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.

August 10, 2020

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. During their five years in the desert, Kamara and her father, a mining engineer, traveled frequently into the nearby mountains, where they visited caves rich with neolithic paintings and polished stone, remnants of a time when the area was green and populated by nomads. “This open archaeological site really gave me a sense of what my region is about,” says Kamara, 41, who splits her time between Providence, R.I., where her husband is a professor of computer science at Brown University, and Niamey, where her firm, Atelier Masomi, has operated since 2014. “It’s not the story we’re fed about Africa being this place with no history.”

Since completing her Master of Architecture at the University of Washington (and a thesis project on gender and public space) in 2013, Kamara has built her practice on layers of narrative. Her buildings read as missives from the people who inhabit them: about their history, the ways they move through space, and their needs and aspirations, all gleaned through careful observation and conversation. Constructing clear geometric forms almost entirely from three locally produced materials — cement, recycled metal and unfired earth — Kamara shapes space from the inside out, using environmental and cultural cues to generate her designs. Whether creating levitating metal disks to shade earth-brick market stalls in the village of Dandaji or a clean-lined office building for an innovation incubator in the capital, she uses a combination of traditional and contemporary technologies to address her clients’ desires. “No matter where you are, architecture is a process of discovery,” she says. “It’s not just space-making; it’s about discussion and how you turn desire into form.”

Kamara models the exterior of each building around the cultural and climatic needs of its intended users.
Kamara models the exterior of each building around the cultural and climatic needs of its intended users.Credit: Nicholas Calcott
Kamara models the exterior of each building around the cultural and climatic needs of its intended users.

Kamara began her first major project, 2016’s Niamey 2000 apartment complex (designed with Yasaman Esmaili, Elizabeth Golden and Philip Sträter), by interrogating the spatial problems of her own Western-style childhood home in the colonial city of Niamey. Like many middle-class houses built after independence in 1960, the concrete structure amplified the brutal heat. Compound walls created privacy but interfered with the practice of faada, gatherings that occur in the space between house and street. “I remember this tension between the way the house was built and how we actually lived,” Kamara says, “this sensation that we were always working around and against its layout.”

Among Kamara’s current projects is the Niamey Cultural Center, whose white interior arcades are pictured here. Credit: Nicholas Calcott

She thought back on the adobe houses she’d seen throughout the Nigerien countryside, with shaded vestibules and heat-absorbing earthen material that kept the interiors cool, and decided to do something similar. Typically associated with rural poverty, earth masonry was a provocative choice for a middle-class, urban project, but Kamara was committed to using the material not only as an environmentally friendly, cost-saving solution, but also as a means of reframing the conversation around an indigenous technology as not merely “contextual” — a word she resents — but irreducibly logical. Combining earth with trace amounts of cement, she built four interlocking structures that pushed up against the edge of the plot, eliminating the need for a perimeter wall and trading exposed Western-style lawns for shaded interior courtyards. A low bench built into the facade reintroduced space that facilitated faada, while small square apertures placed high along the exterior walls provided light and ventilation. Kamara was struck by how similar the final building looked to traditional adobe houses in the 18th-century city of Zinder: Spatial logic had brought her to the same formal conclusions as master builders centuries before.

Her next project, the Hikma Religious and Secular Complex in Dandaji, began with an urgent call to rescue a 30-year-old adobe mosque whose mud-and-thatch domes, abstract bas-reliefs and squat minarets — idiomatic elements in the regional style — had fallen into disrepair.

Kamara’s work, built entirely in her native Niger, transcends the too-common notion that African architects must focus first, or exclusively, on projects with a clear social program, such as clinics and schools. Credit: Nicholas Calcott

After several long sessions with local stakeholders, Kamara and her collaborator, Esmaili, working with a team that included several of the original masons, elaborated a design that would convert the old building into a library while erecting a new mosque alongside it, with a ribbed earthen facade opening into a spectacle of mud-brick domes lofted 30 feet up on slender whitewashed columns. Between the two buildings, garden paths “create a single space,” Kamara says, “without contradiction, between secular knowledge and faith.”

In other words, the project declines to prioritize one type of knowledge over the other. Between her past work and her plans for an ambitious new cultural center in the heart of Niamey — its elliptical earth-brick towers filled with libraries, galleries and performance spaces — Kamara is mounting a quietly radical revolt against the “Western dictatorship over our space,” which still insists that African architects should only build clinics and rural schools, never addressing higher aspirations. For Kamara, that attitude is not just constraining, it’s an affront to the humanity of the place she comes from and the people for whom she builds. She prefers instead “to elevate lived experience,” to “dare to do something that would make someone dream.”