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Mogadishu's Modernist heritage

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A new exhibition highlights the damage wrought on the Modernist buildings of Somalia’s capital city by 20 years of civil war. Rakesh Ramchurn reports

Mogadishu has a rich heritage of Modernist architecture, structures that today tell a vivid story of colonialism, liberation and post-colonialism. However, 20 years of civil war in Somalia have seen many of the capital’s buildings severely damaged by shelling and many could soon be lost altogether.

Mogadishu – Lost Moderns, an exhibition tucked away at the Mosaic Rooms in west London, attempts to show some of the city’s most prominent Modernist buildings while highlighting the damage they have suffered.

The exhibition was put together by British-Somali architect Rashid Ali, founder of architectural studio RA Projects, and architectural photographer Andrew Cross, and combines contemporary photographs of the city with archive images to give an account of the city’s urban development.

Croce del Sud hotel, built in 1933, perhaps the first explicitly Modernist building in Mogadishu.

Croce del Sud hotel, built in 1933, perhaps the first explicitly Modernist building in Mogadishu.

The story of Mogadishu’s Modernist buildings begins during the time of Italian colonial rule. Unlike Asmara in Eritrea and Tripoli in Libya, where the Italians built their colonial city alongside the native walled town, in Mogadishu the walls of the oldmedinawere torn down and the occupiers’ buildings imposed in the city centre.

Perhaps the first explicitly Modernist building was the Croce del Sud Hotel, built in 1933. Archive photographs of the hotel show a decidedly Modern design compared with the Romanesque, Colonial or Islamic styles of earlier buildings.

Another prominent building of the period is Villa Somalia, an Art Deco palace which served as the residence of the Italian governor. An aerial photograph shows the building soon after being built in the 1930s, and it is still in good condition today, thanks to the fact that it remained the seat of whoever was internationally recognised as the leader of Somalia, with all the security that entailed. (However, the idea of security in Somalia remains relative; just a month ago the building was attacked by car bombs organised by al-Shabab militants, killing two government officials).

Villa Somalia, the Art Deco palace that serves as the seat of the current president of Somalia. Built in the 1930s.

Villa Somalia, the Art Deco palace that serves as the seat of the current president of Somalia. Built in the 1930s.

The Italians left an indelible mark on the city, not just through individual buildings but through a rigid grid-like street plan and new suburbs. There was even a King Vittorio Emanuele III Street, named after the former King of Italy and Emperor of Ethiopia, and the seaside promenade was originally named Lungomare Benito Mussolini.

But Somalis seem at peace with the fascist and colonial history of the cityscape.

‘Somalia was never truly colonised in the way that other African countries were colonised, such as Kenya, where English was imposed as the official language,’ Ali says. ‘Somalis, like Eritreans, embraced the legacy of the built form after independence as well as the social sensibility of how people used the city.

‘Italians have the culture of the passeggiata – evening strolls through the streets – having coffee, seeing and being seen, and Somalis too are very social, they come from a heritage of exchanging ideas and dialogue underneath a tree, so we really embraced the public nature of the city.’

National Theatre, built in 1967 in Mogadishu as a gift from Mao Zedong. Image: Andrew Cross.

National Theatre, built in 1967 in Mogadishu as a gift from Mao Zedong. Image: Andrew Cross.

Following independence in 1960, a second wave of Modernism was seen as a way for the country to assert its identity, a process which accelerated when a socialist government came to power in 1969 and began to receive support from the Soviet Union, China and North Korea.

The National Theatre dates to this period. Designed and completed by the Chinese in 1967 as a gift from Mao Zedong, almost every part of the building was bespoke, from the prefabricated concrete panel skin to the light fittings.

Another striking photograph shows what remains of the Somali National Assembly, built in 1972 by the government as a symbol of the newly independent nation. ‘It appears almost like the Acropolis, the way it overlooks the whole city,’ says Ali, who visited the site with Cross last year. ‘It was built when there was a whole collective optimism among Somalis, and it reflected this new idea of determining their own future.’

National Assembly, Mogadishu, built in 1972. Image: Andrew Cross.

National Assembly, Mogadishu, built in 1972. Image: Andrew Cross.

The National Assembly was severely damaged by bombardment during Somalia’s civil war and since then, looters have stripped anything that could be re-used, leaving behind a lonely concrete husk. But such is the symbolism of the building that Somalia’s politicians still meet there (the roof has caved in, so they meet on the lower floors) and an offer by foreign contractors to demolish the building and replace it with a state-of-the-art legislative chamber was rejected.

Both the National Theatre and the National Assembly are depicted in a series of striking colour photographs, which show both the promise of the original structures and their poor state today. However, where the exhibition falls short is in its failure to provide commentary alongside images, which would give much-needed background on the political stories behind each building.

Shelling during the civil war, followed by looting, accounts for these Modernist buildings’ poor state, but ironically the biggest threat to them now comes from renovation or redevelopment. Since al-Shabab pulled out of Mogadishu in 2011, raising hopes of an end to the civil war, international developers have rushed to Somalia to grab construction projects or to invest in property, and the government is badly equipped to strike the balance between preserving heritage and encouraging much- needed development.

View of the war-damaged Shingani district. Image: Andrew Cross.

View of the war-damaged Shingani district. Image: Andrew Cross.

And, in a city with more than its fair share of the scars of political infighting, it appears new battle lines are emerging over access to public space and the waterfront. ‘Prestigious sites are being appropriated by people with influence, some of them by foreign governments, which are beginning to establish embassies for the first time in 25 years, and many tend to be prestigious spaces by the water,’ Ali says.

‘You can now drive a long way across Mogadishu and not see the sea, because it has been fenced off. There is a strong likelihood that very soon residents of the city won’t have access to the seafront, which has always been an important social space.’

So, although many Somalis view the future with the hope of stability, Mogadishu’s urban fabric is still undergoing great upheaval and change. It’s no wonder many look to the past as a golden age for the city.

‘I gave a talk recently, and people were very emotional, saying: “I can’t believe Somalia used to look like that”, and I am not even going back that far, just to photographs from the 1980s,’ Ali says.

‘The experience of the past 20 years has been so extreme that there is now a collective nostalgia not only for the relationship with Italy, but also the time that came afterwards, the period of development and stability, and these buildings are a reminder of that.’


Mogadishu - Lost Moderns
The Mosaic Rooms, London SW5
Until 26 April. Admission free.


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