“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

September 15, 2023

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 elements in a natural way. But once we were able to mechanize everything, we stopped thinking about that as architects. As a result, the materials and the energy buildings use, have a big carbon footprint and are polluting the planet. We have to think about sustainability in terms of the lessons that we can learn from the past.

What are those lessons?

We need to learn how to create buildings that last and that can be repurposed and reused. Instead of tearing a building down and start all over after 25 years. Too often we think of sustainability as yet another gadget, like solar panels we add to a building. But they have to be produced in a factory somewhere. They don't age well and contribute to toxic waste. Gadgets are more like a band-aid than a true solution.

The answer to climate change is not more high-tech, but more low-tech?

Yes. Most of the world cannot partake in technical solutions, because they are too expensive. The global majority are emerging economies, where the population and the cities are growing fastest. If the construction industry continues the trajectory of the 20th century into this 21st century, we will have a much bigger problem than currently.

The solutions need to work on a big scale. How do you make that happen?

It's about reimagining what we consider contemporary architecture. We have this notion of globalized typologies that we think can be applied anywhere. But a building that works in Switzerland, does not necessarily work in India. The climate is different, the supply chain is different, the access to materials is different. It is therefore about local intelligence.

Can you give an example?

Let’s take density. In a place like India this means something different than in Niger, where I come from. The capital Niamey has only 1.5 million inhabitants and most homes are just one story. It wouldn't be appropriate to make a tower in the city. Building three or four levels would already quadruples the density. It is about having this kind of local awareness for a global problem.

You have projects in United Arab Emirates, in Liberia, in Senegal. Does your approach not require that architects work more locally?

Not necessarily. The fundamentals are important, then you can build in other places because you're not just transplanting something. You are interrogating the context every time for clues as to what's the proper direction to take.

Architects also need to think more about the materials with which they construct. You often built with clay. Do you think it is the material of the future?

That depends. Earth is the most abundant material that we have. In Niger we did not use clay but an iron rich soil which when dried is much stronger than concrete. You need steel nails when trying to nail something to the wall. But that is appropriate only in certain places. This is not to say that we should shed all the technology that we have. There is a lot of space for hybrids solutions. For a structure with large spans concrete is great, but not for the walls. I like to pick and choose what works best. I do not want to rely on a dogma. The world of «onlys» is less interesting. And not very rational. And I think I am a very logical person. That might be because of my previous career as a software engineer.

Clients often prefer concrete to clay, which they see as old-fashioned or untested, even though it has been used for thousands of years. How do you deal with how materials are perceived in a society?

This issue is the very first challenge we have. The biggest triumph of concrete is, that it has managed to make everybody believe that it's the only material that is durable. Concrete is very strong and fluid. It allows a lot of freedom of expression. But concrete does not age very well. It is very unlikely to last a thousand years like a stone building from the Roman times. It is about perception. When I started building in Niger, earth was seen as a material only for the poor, only for villages. Two things convinced the client. First, it was 20 to 30 percent cheaper to build with earth. And secondly the difference in energy consumption was staggering. When it is 45 degrees some people spend half of their salary on the electricity for cooling, especially in a concrete building. An earth construction is better suited for the climate and therefore uses less energy.

Another aspect is the perception of risk. Most clients have never built with earth. How did you convince them?

We did a lot of tests and send every new batch of bricks to the laboratory, to make sure we had fully documented the strength and durability. It is one thing to know that a solution works technically, but it's something entirely different to be able to show it. Someone must have the courage to make a large-scale building in an urban setting, not just a pavilion.

Do you already see a revival of earth construction on a bigger scale, like it happened with wood?

Yes. In Niger compressed earth is starting to go mainstream. There are lots of schools but also housing projects. Our design for the cultural center in Niamey, that is going under construction this year, showed people how to make tall structures with earth. We are planning an office building with five stories in the middle of the city. There's starting to be a lot of interest and understanding, which is encouraging. Ten years ago, I had to defend earth construction every time. Now it is more a question of finding the local skills. In some places the knowhow is in such high demand, that it has become more expensive to build with earth than with cement.

You will soon start construction of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Center in Liberia, the first library for a female president – planned by a team of female architects. What does the project mean to you?

The commission was literally the honor of a lifetime. When that first email dropped in my inbox, I did not sleep that night. For me as an African woman Mrs. Sirleaf is like a beacon of inspiration. She was the first woman president of the continent. And the project will be the very first presidential center for a woman president on the planet. The commission is intimidating and exciting. There are a lot of parallels between the brief for the project and my ethos in architecture. It is about creating a space for the people, for women, but also for the youth.

Where did you start with the design?

We looked at the ecosystem of Liberia from a construction point of view: How can we include crafts and knowhow that is already indigenous to the place? This allows us to develop economic opportunities through the construction of a project. For example, we saw women weavers who weave baskets all over the city along the road. That inspired me to create ceilings that are clad with woven mats, as a modern interpretation of traditional huts. Similarly, we have integrated local manufacturers, masons or metalworkers. This strengthens the confidence of the local workforce and lets them be part of the project, also economically.

How is the design dealing with the local climate?

Liberia is not far from Niger, but the climate is wildly different. Niger is a desert country. Liberia is very tropical with intense rain. So, the architecture was all about rain – even to the point of acoustics. The rain is so abundant and so harsh and strong that people at times cannot talk to each other because it is so loud. We therefore used the shape of the building as a buffer that helps to dampen the sound.

You are talking a lot about local qualities. Yet you live and work in different places, in Niger, in the US and in Switzerland. Where do you feel at home?

I have lived outside of Niger longer than I lived in Niger. But the country is my home, my imprint. I think I was never able to embrace something else because I was too busy defending my origin. There was this inferiority placed on me just because of where I come from. But I grew up with this incredible amount of pride in our culture. I lived in the middle of the desert where we have really old towns and cities. Nobody can tell me that we don't have our own architecture, our own traditions in Africa. One of my motivations for becoming an architect is this feeling of humiliation that is intolerable.

Before becoming an architect, you were a software engineer. Why did you do this change in career?

I wanted to be an architect first. I was in a privileged position to study in the U.S., which is incredibly expensive. I felt the need to study something secure, so I could give back. In the late nineties the Internet was booming, so I picked software engineering. I don't regret it. But in the end, I was completely miserable. When I started to study architecture, I was more socially and politically minded. I had thought a lot about the environment and the sense of dispossession of one's own territory. In Africa all our efforts are geared towards making architecture look a certain way, making streets or homes look like European street or homes. To me this was just incredibly absurd. Why are we doing this? Why don't we have any other examples? All these questions had to bubble to the surface for me to finally make the leap to architecture.

How can this rich, but forgotten history in construction get more recognition?

One of the first places to start is education. We often look at just a few buildings from the first part of the 20th century, this handful of gods on the pantheon of architecture. There's something incredibly tunnel vision about that. Architecture has existed for thousands of years. But if we only focus on a handful of people and projects, then of course the whole world looks the same. And because the 20th century allowed us to sidestep so many issues, architecture is very much about exploring just forms. But we're forgetting about space, about materials, about all the other aspects. It also has to do with the responsibility of the construction industry that is responsible for 40 percent of the pollution on the planet.

The Biennale is also about this responsibility. How do you see this year’s exhibition in Venice, of which you are a part of?

I'm incredibly excited, because this year’s Biennale is talking about all the things that I've been working towards. It gives a voice to architects and designers that normally would never get this kind of stage. The Biennale is tackling issues that are facing the world, in terms of sustainability and of representation. We are making architecture for people out there in the world. So, an understanding of that complexity is important.