Atavism — Architecture Heritage and Sustainability

Chair Mariam Issoufou — D-ARCH ETH Zürich

Our Ethos — Whose Heritage? What Sustainability?

 At Studio Atavism the Chair for Architecture Heritage and Sustainability at ETH Zurich, our mission is to challenge the status quo and redefine the way we approach architecture. We aim to step away from traditional notions of building heritage and position ourselves within an intersectional approach to both heritage and sustainability. We have a clear focus on decolonization, questioning deeply ingrained assumptions, colonized knowledge, pedagogy, and the mindsets prevalent in architectural practice that impede what we could productively inherit as well as what we sustain.

Modernist approaches have long been recognized as processes of erasure, causing harm in their wake. On one hand, we shed light on the often unacknowledged exploitations and appropriations of modernism, while on the other, we confront the erasure of localized inheritable identities in favor of a universal standard that predominantly serves commercial and consumerist values.

The current world order, we understand, is underpinned by the exploitation and impoverishment of others through global material flows, globalized labor, and control of raw materials. This exploitation has had catastrophic consequences, affecting the planet, economies, and people.

Our commitment to breaking this cycle involves embracing a hyperlocal perspective, encompassing local practices, addressing vulnerabilities, and more. In our Studio, we strive for a "Decolonization from/of the Global Minority." Here, we work to deconstruct deeply ingrained superiority complexes, reshaping students' perceptions of their place in the world, promoting inclusivity, and challenging traditional paradigms.

In our Research, we endeavor to contribute to a "Decolonization from/of the Global Majority." Our aim is to restore knowledge to places that have been historically dispossessed of their heritage, ensuring that it is accessible to all. These two facets of our Chair are intrinsically intertwined, creating a dynamic and holistic approach to more just and future-facing architecture processes.

Our Studio Mission

In our Studio, we embark on a journey of exploring layered heritages and sustainabilities through a  "Decolonization from the Other Side." Our primary goal is to dismantle the superiority complex, encouraging students to examine their place in the world. True sustainability, as we see it, necessitates a decolonization across processes, materials, and labor practices.

Our mission revolves around developing topics that actively engage in the process of interrogating knowledge, pedagogy, and architectural practice mindsets. Through our work, we aim to push boundaries and challenge conventions, striving for a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable future in architecture.

Join us at the Architecture Heritage and Sustainability Chair as we embark on this transformative journey, reimagining architecture in a way that's not just visionary but also responsible, just, and deeply rooted.

Our Pedagogy

Our teaching approach is both coherent and dynamic. We provide readings that align with our core ethos, emphasizing conceptual ideas and their relevance to our topics. Our focus is on nurturing students' intent and assisting them in developing their conceptual ideas.

During desk crits, our emphasis is always on instilling good design practices. The focus of studio is not in instilling our personal preferences but about fostering a strong foundation in design principles. Structured Conversations are pivotal in instilling the ethos of our Chair and Studio. These conversations are a cornerstone of our pedagogy, facilitating critical discussions and the exchange of ideas.


Heritage is a concept, a sort of valuable status that in European-centric cultures is attached to real entities. The so-called heritage industry is based on the veneration of the past that did not belong all over the world. Its international adoption is related to the globalization catastrophe. There is no such thing as ‘heritage’ (Smith 2006) resonates with the critic to the heritage and tradition as commodities for uncritical mass audiences that the organization of nostalgia set up around these European-centric concepts (Strangleman 1999). 

What we do not mean and to what we aim

We aim at dismantling borders and timelines created by imperialism to understand the wide variety of social and cultural identities that characterize each different place. Understanding human-made constructs  requires knowing about people and non-humans conditions of the places that co-exist in communities and landscapes, which do not identify within political borders. The atavism lab focuses on unearthing and revitalizing traditional knowledge in architecture as a strategy to help sustain environmental and human ecologies. 

In the realm of  of architecture, traditional building practices and embedded knowledges have been threatened by western industry materials and practices. Additionally, a biased literature production makes it difficult for varieties of methodologies and approaches to thrive. A first critical factor in collecting knowledge is the language and its significance. The language barrier is significantly related to the different ethnic communities in the African continent where embedded knowledge is originally transmitted in oral forms. 

Decolonization is not a metaphor - infrastructure of knowledge production and transmission

Research open questions relate to the understanding of architectural transformations in western africa regions along the different potential local histories. Other open questions aim at comprehending the management of and life around traditional architectures in those regions. Other questions will come directly by the local communities. The aim is not to narrate the history of these architectures and communities, but to raise awareness of their narration, listening to their voice and participating in their spread over the geopolitical borders.

Intersectional survey rejects a narration of architectural history made by outsiders. The methodology relates directly to the communities who own knowledge and asks them about it. There is no room for interpretations that interfere with the real meaning of phenomena, rather the multi-layered ecosystems around architectural phenomena can be depicted by the actors involved. Our action is more a participation in something that exists independently from our activity, rather than creation of knowledge.

News about the Chair & Our Work  

Activism-Based Architecture at atelier masōmī: How atelier masōmī is Championing Local Narratives

By Eliza Jordan for | Published on August 8, 2023 Mariam Issoufou Kamara founded the Niger-based architecture and research firm atelier masōmī in 2014. At the inception of a project, atelier masōmī considers its impact—from creating jobs for the local economy to being inspired by native histories that benefit building techniques, resources, and materials. Then, training programs and occupations are often offered to locals, transmitting …
September 19, 2023

“Africa should appear European. That’s absurd” Architect and ETH professor Mariam Issoufou Kamara builds against the climate crisis and the forgetting of African culture

Interview by Andres Herzog, Hochparterre | Originally published in German in NZZ, 27.06.2023 Your professorship is called architecture, heritage and sustainability. What does heritage have to do with sustainability? Mariam Issoufou Kamara: Sustainability is embedded in the architectural heritage, whether in Europe or elsewhere. Before the Industrial Revolution, we had to design sustainable buildings, that could protect us from the …
September 15, 2023

Mariam Kamara Could Profoundly Change Design Pedagogy Everywhere

Interview by Kelly Beamon, Metropolis Mag | Originally published 27.04.2022 Architect Mariam Kamara—founder of Niamey, Niger-based firm Atelier Masōmī—is a contrarian of design pedagogy as it is largely practiced today. To Kamara, modern is not synonymous with European forms, architecture is not only for Westerners to define, and the so-called canon of great buildings actually ignores most of the built world. “There’s a perception that we—80 percent …
April 27, 2022

In Niger, an Architect Looking to the Country’s Design Traditions: Eschewing a Western definition of modernity, Mariam Kamara instead conceives of buildings and spaces that account for how people really live.

By Michael Snyder for NY Times Style Magazine | Originally Published 10.08.2020 At age 6, the architect Mariam Kamara moved with her family from Niamey, the capital of Niger, deep into the country’s vast Saharan interior, not far from the 15th-century city of Agadez, where the narrow streets of the historic center are lined with centuries-old houses built from rust-red adobe. …
August 10, 2020

Address & 

Prof. Mariam Issoufou
Chair for Architecture Heritage & Sustainability
ETH Zürich
Department of Architecture

HIL E 47.1
Stefano–Franscini–Platz 5
CH–8093 Zürich
+44 633 48 58