstanding questions of unpunished crimes and the unresolved issue of postcolonial reparations, that in many cases are still pending. A primordial and archaic use of the term “reparation” meant the action of repairing something, and it only later became synonymous with an amendment for wrong-doings.

Investigating the ancient analogy between “repair” and “reparation” (in Latin as well as in Arabic, Amharic and Tigrinya) and through the introduction of the prostheses, we want to expand the notion of postcolonial reparations to architectural heritage. In this way, the re-use of architectural heritage will epitomize an act of posthumous justice.

Too often, reparations have been limited to aid and infrastructural development. In many cases, the politics of return and compensation, rather than simply shedding light on the wider discourse on colonialism (concerning questions of continuities and unsolved nostalgia, melancholia, historic memory and amnesia about the colonial past), responsibilities and illicit trafficking of cultural goods, represents at its best the mutation of the persisting power relation between ex-colonizers and ex-colonized.  In a global scenario where colonial crimes and responsibility have been ‘washed out’ via investment in development, infrastructure, state building projects and humanitarian aid, the idea of a critical re-use of fascist colonial architecture would raise important questions around the need to go beyond this model of reparation. Within this scenario, we claim that collaborative work is needed, to find a place for architectural heritage on a new pathway towards reparation plans and the unresolved question of postcolonial justice.

Traditionally condemned to immobility, architectural forms traditionally escape the modern reparation scheme between ex-colonizing and ex-colonized states and societies. Firmly rooted in development and humanitarian industries, postcolonial reparation programs are often built on a system of uneven mobilities: the hypermobility of material goods, humanitarian aid and capital on the axis North/South as opposed to the immobility of people who since decolonization have been claiming their right to mobility on the North to South and East to West axis.

Through prostheses and repair we suggest an alternative take, one that entangles the question of preservation of architectural heritage with the pending issue of postcolonial justice. By re-use as reparation we intend to contribute to solve the dilemma that has followed the failure of traditional scheme of developmental reparation programs: does a process of reparation exist solely within the sphere of bilateral agreements between governments and nation states? Who has the right to reparations? And in what forms should reparations be re-arranged?

 

Architectural Demodernization. Thinking about re-use as reparation is one possible step towards decolonizing preservation, and for simultaneous actions in both ex-colonizing and ex-colonized worlds. This needs to be grounded on a politics of reciprocity, alliances and a critical understanding of common colonial heritage as a site of conflict and contestation. In 2019, together with the Addis Ababa based architect Rahel Shawl and the members of her studio RAAS Architecture, we started mapping out fascist architecture built in Addis Ababa during the Italian occupation, with the aim to reuse one of these building for establishing a women’s center, which would help women architects to navigate an industry largely dominated by men. This was followed by an exhibition and a public discussion at the Urban Center, a collaborative space for active citizenship, debate and co-work in Addis. Among the several ideas that emerged from the workshops and the public discussions, there was one that was particularly relevant to the debate around the afterlife of fascist colonial architecture. The participating public questioned the appropriateness of using the concept of “decolonization” in the context of Ethiopian history, emphasizing the way in which Ethiopia decided to distance itself from Italy’s architectural legacy, keeping it as a dormant heritage. They argued that rethinking the afterlife of fascist buildings in terms of “decolonizing” practices might be misleading, because Ethiopia is the only African country that has not gone through sustained long term European colonization, but a relatively short-term military occupation by the Italian Army (1936-1941). In contrast, Eritrea was under Italian colonial rule for much longer (1890-1941), and the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea that followed the fall of the Derg Communist junta (1987) revealed the diverging ways in which the Ethiopian and Eritrean national identities have been shaped in relation to Italian colonialism. It is not our intention at the moment to enter these debates, but it was striking to realize that the position taken by the public in Addis goes in the opposite direction to the rationale of the Asmara Heritage project led by architect Medhanie Teklemariam and his team, where Asmara’s fascist colonial buildings – often erected during the same period and in some cases by the same architects as those in Addis – have been looked as Eritrean national heritage in need of restoration.

These different approaches to the reuse of fascist colonial heritage, force us therefore to better understand and reflect upon the variety of options, strategies, experiences (and disagreements) within the larger struggle for decolonization. In that sense, as explained at the beginning of our text, the listing of Asmara to UNESCO is a state led initiative that clearly constitutes a controversial moment, in the ways it risks to present the White City built by the Italians as the model of urban heritage in the African continent. New paths in decolonial preservation, will therefore have to address these contradictions and, as indicated in the manifesto of “Decolonial Aesthetics (I)” will arrange “alternatives” in relation to “the control of the state (politics of heritage based on economic wealth), and the control of knowledge.”[8]  This shows how long and totally open the pathways are for taking the “re-use” of architectural heritage out of the sphere of the state and liberating architecture from the inherited ‘whiteness’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘masculinity’ instilled by fascist modernism. The decolonial option indeed offers another route to architectural conservationists and preservationist, a possibility of “delinking” heritage from those standards, categories and taxonomies that belong to the narratives of modernity and its legacies. In this direction, the case of Asmara, despite its problems, still paves the way towards new trajectories, with the possibility to plan the subversion of the genealogy of fascist and modernist architectural heritage: no longer starting from the imagination (and representations) of settler colonial cultures, but from practices of re-use enacted by the native population. Importantly, in this way it will be possible to undermine the paradigm of modern aesthetics that since the foundation of the ethnological museum features the West as the only protector of the “cultures of the others”. If we imagine for a moment that Ethiopians and Eritreans would act as “the custodian” of Italian fascist architectural heritage, would it be possible to envision reversed models of preservation, that bear testimony of a shared decolonizing project between the South and the North, ex-colonized and ex-colonizers? Can the long wave of such struggles eventually neutralise the figure of the “other” from any aesthetic classification and ranking, and finally question the principles of coloniality of power via the re-use of fascism’s architectural remnants? If we accept, as we have been trying to argue in this text, that fascist architectural modernism emerged and served as an ideological and technical tool within the larger European colonial project, we must also recognize the necessity to start a path of architectural de-modernization, that necessarily accompanies a common project of defascistization. Therefore, the task ahead, for all those who are living under modernist structures, is to undermine their very foundational values that continue to exist and permeate our realities, irrespective of geographical location and North/South divisions. These struggles can be inscribed as part of decoloniality, which as suggested by Mignolo and Vasquez “refers to the variegated enunciations springing from global-local histories entangled with the local imperial history of Euro-American modernity”[9]. Therefore, by profaning the structures inherited from fascism, it is time to profane and transgress modernist dogmatic divisions that are still live and kicking until this very day. A program and a vision for architectural de-modernization, that should challenge the modernist division between modern and traditional, monuments and minor architecture, de-segregate between public and private, civilized and uncivilized, order and disorder, rational and irrational, old and new. In that sense, the prosthesis applied to the Casa del Mutilato in Palermo could be understood as an experimental and decolonial form of architectural preservation and de-modernization that does not aim to erase the architectural traces of fascism and colonization, but rather intends to open up to a different reuse, within the framework of reparation. With the ultimate goal being that such vast controversial heritage would become a site of struggle for justice against old and new forms of fascisms, colonialisms and modernization.

 

[1] Ruth Ben Ghiat, “Why are so many fascist monuments still standing in Italy?“, The New Yorker (5 October 2017).

[2] David Harvey, “Heritage Pasts and Heritage Presents: Temporality, meaning, and the scope of heritage studies”, International Journal of Heritage Studies 7, n.4 (2001): 319-338.

[3] Jukka Jokhileto, “Preservation Theory Unfolding“, Future Anterior III, n.1 (2006): 1-9.

[4] Ibid. 2

[5] Ibid. 3.

[6] Susan Best, “Anger and Repair”, Third Text 32, n.1 (2018): 79-100

[7] Kader Attia, “Open Your Eyes”, Third Text, 32, n.1, (2018):16-31.

[8] Lockward, Vazquez et al., “Decolonial Aesthetics (I)”, Transnational Decolonial Institute, (2011). Available at: https://transnationaldecolonialinstitute.wordpress.com/decolonial-aesthetics/

[9] Walter Mignolo and Roland Vasquez, “Decolonial AeSthesis: Colonial Wounds/Decolonial Healings“, Social Text (2013). Available at https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/decolonial-aesthesis-colonial-woundsdecolonial-healings/