Rashid Ali talks to Fran Williams about this year’s AJ Small Projects Award-winning project, Common Room for Hargeisa Town Hall, created in Somaliland during the pandemic
When did you set up Rashid Ali Architects and where had you worked before?
Though some informal practice overlapped with teaching, I formed the practice in 2011. I’d previously worked at Adjaye Associates and Karakusevic Carson.
How do you balance your time between the UK and Africa?
Our projects in East Africa only came to fruition just before the pandemic began, which has made it extremely challenging to develop and oversee schemes in both regions simultaneously. However, we have established relationships with trusted colleagues and collaborators in practice and as contractors over the years that have made this a little easier.
Tell us about Common Room for Hargeisa Town Hall in a nutshell.
We began by having conversations with different tiers of government (local and central) about the need for good-quality civic buildings and public spaces in Somaliland and, broadly, the role of design in city-making. We were then commissioned by the local authority to design the first purpose-built town hall for the city of Hargeisa. While developing the project, we were asked to design some form of shade for the land registry office, which was overcrowded with visitors. We saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate what simple, well-designed spaces could look like.
Was there a big idea for this small project?
We wanted to make a simple and modest space that was at the same time striking in its relation to its setting. We thought the project would offer an opportunity to experiment with unfamiliar materials and construction techniques that would engage the community through its process.
Unlike local methods, the timber is expressed and celebrated aesthetically as a structure.
What was the main challenge that you faced?
We designed a space with timber, a material that is not familiar locally except as a roofing structure, for simple, inexpensive building.
We were thrust into the role of builder
With that in mind, we knew that it would be extremely difficult to find a local contractor or builder that could build it to the specific details and the aesthetic we had in mind. Therefore we were thrust into the role of builder. Our core construction team was formed of some of our colleagues at the office, a local carpenter and our students.
Can constraints of brief and budget be creative in themselves?
The brief was very simple – to provide a shaded space for staff and visitors. We were given budget barely enough to cover the materials but the fact that we were pretty much providing labour as the builder gave us more flexibility in the design of the space.
What does it take to create a good design at a smaller scale with a smaller budget do you think?
You have to believe in the vision and show some conviction in seeing it through. We always see some projects as a tool to experiment with ideas, particularly when the client shares that vision. In the case of Common Room at Hargeisa Town Hall, the client pretty much told us to do whatever we wanted within the budget. In fact, I don’t recall presenting the design, because the brief was simple. We just began building.
Has this project helped move on your thinking and practice?
The initial aim of setting up a satellite office in a place like Somaliland was to begin to have conversations about the role and importance of design. This project has taught us that we shouldn’t necessarily practice in the traditional sense of architect and client. We will be looking to initiate projects with stakeholders and possibly engage more with the building process on smaller, community-driven projects.
How has the last year impacted your practice?
The pandemic has curtailed the possibility for small practices to grow and engage in public projects in the UK. Other regions such as Africa offer practices such as ours opportunities to design and realise public projects.
What else are you currently working on in the UK and abroad?
We are working on a community centre in Leicester and two residential projects in London. We have a Children’s Hospital and a public square about to begin on site, also in Hargeisa.