Libya

Cargo Collective

Writer

Tafline Laylin

Photographer

Naziha Arebi

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‘It was the first of its kind where contemporary art was shown in Tripoli in a modern setting,’ says Najla’a el-Ageli of Noon Arts, a private foundation that deals with organising exhibitions of Libyan artists in and outside of Libya.

‘We worked closely with the building, where we used the space as the language of the exhibition. We presented the work so it was coordinated into the internal structure. We also created a steel frame on the top floor that camouflaged into the walls so the artwork presented blended in with the whole building.’

Since then, a number of exhibitions have continued to explore the nation’s past, present and future identity while also making artists and their work more visible. ‘Originally we were thinking of building another fast food restaurant,’ Doshma co-founder Muftah Abudajaja explains, ‘but then we came up with the idea of building an art café-slash-gallery. That’s when Doshma became a concept.’

‘Before the revolution, the arts were buried,’ says Abudajaja. ‘But during the revolution, a lot of new artists and new ideas came out. So we said, why can’t we gather elements of the revolution in a rough structure – using a reused shipping container and unfinished concrete?’

Breaking from convention in a big way, Abudajaja and his partner at Libya Design pursued a gritty material palette for Doshma’s construction, one that not only epitomises the revolutionary spirit that first inspired the project, but also mirrors their commitment to openness, transparency and collective freedom.

The resulting space is comprised of a distinctive 40 foot reused shipping container that the Libya Design team says was previously used to transport goods during conflict, along with a double height arched aluminium shell and a fully glazed façade.

‘Seeing Doshma from the street already makes a statement,’ says Hadia Gana, whose ceramic installation ‘Zarda’ was displayed during ‘The Forgotten Chatter’ exhibition.

‘Squeezed between two, three or four floors of a building it says “I’m here as I am… and I don’t need to be huge to be important or significant.”’

Unlike many repurposed shipping containers used in adaptive reuse programmes, this one, brought by truck from the edge of Tripoli, forms only a small section of the café and gallery – a tunnel of sorts that is set apart from the otherwise open plan space. Hanging areas and café facilities are tucked inside the monolithic volume, while the roof provides additional floor space at the mezzanine level.

Both the design and the materials tell a story. The metal container, unfinished concrete floors and black steel handrails honour the way found materials were repurposed during the city’s conflicts and lend a ‘back-to-basics’ vibe to the gallery. But the wide-open façade, which is free of any of the security barriers common found on typical residential and retail buildings in the area, sets the tone for a new future.

‘We purposely didn’t put any protection on the outside glass, as if to say to the people on the street, it’s time to not be afraid, to open up to the outside world,’ says Abudajaja.

On a less profound note, all that glass and metal may seem deeply impractical in an arid, subtropical environment, but Libya Design used various passive design techniques to ensure a comfortable interior environment throughout the year. In addition to optimum site orientation that maximises shading and minimises excess solar gain, a chimney system evacuates hot air inside the building, of which only 35 percent has to be cooled. This slashes overall energy consumption and keeps operational costs low.

Although using a fixed volume presented certain design challenges, Abudajaja says he looks forward to using shipping containers in future projects as well. By doing so, Libya Design can shift the materials dialogue away from concrete and mitigate the construction industry’s environmental impact.

‘All of the materials used – except for the steel roof – were sourced locally and reused,’ says Abudajaja, who credits the contractors HudHud for being so patient with a construction paradigm previously unexplored in Libya. ‘Without them, this project would have been impossible,’ he believes.

In addition to using all local materials to avoid having to import them, HudHud spent extra time and money to train local, non-specialised workers to take part in the construction, which contributes to the overarching goal to make Doshma an open, welcome centre that not only serves the community, but also belongs to the community.

Although Abudajaja and his Libya Design partner Walid El-Turki are currently managing the project, this won’t always be the case. ‘The next step is to leave Doshma, to let it become self-sufficient,’ says Abudajaja.

‘That’s part of the concept – to make it like a cultural centre. We want the art events to be free for the community, and of course the food, tea and coffee makes some money, but we are hoping to have new events like concerts that will help to generate more revenue. We can make booklets, sell those to the community, and Doshma will make a small commission from any art that is sold. We are also trying to establish long term relationships with non-profit groups like the British Council or the German Embassy to make them somehow part of this – at least for the beginning.’

Libya Design hopes that partnering NGOs will help with the logistics of running the space, like public relations, so that more people who are involved in the arts will know that it exists. In time, they plan to use roughly 40 percent of any revenue they make to support new artists.

‘It’s like when you plant a tree,’ says Abudajaja. ‘The first few months you have to water it and give it a lot of extra care, but eventually it will grow on its own.’