Africa’s Art Deco Capital

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, has just been designated as a World Heritage Site for its unique collection of Art Deco buildings, which UNESCO calls “an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context”. (And for which the city is sometimes called “Africa’s Miami”.)

Asmara’s architecture is a legacy of Italian rule, which stretched from 1889 until the end of the Second World War. Italy’s determination to be a colonial power, like its stronger European rivals, drove it to pioneer new and radical styles far from the constraints of European sensibilities (indeed, many of these structures were heavily criticized at the time). It became known as a paradise for bold Italian architects, and by the 1930s the capital had the nickname of “Little Rome” because half of its residents were Italian.

Unfortunately, Eritrea’s government is among the most repressive and totalitarian in the world, and there is much concern about its capacity to preserve these structures, to say nothing of the treatment of its citizens.

Info and photos courtesy of the New York Times and UNESCO

Bolivia’s Remarkable Neo-Andino Style

While there remains tens of millions of people of indigenous descent throughout Latin America, much of their culture has been forgotten, deliberately repressed, or socially marginalized by the Spanish-influenced mainstream. Thankfully, a vast corpus of native languages, customs, folk beliefs, music, and visual art remains influential in many Latin American countries, and in some cases are even thriving. But architecture was generally absent from the long list of indigenous influences that, to varying degrees, remain prevalent (knowingly or not) in Latin American culture.

Hence my surprise, and subsequent delight, at a recent article in Remezcla that explores a fascinating new architectural movement in Bolivia inspired by the indigenous Aymara (who make up the majority of the country’s population, yet have long been marginalized). Centered in the sprawling metropolis of El Alto, which is located over 13,000 feet above sea level, this Andean or “Neo-Andino” style is like nothing else I have ever seen, combining modernist geometric patterns with the ornate and colorful motifs of the Amarya.

The leader of this eclectic architectural revolution — the “Aymara version of Michelangelo”, as some publications have called him — is a mostly self-taught forty-one-year-old architect named Freddy Mamani, who was inspired to “inject some color” into El Alto’s drab cityscape. The popularity of his style, especially among the rising middle class, reflects a cultural renaissance among indigenous Bolivians, who until recently were largely marginalized both socially and politically despite their numbers.

Remezcla has an illuminating interview with Mamani, whose works have already been the subject of a book, song, and several news reports, and can be seen in other cities in Bolivia, as well as in Peru and Brazil. It is great to see something new emerge in a global architectural scene that has largely become monocultural, with cities across the globe adopting more or less similar Western modernist motifs. It is even more exciting to witness a resurgence in one of the world’s richest and hitherto repressed cultures. As more Latin Americans of indigenous descent finally get their due economic, social, and political opportunities, we can expect to see more of their long-neglected culture gain a platform.

The 25 Most Audacious Megaprojects in the World

Since I find myself (fortunately) busy with some well needed freelance work, I have decided to keep things a bit light today; if you are similarly fascinated by humanity’s boundless capacity for innovation and grandiosity, check out Popular Mechanics’ fascinating list of some of the world’s largest and technically-challenges projects under construction.

From near-stratospheric skyscrapers, to valley-spanning bridges and even whole cities, these infrastructural marvels reflect the latest developments in both technology and human vision — to say nothing of the endless appetite for economic growth and global prestige alike.

It is very telling that most of these projects take place in the developing world, particularly China, though quite a few are being undertaken in the industrialized world, including the United States. A more cynical and cautious observer might worry about the environmental impact of these endeavors, or whether they are a good use of funds in light of the global economic slowdown; such concerns are well founded, though for now I am content to see what technological feats our species is capable of, and how the fruits of such projects — if any — will bear out in the coming years.

 

Taking Environmental Sustainability to the Next Level

It is one thing to design buildings that can minimize impact on the environment. But what about creating structures that can play a regenerative role, contributing positively and directly to surrounded ecosystems? CityLab explores this intriguing and recent concept:

The idea is not to be satisfied with efficiency for its own sake. Regenerative design aspires to an active participation in ecosystems all around. A green roof is pleasant for humans and reduces energy consumption in the building underneath; a regenerative green roof not only does that but is intentionally designed to support butterflies or birds that have otherwise vacated an urban area.

Capturing rainwater, recycling graywater, and treating wastewater on-site are all great for reducing overall water consumption. But in regenerative design, these strategies are only optimal if they recharge the local aquifer as well.

Similarly, building materials shouldn’t only be viewed in the context of minimizing damage and the consumption of resources; they should be put to work for the planet. The use of wood thus becomes at its core a carbon sequestration strategy. The carbon soaked up by older trees—harvested in sustainable forestry practices, cutting them down before they fall and rot and release emissions back into the atmosphere—gets taken out of the cycle, permanently tucked away as beams and pillars and walls.

Given the novelty of the idea, there are no working models just yet. The article highlights the closest example of a regenerative system: the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre in Vancouver (pictured).

Waste from the toilets is harvested to be mixed with food waste composting, while the water is separated out and purified for use in irrigation. Rammed-earth building blocks were formed by dredging ponds on the site, and the deeper water in turn led to a healthier ecosystem. The equivalent of staircases encourage all kinds of critters to get up to the green roof and feed; coyotes have been spotted up there.

Given the twin trends of rapid urbanization and equally rapid environmental degradation, this is definitely idea well worth exploring and investing in further. What are your thoughts?