April 2018
Interview Jareh Das

As Principal and Founder of Niger architectural firm atelier masōmī, Mariam Kamara along with her team of architects, designers and urbanists “develop innovative solutions in architecture and design, with a sensibility that adapts to local techniques.”  Architecture, according to Kamara should be socially ngaged, democratic and provide economically empowering spaces for populations.

This socially engaged approach to finding solutions to the built environment has led the firm to ealise innovative yet context-sensitive architectural projects of varied scales and in Niger including Niamey 2000, a housing project in Niamey which proposed a new culturally appropriate model for increasing density to counter the city’s aggressive growth; and HIKMA, a religious and secular library complex in Dandaji transformed from its previous use as a place of worship. Architecture is Kamara’s second career as studied for a bachelor’s in Computer Technology at Purdue University (2001) and received a Master of Science in Computer Science from New York University (2004).  She then took the decision to study architecture with a Master of Architecture program from the University.


Jareh Das: Could you talk about how you moved from Computer Science to architecture as a second career and if you are an advocate for interdisciplinary conversations between architecture and other disciplines?
Mariam Kamara: Architecture is actually my second career (I was a software developer for many years before that.) I wanted to pursue it since I was a teenager, but coming from Niger, it didn’t feel reasonable at the time to choose a creative career. I didn’t know anyone who was an architect. Later I came to view architecture as much more than a creative pursuit but as a conduit for positive contributions in the social, economic, cultural and often even political dimensions of a place. This realization gave me the push. I needed to go back to university and finally fulfil this dream.

Major African cities continue to grow exponentially particularly in population and there is a need to densify urban centres with the risk of sacrificing green and leisure spaces for tower blocks. How do you see architecture operating to combat the current challenges faced by growing cities?
In spite of its growth, the population and land availability ratio is such that it is premature to offer high-rises as a solution for increasing density.  Not to mention that high-rises are actually not the only solution for creating density. There are cities where incredible density is achieved without necessarily having high rises, a city like Paris comes to mind where buildings are capped at about 6 stories in most neighborhoods.  Berlin is another example which has a good amount of density without necessarily having apartment towers everywhere. There are different ways of addressing the density aspect and Niger is definitely one of those places. The cultural inappropriateness of apartment towers are related to their tendency to erase social connections. Even in Western countries, we now understand that the by-product of that typology is that it has contributed to isolating people. Niger being a country where social and communal life is really important, you can understand quickly how such a typology would actually be damaging to the social fabric. I find it more interesting to see how we can achieve density with lower rises keeping people in proximity to each other, thinking of solutions to make sure that in spite of the density people can still interact with one another. We spend a lot of time devising ways to ensure people’s paths cross and they have opportunities to talk to one another, they are on the street, or in shared spaces together.

Atelier masōm works very much on socially engaged projects, which change the lives of users. Could you discuss a bit about what you have discovered looking back to the history of local techniques in Niger architecture that have been valuable to realized projects?
Niamey 2000 takes its inspiration from pre-colonial cities of the region, such as Timbuktu in Mali, Kano in Nigeria, or Zinder in Niger, which were all dense urban centers in their day. The cities’ organic configurations of intricately intertwined homes were often two or three stories in height, while still maintaining a sense of privacy and intimacy.  It takes a firm position on material selection by using unfired, earth masonry and passive cooling techniques to protect against Niger’s scorching temperatures. As is the case in many parts of the world, local materials have been increasingly abandoned in urban centers in favor of concrete. The contemporary design of Niamey 2000 reintroduces locally derived resources to the construction industry and offers affordable homes to a broader range of the city’s growing population.

How can architecture help create future solutions for the rising youth population in the African continent and what models are you adopting in Niger specifically?
Niger’s growth comes with a youth explosion. 75% of the population is below 25 years old! One of the things in Niger which might be different in other countries is that there is very little for the youth to do. Aside from education and many other pressing challenges, the country invests in social and cultural projects with great financial difficulty. As architects and urban thinkers, we have to get creative in how we fold this need into our projects, even if we are not asked to. It is something we are always mindful of in our projects. (…) Find the full version of  this interview in SOMETHING WE AFRICANS GOT #8

Something we africans got #8
April 2018
Jareh Das