When Omar Degan set foot in Mogadishu for the first time in October 2017, he quickly realized that it bore little resemblance to the picturesque cityscape that his parents, Somali refugees who fled to Europe, had described to him as a child.
Instead of an idyllic scene of whitewashed buildings and modernist architecture in front of the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, he found a new Mogadishu, one that had been hastily rebuilt after the civil war in Somalia. Concrete roadblocks and blast-proof walls remained ubiquitous, and camps for displaced persons bordered on colorful condos with barely a hint of local style or heritage.
For Mr Degan, a 31-year-old architect, this dissonance reflected a loss of cultural identity that he has since worked to restore, and he hopes that others will increasingly intervene in the process of rebuilding the wounded city.
During his four years in Somalia, he created a new style and sense of what the country is and can be through architecture, after decades of civil war and terrorism, by mixing traditional themes with more modern themes like sustainability.
“I wanted architecture to bring back the feeling of belonging that was destroyed in the war,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I wanted people to own a room and be proud. I wanted to bring this feeling of Somali back and manifest it through design and architecture. “
He had longed for this feeling personally.
Mr Degan was born in Turin, northwestern Italy, in June 1990 to parents who had left Somalia a few years before the outbreak of war. Growing up there, he says, he never really felt he belonged – caught between his identity as a Somali with roots in a war-torn nation and a black Italian citizen in a country that didn’t fully embrace him.
“In the university,” he said, “there was even this challenge where even the professors said, ‘Oh, you speak Italian very well’ to remind yourself that you don’t belong.”
His parents wanted him to study medicine, but that dream died when one day his mother cut her foot and he couldn’t stand the sight of the blood. However, since he enjoyed sketching, he completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree in architecture at the Polytechnic University of Turin, where he specialized in emergency architecture and post-conflict reconstruction.
Although he chose Somalia in choosing this focus, he said he was also influenced by the urge to find meaning in life and learn skills that he could use for the common good.
Despite this backing, he said he was not considering moving his work to Somalia for security reasons. Instead, he worked in West Africa, Latin America and Asia for several years before moving to London for an intended career break. There he shared a room with a cousin who was looking for help building a community center and mosque at home in Somalia.
Mr. Degan agreed to help her with the design, but told her: “There is no way I will come with you.”
But she convinced, and a month later he flew to Mogadishu to use his skills in his family’s homeland.
This year it has been three decades since Somalia’s strong president, Major General Mohammed Siad Barre, was ousted and sparked a brutal civil war. Mogadishu – along with many other Somali cities – was looted by clan warlords, armed teenagers and later terrorists who destroyed government offices, looted cultural centers and decimated its Islamic and Italian landmarks. In doing so, they also robbed the city of what the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah described as “cosmopolitan virtues”.
Over the past decade, with the return of the appearance of stability, Mogadishu has slowly begun to change. New apartment blocks and shopping centers have emerged, the national theater and stadium have been refurbished, and historical monuments have been restored.
But when Mr Degan landed in the city in 2017, he was pushed off by the first building he encountered: the airport’s black and blue terminal made of brick and glass. “In a sunny coastal town, I asked myself who built it,” he recalls. “Architecture usually tells us a story – the story of our past heritage and our hopes – and I couldn’t see any of it here.”
The centuries-old city is littered with the footprints of sultans, European powers, peacemakers and warmongers, and questions circled in his head: How does the loss contribute to the recapture of a war-weary capital? How do you rebuild in a city where terrorist attacks are frequent? Can modern structures accommodate the nuances of history, culture and community?
To familiarize himself with the capital, Mr. Degan, who also speaks English and Somali with an Italian accent, went on what he called a “listening tour” involving young people from the city and returnees from the diaspora . He also traveled to major cities across the country, inspecting local designs, and socializing with various communities – at one point even while milking a camel.
Fascinated by the resilience he saw, he was determined to practice architecture that celebrated Somali identity and traditions. “I want to restore that sense of belonging that was lost in the war in a contemporary way,” he said.
In the years that followed, he designed a restaurant and a wedding hall with large terraces, gleaming white walls and furniture with the traditional multi-colored “Alindi” fabric. He has also designed a portable infirmary for treating children in rural areas, a school with garden areas, and a minimalist, airy maternity ward in a hospital in Mogadishu.
Almost all of Mr. Degan’s designs are painted white based on the city’s traditional white buildings, which has earned it the title “White Pearl of the Indian Ocean”.
But his designs also take up newer realities: He is working on a modern variant of the Somali stool and has designed a memorial for the hundreds of people who lost their lives in a double truck bombing in Mogadishu in October 2017 – three days after his Arrival in Mogadishu city.
At first, Mr Degan said, many people were excited about everything he could do to rebuild Somalia. But others thought he was “crazy” when he started talking about sustainable architecture, minimizing environmental damage, and looking to the past to shape the future. Some developers wanted it to work for free.
“It took me years to make people understand what an architect does,” he says with a laugh.
He’s working to connect with the wider community through social media, posting colorful photos of everyday life in Mogadishu on Instagram, and challenging humanitarian organizations and private companies in their designs. On YouTube, his videos explore the old town and the beaches of Mogadishu.
“I want to share ideas, communicate and look for creativity and suggestions in the community,” said Mr Degan. “I don’t think I’d be where I am without her.”
After setting up his own office in the city, he now also looks after young architects. Last year he published a book on architecture in Mogadishu and is working on a handbook on emergency designs in Somalia.
It’s all a significant change from his years growing up in Italy when he was sometimes “ashamed to be Somali,” said Mr Degan in a 2019 TEDx talk. And Mogadishu, a city he says that he is “addicted” helped him anchor him.
“Mogadishu gave me a sense of life, a purpose,” he said. “I belong here and I want to build it so that others can come here and belong.”