Mentor and Protégé

Building For 21st Century Needs

With guidance from starchitect David Adjaye through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, Mariam Kamara is ramping up her commitment to “design that sustains people”.

Building For 21st Century Needs
David Adjaye visits the regional market in Dandaji, Niger, with his protégée Mariam Kamara, whose practice designed the project.Rolex/Thomas Chéné

Remember the name Mariam Kamara.

The Niger-born architect has envisioned a sustainable future for her West African nation. Her ambitious Niamey Cultural Center, which is scheduled to break ground this year, will be built with locally sourced materials, rainwater harvesting solutions and solar energy.

Importantly, the cluster of raw-earth buildings — a response to Niger’s hot desert clime — will house the capital city’s first municipal library since independence, as well as a host of arts and performance spaces designed for learning and “for dreaming”. It is all part of Kamara’s commitment to enriching the city with community-empowering spaces.

Founder of socially conscious design practice Atelier Masōmī, Kamara, who splits her time between the US and Niger, was mentored in her endeavour by British-Ghanian architect David Adjaye, who is himself currently overseeing the build of Ghana’s new National Cathedral in Accra.

Both are like-minded in the conviction that architecture is transformative, and that African architecture needs its own identity.

Mariam Kamara and David Adjaye view a model of the Niamey Cultural Center, which when completed in Niger, will fill a void in a city with a dearth of cultural venues and outlets.Rolex/Reto Albertalli

The two architects were paired under the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, with Adjaye, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to architecture in 2017, serving as mentor. It was during the two-year programme (2018-2019) that plans for the Niamey Cultural Center were developed and unveiled.

An exhibit of Kamara’s work in Niger was to have shown at this year’s La Biennale di Venezia but as with most public events this year, has been postponed — rescheduled first from May to later this month, and now pushed back an entire year to 2021.

Rather than to be put out by the need to be socially distant, we went through the transcripts of the last Rolex Arts Weekend (held in Cape Town just prior to cities across the globe going into lockdown), so you don’t have to wait till 2021 to familiarise yourself with Kamara or the discourse on contemporary African architecture.

Mariam Kamara began her career as a software engineer, but followed her calling and retrained as an architect. In 2013, she became a founding member of Seattle’s collective united4design, and in 2014, founded Atelier Masōmī in Niamey, Niger to tackle a variety of public, cultural, residential, commercial and urban design projects.Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative

Mariam Kamara on mentor David Adjaye

“First semester in architectural school I saw his work in a book and I remember feeling dumbfounded. I wasn’t even aware that he was African. I was just so taken by the work that David had done in the public realm, and how it resonated with what I was interested in as a student. And then I found out he’s African, and I thought — how is this possible? That gave me a deep sense of sadness. I realised in that moment that I didn’t think it possible for someone like me or like him to be on the front page like the other big architects we studied in school. So, it was an earth-shattering moment for me.”

David Adjaye on the African emergence

“Africa is at an incredible moment of burgeoning and several countries have finally got to a place where they are able to start thinking about the built image of their countries. It’s not just an inheritance, or a gift. It’s now a design; an idea of nationhood, but one that I think is different to the way in which 19th century ideas of nationhood were sort of fabricated and made. There’s also a sense of trying to understand the kind of regional emergence and realising that architecture is a very important soft power. In the work that I’m doing in Ghana, that’s at the forefront of what I’m trying to think about, and clearly it’s absolutely front and centre in Mariam’s work.”

David Adjaye and Mariam Kamara, working on their project at Atelier Masōmī  in Niamey, Niger. The founder of Adjaye Associates’ largest project to date is the US$540 million Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened on the National Mall in Washington, DC in late 2016.Rolex/Thomas Chéné

Mariam Kamara on the true scope of architecture

“Everything is part of the agenda, that’s what the 21st century is about. You’re aware of the climate, the environment, economic situations, political situations, socio-economic factors — and you have to be sympathetic towards a lot of these different issues at play. And you also may have to directly address, for example, migration. In Agadez [a key transit city for African migrants trying to reach the Mediterranean] where we’ve started talking about a project, the question is how does the city accommodate a population that has increased 40 percent just from migrants trying to cross into Libya? There’s all this thinking, exploration, and research that has to happen.”

David Adjaye on Mariam Kamara

“You see very pretty pictures [of her built works]. But what you can’t see are the conversations behind them. Mariam is a climate and social warrior. She talks about making bricks from the place itself. She talks about employment issues. About working with the lowest technology to create the most powerful forms. She’s talking about skills transfers that can scale up society. She’s talking about food sustenance and resilience. And all that is embedded within the projects. She’s bringing to a public realm things that are not even discussed in the West, but which are absolutely critical to the survival of the communities they’re embedded in. And this is brought about by her reading into and her sense of commitment to what the built environment can do. And it’s really powerful.”

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