Sunday, October 25, 2020

Architect Omar Degan’s latest work is an ode to Somali culture


BY ELLIE STATHAK | PHOTOGRAPHY: ABDIRAHMAN YUSUF
Monday October 12, 2020

Salsabii – a multi-functional space in Mogadishu by the locally-based architect – offers an architectural nod to the rich cultural identity and heritage of Somalia

A building originally earmarked to become a supermarket has now been transfomed into a multi-functional, leisure and cultural space by Mogadishu-based Somali architect from Italy, Omar Degan. Located in outer Mogadishu, in the city’s Laba Dhagax neighbourhood with its famous Bakaraa Market, the project, Dogan explains, was ‘designed locally and takes inspiration from the rich cultural identity and heritage of Somalia.’

The building, titled Salsabiil, is crisp, minimalist and geometric yet modest – ‘according to the Islamic principles of architecture,’ says the architect. Its design references the capital of Somalia, which was known as the ‘White pearl of the Indian Ocean’, due to its white buildings, green palm trees and the ocean blue coastline, prior to the internal conflicts and unrest in the country. The project spans two floors, including a multi-functional space for events and a cafe and restaurant. 

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Symbolisms abound in this fairly boutique but refined project. Degan uses soft furnishings for the decor, dressed in fabrics that play a key role in Somali culture, set against clean, white walls, ceilings and built-in furniture. ‘The fabric worn by women is called ‘Hido iyo dhaqan’ and it is characterized by a horizontal striped texture in orange tones. It is used by women during ceremonies, such as weddings; whereas the other fabric, featuring a more defined geometric texture, is worn by men as a traditional skirt called ‘Macawis’,’ explains Degan. Both appear in Sansabiil’s interiors.

Planting is used throughout to enrich the space and at the same time raise awareness to the severe deforestation the country is currently suffering. To enhance a sense of both belonging and nostalgia, the architect also specified the use of historic, framed photographs of Somali people in traditional clothes, as well as imagery of the period architecture found in the historical part of the city, Xamarweyne.

Due to both his desire to support local arts, and the current difficulty in sourcing certain materials in Mogadishu (woods, for example, need to be imported), Degan worked with local artisans to bring his design to life, using a light metal structure and cement boards. The fabrics are all locally sourced and hand-woven. 

‘Mogadishu is located on the beautiful coast of the horn of Africa and is considered one of the oldest cities in Africa, with an ancient history of trade within its continent but also the Middle-East and Asia,’ says Degan. ‘In recent decades, Somalia and Mogadishu in particular, have experienced the deterioration and destruction of many of its magnificent architecture. With this project, the intent is precisely to bring back to life what once defined Mogadishu.’

Degan, who was born in Italy and studied architecture at the Politecnico di Torino and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, set up shop in Mogadishu in 2017, specialising in sustainability, emergency architecture and post-conflict reconstruction. His work, like in the case of Salsabiil, often bridges heritage with contemporary architecture, and is defined by his passion for Somali culture; this is also expressed in his recently published book, Mogadishu through the eyes of an architect, which offers an engaging tour of the country’s capital through key modern and historical buildings.  

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