Children playing on a beach in Mogadishu surrounded by small fishing boats and historic ruins.
Yusuf Shegow's Somali Architecture project has come to include much more than nostalgia and preservation—it’s also about action and vision for the future. Feisal Omar/Reuters

One architecture student’s “bedroom project” has become a multimedia quest to understand the war-torn nation’s architectural history.

In 2013, Yusuf Shegow went back to Somalia for the first time in almost ten years. It was the country where he had been born, a place steeped in family history and stories. At the time, Shegow was an architecture student in Manchester, England, and as he and his father walked around Mogadishu, he was struck by the myriad styles and influences amidst the ruins and war-scarred buildings. “It made me question: What used to be here?”

Shegow, who grew up in Kenya and the U.K. after leaving Somalia as a child, returned to England after the trip with a reinvigorated fascination for his birthplace. He became obsessed with archives—finding and studying old photographs to better understand how things had once been. The layers of history were like the concentric circles inside a tree: evidence of the country’s many chapters of history, from the Islamic influence to the colonial period.

Initially, Shegow focused on archival documentation, but in 2015, inspired by a Master’s project in architecture at Manchester University, he started using the photos he had found of Mogadishu before the war to make 3-D architectural models. Shegow describes the early years of modelling as a “bedroom project,” one he never imagined would interest so many others, particularly among the Somalian diaspora.

Three years on, Shegow’s project, Somali Architecture, now includes Madina Scacchi, Iman Mohamed, and Ahmed Mussa—a team based in Italy, the U.K., and the United States—all of whom work with Shegow to better understand history and, they hope, to influence the future. According to Shegow, the project has come to include much more than nostalgia and preservation—it’s also about action and vision for the future.

Part of the appeal of the Somali Architecture project is how it uses modern technology—3-D modeling, Instagram, and Snapchat—to explore and diffuse explorations of architecture and identity. As Shegow described, “A lot of people outside of the country, across the diaspora, feel distant from Somalia and don’t have anything that takes them back or closer.” Somali Architecture aims to remedy this by examining not just buildings but the context in which those buildings were built. “You might be examining one building but you are also examining the reason why the building is there,” he said, citing the National Theater and the Mogadishu Cathedral as examples.

The National Theater, built as a present from Mao Zedong, first opened in 1967. For the next several decades it was a cultural hub in the capital, but when the civil war broke out in 1991, the theater was one of the first buildings to be severely damaged. During the war period, the building took on a new function; instead of a place for music, plays, and dance, it became a storage space for weapons. In 2012, the theater reopened its doors, but just one week later, during an official ceremony, a bomb blast killed some of the country’s top sports officials and members of the Olympic committee. Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack.

Somalia's National Theatre. A film by Said Fadhaye from DIIRAD FILMS on Vimeo.

In a short documentary about the theater made by Somali filmmaker Said Fadhaye, Binti Omar Ga’al, a singer who performed with the legendary Waaberi band at the theater before the country’s civil war, watches archival footage of one of her concerts. Her voice is gorgeous, haunting, and at the end of the clip she is overcome with emotion. “It reminds me of the good days when I first sang this song; how I felt at the time and the people who were sitting in front of me inside the theater,” she said. “People were passionate about arts. They would queue up during the daytime. Tickets would run out as they waited in the queue and they would be told [to] come back tomorrow.”

Though the future of the theater remains uncertain, it is among the buildings slated for renewal under a cooperation agreement signed between the Chinese and Somali governments in 2013. For many Somalis, the building is an icon, a remnant of how much was lost but also how much potential remains. As Fadhaye describes in his film, the building is a “symbol of a broken nation with a big hole in its heart.”

The Mogadishu Cathedral is another structure showcased on the website of Somali Architecture. A stark reminder of the country’s colonial past, the cathedral was designed by Italian architect Vandone di Cortemilia and inaugurated in 1928. The civil war largely destroyed the cathedral, and while the tower bells and roof are entirely gone, the walls and part of the west facade remain. In addition to posting archival photos and a 3-D model of how the cathedral once was on their site, Somali architecture has proposed a plan to keep the “traces” of the cathedral—notably the bullet-ridden walls—while transforming the space into a complex that includes a public garden and a war museum.

According to the group, transforming the cathedral into a war museum would be an act of both preservation and progress, key in rebuilding a society shattered, physically and psychically, after decades of war. As Somali Architecture describes on their website, “The War Museum could be much more than just a museum: it would be a real educational hub where people can learn about the history of Somalia. History is both interpretation of facts and memory. It is fundamental to let the youngest and future generations understand the importance of history to give them the right tools to think and act well in daily life. History belongs to all of us, and considering Somalia’s future development without taking into account its history means to transform us into orphans of the past.”

This fall, the Somali architecture team displayed their work at the London Design Biennale. “It was a good opportunity to show worldwide what’s going on in Somalia in terms of architecture—what use to be here, and what remains.” International interest in the team’s work continues to grow. Following the exhibit in London, UNESCO expressed interest in bringing an exhibit to their headquarters in Paris. For now, Shegow and his team will continue to do their work, rebuilding the past through 3-D models and, they hope, actively participating the rebuilding of their country. “We’re looking forward to seeing where this journey takes us,” he said.

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