The common thread running through the masomi atelier’s projects is an intense listening of the context and wide research activity. Whether interrogating to the history and memory of a place through the use of archival research or the activities they conduct on site aimed at gathering intangibles from carefully listening to the people they are designing for. We met the founder, Mariam Kamara one of the most interesting voices of the African contemporary architecture culture.
Luca Molinari The key title of this issue is “Listen” intended as the capacity to listen people and the real context. I truly believe every architect should start listening the place, leaving space to make things enter in her/his mind to process it and to start the creative process which will, finally, bring to the project proposals. Looking at your recent works in Niger I felt you have a similar attitude and methodology. Could you explain to us how important it is to generate open and humble relationships with the places you will transform through the design process? Which has been the most interesting experiences in direct relation with your work? Mariam Kamara Listening has formed an important part of my methodology since founding atelier masōmī in 2014. Although our first projects like the Hikma Community Complex and the Dandaji Regional Market are located in Niger, our most recent projects are spread between Senegal, Liberia, Sharjah and the US. The projects range in scale from a museum building, to a presidential center for Africa’s first female head of state and all the way to immersive installations and furniture design. The thread that holds all these design projects together is intense listening and research that comes before I have even picked up a pencil to sketch my designs. Whether listening to the history and memory of a place through the use of archival research or the activities we conduct on site aimed at gathering intangibles from carefully listening to the people we are designing for. Every experience is different because we come from a humble position of wanting to learn more about the geographies and people for whom we design.
L.M. You were born in France but, then, you spent the first, important, phase of your life in Niger, which could be your mother place. Now you’re living and working between New York and Niamey. You’re the perfect, contemporary architect! How has the relationship with Niger shaped your vision of the world and your way of looking at architecture? How can you manage the balance and relationship between those two, different worlds? M.K. I don’t know about being the perfect contemporary architect, but I will say that growing up in Niger before moving to the US for my studies has allowed me to have a wider scope of references. In Niger, I grew up around cities like Zinder and Agadez, where the architecture is a few centuries old and is still lived in today. This gave me a wider sense of what good architecture is on a fundamental level, making it easier to never believe the notion that everything of value only comes from one small part of the world that presents itself as a universal default.
L.M. Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Niger, but I have the impression that the context keeps a series of strong contrasts between the social and political realities of the contemporary situation and a significant architectural, cultural and religious tradition. Looking at the project for the Niamey Cultural Centre and for the Hikma Community Complex it’s evident you tried to face the delicate relationship between local tradition and contemporary architecture. What is your feeling and attitude in relation to this element? M.K. The Hikma Community Complex started when the community of Dandaji asked that we demolish an old mosque in order to replace it with a new one. But we saw great value in restoring the old mosque, and instead turned it into a library while also building a new mosque in the same complex. We invited the local masons who had built the original mosque onto our project team, this way we learned so much from them while they also learned from our contemporary building techniques. The Niamey Cultural Centre is slightly different to the Hikma Community Complex as there was no existing structure. Construction is due to begin soon following delays caused by the pandemic. Our contemporary proposal for a cultural center that would house the city’s first public library as well as an art gallery and theater is inspired by traditional Hausa architecture. For me, traditional architecture, whether it is in Niger or Italy or elsewhere in the world, holds clues about how people used to respond to their climate, geographies and cultural imperatives before we became overly reliant on technology. I find the dialog between traditional knowledge and technological advances to be infinitely richer when thinking of contemporary architecture and how we solve problems for the future.
L.M. Following the last question, it comes naturally to reflect with you about contemporary architecture in Africa. I think Africa should be considered one of the most intriguing and challenging contexts to generate new elements and characters for contemporary architecture. Your activity for Rolex together with Sir David, the Pritzker Prize to Francis Kerè and the call to Lesley as the next Biennale’s curator in Venice bring definitively African Culture under the spotlight. After more than a decade working and reflecting on this fundamental question, which are your ideas on the characters of African architecture? M.K. The architectural canon has long ignored architectural history that is not from the West. This is not only Africa but also South America and Asia, for example. Now might be a good time for us to introspect and recognise what is missing from our own understanding of all that architecture is capable of. If we are serious about resolving the massive global challenges looming on our horizon, we need to widen our perspective and incorporate other wisdoms.
L.M. I read your master thesis was based on the relationship between gender and architecture. In the meantime, it seems that your projects have a strong sense of relationship with local communities and the quality of everyday life. The sense of security and belonging to the place are key-elements to define the characters of a project able to define the daily quality of a new environment. How do you try to bring those elements in your work and projects? Could you tell us more about the next relevant works of Atelier Masomi, your office based in Niger? M.K. My thesis project, Mobile Loitering, was a proposal that used the public realm in an opportunistic manner (employing tactics similar to those developed by street hawkers and other informal actors in many African cities) to site destinations such as study carrels, fitness venues/amphitheaters, a market, as well as outreach program spaces. The project concerned itself with providing a right to the city that is becoming less and less attainable for many young women in Niamey. In terms of future atelier masōmī projects, it is really hard to pick just one as most of our projects do take seriously the need to attract people from different backgrounds to a particular space. With the upcoming Bët-bi Museum in Senegal, I imagined a project that would be a public space first, while the museum functions themselves are essentially invisible at first glance: the galleries have been sunk below ground in a gesture that mimics how art, produced for rituals, was handled for its sacred nature by the people who occupied the region for over a millenia. While Bët-bi is to be built on a relatively rural site, the Niamey Cultural Center is to be located in the capital city and an area used for intensive urban agriculture. The design reflects the history of that site through an abundance of vegetation, pedestrian pathways for promenades, while reserving generous sections dedicated to continuing urban agriculture practices. Rather than one big walled-off building, the project is broken up into 5 buildings entirely open to access as yet another informal community space for the city’s inhabitants.
L.M. Would you like to tell us more about your teaching activity as Professor of Architecture Heritage and Sustainability at ETH Zurich? Since we’re both university colleagues I am always very interested in the key arguments discussed with the students and the hot-spot which emerges in the discussion with them. M.K. Yes, I have taken on the role of professor of Architecture Heritage and Sustainability at ETH Zurich. It’s a fairly recent appointment but I hope to build on the work that I had already started exploring with my practice. And since with teaching the focus is on the future, this will be a great opportunity to think, alongside my students, about architecture’s inherent capacity for providing value and solutions.
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