Mariam Kamara is the founder and principal of Atelier Masomi, an architecture and research firm in Naimey, Capital of Niger. She is also a founding member of the Seattle based collective united4design working on projects in the US, Afghanistan, and Niger. Kamara is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at Brown University and a recurring Architecture Critic at the Rhode Island School of Design.
FA: Hello. I am Farah Alkhoury, an architect, at Sharjah Architecture Triennial. As part of the first series of SAT Talks: Architecture+Community, I would like to welcome Mariam Kamara, founder and principal of Atelier Masomi, an architecture and research firm in Niamey, the capital of Niger. She is also a founding member of the Seattle-based collective United4design, working on projects in the US, Afghanistan, and Niger. Kamara is also an Associate Professor at Brown University and a recurring architecture critic at the Rhode Island School of Design.
I'm happy to welcome Mariam, who definitely presents an important and influential voice within the region.
Hi Mariam. Hello from Sharjah.
MK: Hi Farah, thank you for having me. This is quite a treat.
FA: It's a pleasure to have you, and I hope we can learn more about your practice, the context in which you work and the challenges it presents, and of course your approach towards the built environment.
MK: That would be my pleasure.
FA: In 2013 you were one of the founders of the Seattle-based collaborative United4Design and in 2014 you founded an architecture practice in Niger, Atelier Masomi. Could you talk a little bit about your practice, both in Niger and the US, and how your work differs within the two contexts?
MK: Yes, it was actually a really interesting process and it was a process that happened two times. The very first time I worked in Niger was actually with United4design, in a way, it was the precursor to setting up my own firm. I was lucky enough to start with three other collaborators and after we worked on our first project there, I set up my firm rather permanently in Niger. It really made me understand the potential that was there.
Even more so, the context is one where I have had to shift my thinking in many ways because I was trained in the US, there are certain ways that we practice architecture, or certain things are understood, in terms of how you draw, how you think through a project, how you implement a project. This being a completely different context, it really required adapting in many different ways, but it also created or presented an amazing set of opportunities, particularly when it came to collaboration with builders or artisans. It was a completely different way of relating to them, in that it wasn't about very technical drawings and detailing, but it was more about being hands on and on the site with them: explaining on the site, drawing sometimes even on the sand to convey ideas. It was a completely different way of practicing architecture that I absolutely fell in love with.
FA: During your lectures, you often start by describing your context, which is very informative. For someone who doesn't know Niger very well or maybe has not heard of it, could you briefly describe the context which you work in?
MK: Yes, I like to do this every time I start a lecture because my assumption is that no one knows what Niger is, or where it is. Usually, if I'm lucky, people think it's Nigeria because no one has ever heard that word before. So, it is incredibly important for me to first present it both geographically to show where it is, because it's also a country whose identity and architecture is vastly influenced by its geographical location. So, for those two reasons, in order to even explain my work, presenting the country and its geography is indispensable.
The context is very important and that also comes with certain temperatures and a certain climate that, in a way, I feel you cannot help but address from an architectural point of view, especially when you have economic challenges and issues with access to capital. It's really its unique geographic location and challenges that make the work what it is.
FA: During your lectures, you challenge the idea of developing cities, adopting western models. What do you think a developing city such as Niamey with exponential population growth should look like? Is it possible for African cities to develop a unique urban model?
MK: I think when we wonder what it should look like— I just want to say that it should look like itself, right? I find it difficult to understand why any place should look like any other place unless there's a really good reason for it in terms of needs, in terms of similarities, you know? France for instance. Paris doesn't look like anywhere else, right? It looks like Paris and it looks like Paris for very specific reasons—because there's a history there. There is a kind of cosmopolitan and commercial activity and concentration of population, and a bunch of different things that actually conspired to make it the way it is.
The minute we start thinking that urbanization, or urbanity for that matter, is somehow a Euro-centric concept, we encounter a problem. Obviously, cities have existed long before European cities actually, so, whether it's in Asia, whether it's in Africa, actually cosmopolitan cities, thriving cities are something that is part of all of our paths. So, there's absolutely no reason that we couldn't imagine, for the 21st century, new ways forward for our cities that keep in mind their histories. Just like anywhere else, the activities that are required, whether it's housing, whether it's how communities come together or the kind of infrastructure that they use.
Obviously, we live in a very global world right now where a lot of things are adopted from one place to another, and that's great because technology is fantastic, advances in infrastructure, for example, are something that cannot be ignored, but that's only one portion of what makes a city. Everything else is more specific than it is global. I think when we think about the future of cities, those specificities are the things that are in our best interest to pay attention to in order to create sustainable ecosystems in those places.
FA: Niger has one of the highest fertility rates in the world. What are the challenges that this condition presents to architects?
MK: It's absolutely critical for the architect and the urban planner to really think about these problems. This is basically the problem of this century, right? This is the challenge along with the environmental challenge, those are the two things that we need to really take seriously. And, as architects, we actually have a unique opportunity. To start rethinking things in the same way that the Industrial Revolution and urbanization in Europe and in America in the early 20th century completely changed the way in which people live, the way in which they built, and the proximities in cities.
What the modernists also thought of as new paradigms for urban space and for architecture... it feels that, in this century, something like that also needs to happen for different places and something that takes into account environmental challenges and these growths that we've never seen before. Particularly in Asia, it's already happened there and Africa is definitely the next place where it will be happening. And so, it's an opportunity to really think more critically, I think about what we build, why we build it, what it looks like, and how it functions.
At this point, we've had time to take stock and look at the results of the modernist’s approach, or the Industrial Revolution in Europe or in America, and to try to learn lessons from some of the things that were great about it and some of the things that were not so great. So, when we then think about places in Africa or in Asia where community is still very important, where being together and family, and all of those things are structured differently, we have to think about those aspects as we think about how to densify and create compact urban centers where everybody can have housing without sacrificing this community.
And, this “people being together” aspect, how do we make it affordable? Keeping in mind that affordable in Niger, doesn't mean the same thing at all as affordable in Mumbai, right? Which then means that we need to make different choices. And that's why I'm always wary of picking models. I think there's just a lot of research and critical thinking that needs to happen for us architects questioning what we do, why we're doing it, and how we're going about proposing solutions.
FA: In terms of community participation, your design process includes user participation to create a socially-responsive architecture. Could you describe the process of community engagement and how it manifests itself in your built projects in relation to programme, site and size of community?
MK: Thank you, actually, for that question, because that's something that is very central to the work that we do and incredibly important because, to me, it is actually indispensable for what I was talking about earlier in terms of translating training that you acquire elsewhere and trying to figure out how do you do something that is contextual and really understands local needs, local symbolisms, and is able to do justice to where it's placed. So, for me, whenever I work on a project, particularly when it's not a commercial project, and we're lucky enough to work on a couple of cultural projects and public projects, community involvement is the very first step.
Even when the client comes with us with a brief, that brief is put aside and we just go on and hunt down who the users would be and have long sessions, over multiple days sometimes, where we just listen. It's really about asking questions and listening to what comes out, which in the end, ends up having profound consequences on the projects that we develop. Often it ends up redesigning or rewriting the programme itself, but also it gives us a strong base for going back to the client and saying: well, actually, maybe these are the kinds of things that the programme should be about. As an architect, it empowers you to make certain decisions.
It can also have an impact on where the project is situated, particularly for cultural projects because these conversations allow us to get to the root of certain histories that are not necessarily the history of the place but more the narratives of the users, of the people, and of the place which often are difficult to come by unless you talk to someone. And then, it also allows the emergence of symbolisms that you can embed in the architectural solution. Actually, for me, at this point, I think that I've been so lucky to be able to work on several projects that worked in that way that I'm having a hard time working on projects that don't involve community because it's just so much more exciting and so much richer.
FA: Do you find that you're often able to convince the client to rewrite the brief?
MK: You have to do it in a realistic way. So, one thing that we found is that a couple of clients would be really excited by the process, but this is not necessarily for a commercial project, right? You can’t really do that for commercial projects, let's say for an office building. But maybe you can do it for housing projects where there are many stakeholders and many people, the user base or whoever would live there. Their voice would be important and their inputs could have economic impact for the client.
You have to become an economist and a psychologist, because you have to keep in mind everybody's interests. But, architecture is incredibly expensive and, as such, I'm not sure that we can look down on the concern that the client has for the economic implications of our decisions. Then, the challenge for us is about how we work with communities to create spaces that are compelling for them, but at the same time, respect the economic and capital investment required in order to do that. When our discussions ended up changing, or suggesting that maybe we should modify the programme, this is something that we propose very carefully. It's not necessarily about changing the programme to be whatever the users want, but it's about interpreting our discussion with the users and seeing which aspects of the programme actually could benefit for all sides included in order to make a better project.
FA: I want to bring about one of your projects, Mobile loitering, which tackles questions of gender segregation that is inherent to many cities. In a way, this project set the tone to your practice. Could you elaborate on this project and the reaction of both the user and the government towards this project?
MK: Actually, this project is still ongoing because this was a theoretical project that was proposed. It was my thesis type of project, and as you said, it set the tone for my practice, in the sense that it was the first time that I worked with communities and it was during that project that I developed the way that I work currently. Actually, in the beginning, the project was supposed to be a housing project, if you can believe it, and then these discussions are what led to the Mobile Loitering Project. It completely transformed into more of this cultural/public project, completely divorced from what the initial intention was during these conversations with 16 and 18 year old high school students who were both men and women.
In the conversations, we quickly started seeing different attitudes in terms of how you approach the outside world—the outside world being outside of your home and outside of school. Boys just had a lot more going for them and a lot more accessible to them in the city whereas the girls felt that their world was more school, market, home and each other's houses, potentially to pay a call, like a family member's house. That took me back to the fact that it was that way for me too, when I was growing up in Niger. But it's something that we never really questioned, but, all of a sudden, we started having a discussion aboutwhy couldn't you also have access to the city? Not necessarily because you're going somewhere specific, but just because you just want to hang out. We should be able to hang out. It was really just born of that and ended up being more of a political stance because I thought there was something very compelling about imagining a space, and the mechanism actually more than a space, because that project ended up not being an architectural project. It's more of a strategy and a mechanism, aided by urban design and architecture. In a way, it was also very anthropological in its approach, and very psychological, because it had a lot to do with what is our relationship with people we encounter when we're out in the world.
In this particular case, one of the notions was that of the gaze. What is the male gaze on the female and what's the female gaze on their environments and on the male gaze? Because you have this self-consciousness of being out there and being looked at and being judged potentially and maybe even being condemned. There were all these intricate issues going on there hat then led me to wonder: what would it take for these gazes to not be negative or to not be something that you have to run away from into the safety of the home? How can you be out there without having to worry about that so much? But that was really kind of the impetus of the project.
It became a conversation about the city itself and going through the city and the pedestrian nature of the city, but then also about spaces that could be for the community because the project was not necessarily about having a feminist stand on space. This is not space that is supposed to be only for women, but this is space that would be friendly to women. It's a space for everyone because if a space is for women, but then again, you create another form of segregation and you actually ghettoize them.
So, when we talked about it, it was really about this togetherness and it was about creating this itinerary and it was about, the life in the city being enhanced somehow through these different interventions, through this way of walking through it. We started slowly weaving this project into a lot of other projects that are going on and finding medium points and how to inject these strategies in new projects that would come up or that would benefit from this strategy.
FA: It's beautiful that you described this project as a strategy rather than a building.
MK: Yes, It's not a building
FA: As in your intervention, mobile loitering, in Niger. Considering that the agency of the architect may vary depending on the project and circumstances. Under what conditions or scale can architecture be considered a political act?
MK: I think architecture always has the potential of being a political act. Going back to the discussion that we had on community involvement, I think that the community involvement often tends to uncover a political dimension that can be addressed by default. The minute you start involving people in a place where there are challenges, the politics iare automatic. Then the question is how do you address it or not? and if so, how do you go about tackling it and being part of the architecture? Keeping in mind that architecture is not a magic bullet that can solve everything.
I think we architects also like to think that we can save everything and everyone and solve everything… And obviously that is not true. We have our place and our contribution that we can provide. And some problems are architecture in nature or architecture can address, and other problems are purely political and only politicians can address or purely economic. But we have our place. And I think the question is about looking at a brief and then putting it aside and really delving into the sites, it's conditioned, it's people you know, and all of those different things to see where these opportunities to make a contribution arise. In a way, you can turn almost any project into a political project.
FA: This brings me to my final question, which I have been very eager to ask you, which has to do with knowledge production in Africa. Many young architects from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, like you, have studied abroad. Do you think that there is a need to decolonize knowledge production and how do you envision this could be done within the African context?
MK: Oh my gosh, this is such a complicated question, and it's an extremely important question, because the question automatically acknowledges that all of our knowledge is colonized at this point, right? Because even when we go to school, or when we study in our own countries, a lot of these institutions' materials are based on something from another European country. For example, in Niger, we don't even have an architecture school, actually it's in a nearby country called Togo. That's where everybody goes to architectural school and that school's curriculum is based on French curriculum because it was colonized by France. This is just one of the many consequences of having been colonies forever transformed by the colonial experience and emerging from colonization with the notion that we need to be a copy of a previous colonial masters. That essentially was the setup, and so with such a setup, decolonizing is a very daunting task because the reality is all of our systems are a copy of the colonial system.
So, when it comes to architecture, I think that we need to understand it and we need to know more about ourselves to begin with. We need to also remember that colonization was just a blip in our history and I think that's been the hardest thing to keep in mind, because it almost feels as though the world started with Europe discovering other places, which is preposterous, right? Everything is set up as though that's when the world began.
I think it's also about understanding that we have a power dynamic problem and the power dynamic is what's making it difficult to step out of this colonial knowledge production approach where we're just forever trying to mimic something that has nothing to do with us. But, rather, in focusing a lot more on the fact that we already had knowledge systems and books that show that there's a whole wealth of information and history and techniques when it comes to architecture and techniques and technologies. Actually, they're incredibly rich to draw from.
So, to begin with, as already colonized architects, one thing that we can start doing is to know a lot more about non-Eurocentric architecture and spatial design and all of these different things, but also non-Eurocentric history, in order to start removing ourselves from this subaltern versus master paradigm that we have been in. So, then the next step is producing, as you were saying, the knowledge that we uncover and start producing it in a much more serious way, not only through books.
The 21st century, I think, is actually a unique opportunity for all of those things to start happening in terms of both education, book production and all of that. When you have so many things available, internet podcasts like this one, to disseminate knowledge you can actually really leapfrog and fast forward without having to go through the regular routes, number one. Number two, there's just a lot more knowledge available because of those tools to begin with. You can learn new things, and you can learn about these things much faster. Then it's about creating educational systems that are actually fully focused on each place's history rather than another one’s.
Once again, and I can really, you know, draw from these place's histories, and these place's experiences, pre-colonial experience to get insights into how we can create a continuation that does not necessarily negate the colonial experience. It's part of us, here's nothing we can do about that, that has to be part of the whole thing, but also incorporate what came before. So, it's a very vast undertaking and it's an undertaking that needs to happen on so many different levels by creating schools, by creating new curriculums, by disseminating the knowledge that we find much more broadly.
The other thing about the 20th century is that ways of disseminating knowledge, like books, were really controlled in Europe. So, even when knowledge was being written, one that was not about European knowledge, it was either written by or published , most of the time, in an European context. which means that there is also a certain agenda because you also always have a choice in how you present something, right? And how you tell the story. The issue is about how everyone gets to tell their own stories rather than having someone else telling your story and feeding it down to the rest of the world.
FA: Something that you have touched upon is accessibility to archives and the idea that historical narratives have been altered. We have an issue here in the UAE where many archives are not here but somewhere in the UK in a museum somewhere. Do you face a similar challenge of accessing historical data within Niger and African context?
MK: Yeah, I mean, sometimes that's the case, especially when you think of East Africa, Nubia, Egypt. Sometimes the archives have been lost through destruction that has happened with colonization in Western Africa specifically. There are also instances where entire fort cities were razed to the ground and disappeared forever, right? There are a couple of projects right now that are trying to rebuild them in the same way that Rome was rebuilt.
For example, there are cities that are still around like Timbuktu, for example, that in its heyday had one of the most important knowledge centers and one of the very first universities in the world where people were coming from all over the world, particularly from the Middle East, both to teach and to study. In a place like that, a lot of the archives are still there, but they belong to specific families and they're in a state of disrepair. That is quite unfortunate, and that now requires a lot of funds to actually gather all of that information and salvage it somehow. The issue is not only that a lot of those archives are elsewhere, it's also that they were lost, destroyed, or are currently disintegrating, and also that it's difficult to have access to the capital that will allow you to bring them back to life or restore them in a way that can be useful. But I think it's all possible, once again, with technology, there's just so much more than we can do right now.
This is when things start becoming, not an architectural problem, but a political problem, where not only institutions, but governments have to take that step of either reclaiming, I don't know the term in English, but in French its patrimoine. An example of that in West Africa, is that there's this programme, or this decision, both from the French side and African side to send back arts, artifacts and manuscripts that are currently in European museums and different countries can actually reclaim them and ask for them to be restituted. That now requires creating new museums or other kinds of places, because just because something is history or art doesn't mean that it always has to be a museum, but that's another discussion. There's just a lot of work to be done in reclaiming, as you said, histories of different places and a lot of the history of most of the world is actually in Europe and America. A lot of it.
FA: It's great to hear from you about this topic.
MK: I feel like now I need to go write a paper about it or something because there's just..
FA: Actually, I would love to read that article.
MK: Yes, that's a subject for a book. It seems that there's a lot to say here and there are so many different aspects people are tackling it in different ways: different designers, whether it's architects or even fashion designers or economists, just so many people, particularly in Africa, who are really looking to this question and this problem of decolonizing knowledge production and trying to figure out a new way forward that has nothing to do with this kind of top down, imposed way. But how do we find new solutions even economically in terms of commerce? How do you create new setups?
And, economically speaking, that's something that's being done quite successfully in a lot of different places where, all of a sudden, we realize that most African countries are complete pioneers in mobile banking, for example. It's so developed that it allows you to do things that you cannot do here in the US. And I think that that also gives us a glimpse of what we can do when we look at our local realities. Mix that with the technology that is available and design a new way forward. I think that's where the potential and the hope become interesting.
(Visual ID credit: SAT, Image credit: Mariam Kamara, Podcast soundtrack credit: Rambling by Blue Dot Sessions)