The first time Omar Degan set foot in Mogadishu in October 2017, he quickly understood that it was similar to the picturesque cityscape of his parents, Somali refugees who fled Europe, describing them growing up.
Instead of a pleasant spectacle of whitewashed buildings and modernist architecture set against the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, they found a new Mogadishu, which had emerged in a rush to rebuild after Somalia’s civil war. Concrete barriers and blastproof walls remained widespread, and camps for displaced people replaced multicolored condominiums with barely a hint of local styles or heritage.
For the 31-year-old architect Mr Deegan, that discrepancy echoed the loss of cultural identity he has worked to restore, and he hopes others will become increasingly involved in the process of rebuilding the wounded city.
In his four years in Somalia, he has created through architecture a new style and understanding of what the country is and could be after decades of civil war and terrorism, mixing traditional themes with modern ones such as sustainability.
“I wanted architecture to bring back a sense of belonging that was destroyed in the war,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I wanted people to own a space and feel proud. I wanted to bring back this sense of Somali-ness and manifest it through design and architecture.”
That sentiment was something he was longing for personally as well.
Mr Degan was born in Turin, northwest Italy, in June 1990 to parents who had left Somalia a few years before the war broke out. Growing up there, he says, he never felt he fully belonged – caught between his identity as a Somali man with roots in a war-torn nation and a black Italian citizen in a country that had completely disowned him. Didn’t hug like that.
“At university,” he said, “there was even this challenge where even the professor would say, ‘Oh, you speak Italian so well,’ reminding you that you don’t belong.”
His parents wanted him to study medicine, but one day the dream died after his mother’s leg was amputated and she could not see the sight of blood. However, he loved to sketch, so he earned 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 Somalia was on his mind when he chose that focus, he said he was also influenced by a campaign to find meaning in life and learn skills that he could use for the common good.
Despite that premise, he said he did not consider moving his work to Somalia out of security concerns. Instead, he worked for several years in West Africa, Latin America and Asia before moving to London for an intended career break. There, he shared quarters with a cousin who was looking for help building a community center and a mosque in Somalia.
Mr. Deegan agreed to assist her with the design, but told her, “There’s no way I can come with you.”
But she was persuasive, and a month later, he was on a flight to Mogadishu, ready to put his skills to use in his family’s home country.
This year marks three decades of a strong President of Somalia. Major General Mohamed Siad Barre, setting off a brutal civil war, was deposed. Mogadishu – along with many other Somali cities – was ransacked by clan chieftains, armed teenagers, and later by militants, who destroyed government offices, looted cultural centers and destroyed its Islamic and Italian sites. In the process, they looted the city as well. Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah called it a “cosmopolitan virtue”.
Over the past decade, with the return of stability, Mogadishu has slowly begun to change. New apartment blocks and shopping centers have sprung up, the National Theater and Stadium have been renovated and historical monuments have been restored.
But when Mr Deegan landed in the city in 2017, he was faced with the first structure: the airport’s black and blue, brick and glass terminal. “In a sunny, coastal town, I was wondering who built it,” he recalled. “Architecture usually tells us a story – the story of our past heritage and hopes – and I couldn’t see any of that here.”
The centuries-old city is littered with the footprints of sultans, European powers, peacekeepers and warlords, and questions swirling through their minds: how does damage factor into reclaiming a war-weary capital? How do you rebuild in a city where Terrorist attacks happen frequently? Can modern structures call attention to the nuances of history, culture and community?
To familiarize himself with the Italian accent with the capital Mr. Degan, who also speaks English and Somali, he called a “listening tour”, which included young people in the city and fellows returning from the diaspora. He traveled to major cities across the country, inspecting local designs, and connecting with different communities – one at a time milking a camel.
Fascinated by the flexibility he saw, he was determined to practice architecture that celebrated Somali identity and traditions. “I want to recreate in a contemporary way the sense of belonging that was lost in the war,” he said.
In later years, his designs included a restaurant and wedding halls with large terraces, white walls and furniture decorated with traditional multicolored “Alindi” fabric. He has also designed a portable health clinic to treat children in rural areas, a school with garden spaces, and a minimalist, well-ventilated maternity ward at Mogadishu Hospital.
Almost all of Mr Deegan’s designs are painted white in relation to the city’s traditional white buildings, which earned it the title of “the white pearl of the Indian Ocean”.
Initially, Mr Deegan said, many were excited by what he could do to rebuild Somalia. But others thought he was “crazy” when he started talking about sustainable architecture, reducing environmental damage and looking to the past to shape the future. Some developers wanted it to work for free.
“It took me years for people to understand what an architect does,” he said with a laugh.
He works to connect with the wider community through social media, posting color photos Daily Life in Mogadishu on Instagram while challenging humanitarian organization and private companies on their designs. On youtube, his videos explore Mogadishu’s old town and beaches.
“I want to share ideas, communicate and seek creativity and suggestions in the community,” said Mr. Deegan. “I don’t think I’d be where I am without it.”
Having established his own practice in the city, he now also mentors young architects. last year he Published a book about architecture in Mogadishu and is working on a handbook on emergency design in Somalia.
This is a marked change from his years growing up in Italy when he was sometimes “ashamed to be a Somali,” Mr Deegan. Said at the 2019 TEDx Talks. And Mogadishu, a city to which he says he is “accustomed”, has helped anchor him.
“Mogadishu gave me a sense of life, a purpose,” he said. “I belong here, and I want to make it so other people can come and relate here.”