Reconstructing Mogadishu: Using 3D models to preserve Somalia's pre-war beauty

Ex-pat Somali architects have crowd-sourced thousands of old photos to create a 3D model of Mogadishu's historic buildings, many of which have been destroyed by war.

'We just show all these buildings ... and how they can be the foundation of the future of Somalia'

The skyline in Mogadishu. A new exhibit called What remains traces the history of Somali architecture before and after the civil war (Somali Architecture)
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When Yusuf Shegow visited Mogadishu five years ago, he knew he'd be affected by the destruction he saw.

But to his surprise, it was a single, broken, bullet-ridden wall that left the deepest impression on him.

"Believe it or not, a wall just spoke to me," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "The wall is still standing. Around it, some of the walls [are] gone. But this particular wall was standing with hundreds of bullets. Until this day I still remember how it looked."

The wall was part of what used to be Mogadishu's iconic Al-Uruba Hotel.

The Al-Uruba was once Somalia's only five-star hotel and hosted many world leaders. But after decades of civil war, its arched windows and white plaster facade were left in ruins.

"It just evokes a lot of emotion within an individual," said Shegow. 

"You walk around the street, people will say, 'This used to be a hotel. This used to be a church. This used to be something.' These are the type of things that made me think a city can tell you a lot of stories just by looking at this building."

The Al-Uruba hotel was once an iconic landmark in Mogadishu, which hosted several world leaders and dignitaries. (Somali Architecture)

A glimpse into Somali history

After decades of civil war, the sight of destroyed buildings like the Al-Uruba is common in Mogadishu.

Last Sunday, a car bomb exploded in Mogadishu, killing six people, among them two children. The bomb also brought down several buildings including a mosque and a school.

Nonetheless, Shegow hopes to help preserve what was lost over the decades using crowdsourced photographs and 3D modelling. 

Shegow, who was born in Somalia and lives in Manchester, England, is part of a group of young Somali architects that has been collecting old photos from Somalis all over the world.

Using the images, the architects have created 3D models of Mogadishu's historic buildings, many of which have been destroyed in the fighting.

Now, the London Design Biennale has invited them to show their work.

The new exhibit, called What Remains, will feature a 3D model of the city of Mogadishu in its glory days. Shegow and his fellow architects describe the exhibit as a look into Somalia's past, present, and future.

"We give them a glimpse of the history of Somalia, and then we focus on Mogadishu because it had a lot of architectural style," he said.

"We just show all these buildings, reconstructed in 3D ... how they used to look like, what they can look like right now and how they can be the foundation of the future of Somalia."

Rebuilding Mogadishu

Years ago, Shegow's grandfather worked in Mogadishu, not far from the Al-Uruba Hotel. 

"It kind of saddens me to see buildings like the parliament or the National Assembly in Mogadishu, to see them in ruins," he said.

"You know, it makes me question, can this happen again, or how can we avoid these types of things?"

Shegow and his team have received hundreds of photos over the years. Shegow says one that stands out for him was shot in the 1960s, a picture of one of Mogadishu oldest mosques, called Arba'a Rukun.

Arba’a Rukun is one of the oldest mosques in Mogadishu. (Somali Architecture)

"If you look at this image, it is very striking. You will not by any chance think that Mogadishu was like this in the '60s," he said.

"You can mistake it for any city in any European country at the moment. If I think of Mogadishu, I always go back to that image."

But while Mogadishu has gone through many years of tragedy and destruction, Shegow says he remains optimistic that it can be rebuilt in the future.

"Four million people live in Mogadishu and call it home. It can be rebuilt," he said.

"Hopefully we will have our own style, our own national treasure for people to come back to."


Written by Samantha Lui. This radio interview was produced by Pedro Sanchez.

To hear the full conversation with Yusuf Shegow, download our podcast or click listen above.

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