From software developer to architect: not your average career path, yet Mariam Kamara chose it. ‘Coming from Niger, it didn’t feel reasonable to choose a creative career,’ she explained. ‘I didn’t know anyone who was an architect. Later I came to view architecture as much more than a creative pursuit, but as a conduit for positive contributions in the social, economic, cultural and often even political dimensions of a place.’

Since this realisation, she pursued her Masters in Architecture at the University of Washington and started the architecture and research firm Atelier masōmī, which has its headquarters in Niger. ‘My focus is making architecture that respects and manifests the narrative of a place,’ she said. ‘Through my practice, I try to discover innovative ways of achieving that, while maintaining an intimate dialog between architecture, people, and context.’

A constant in the work of Kamara’s office is that the team collaborates with local engineers, masons and other craftsmen to produce simple projects that respond to the realities and aspirations they identify on the ground. Her journey and the firm’s approach will be the topic of her talk during the upcoming Design Indaba Conference. We caught up with her right before the launch of this year’s edition.

What is the importance of Design Indaba for the design scene in South Africa, for the African design community as a whole – and for you personally?
MARIAM KAMARA: I think Design Indaba is an absolutely wonderful platform. I am amazed to see how they have been able to galvanise an entire industry, certainly in South Africa, and create opportunities for African creatives. Before Design Indaba came on the scene it was really difficult to find out what was going on creativity-wise in other African countries. Now we have this window and venue for these creatives to come together and show their work, and by extension show it to the rest of the world – which is incredibly encouraging. I found out about many artists, fashion designers, photographers and graphic designers through Design Indaba that I never would have known about otherwise.

If I choose to design a space in such a way as to make it more inclusive, that move might even be political

You’ve said before that design is as crucial as politics and economic development. Why?
Architecture touches everything. It has a heavy economic component, in the sense that building is really expensive, but it is also political because how you approach a project and what you put in it has consequences, whether you choose to acknowledge those realities or not. The bottom line is that your work won’t exist in a void, and it has to engage with a physical environment and it has to engage with users. If I choose to design a space in such a way as to make it more inclusive, to make it more welcoming for a segment of a population that might not feel like it is a space for them, I have taken a position. Depending on who those people are, that move might even be political.

When I design something to use local materials because they are cheaper and allow lower energy consumption, that translates into less of the users’ household income going towards their energy bill, or maybe even being able to afford a home much quicker than they would be able to otherwise. The design is inserting itself in the economic discourse. So it is crucial, because you can make decisions that have an impact on the politics of place, on the social environment and on the economic reality of a place.

There has been a lot of copying of Western architecture as a way of manifesting modernity

You believe that African architects should stop trying to copy what already exists in the West. Why do you think that’s currently often the case?
There has been a lot of copying of Western architecture as a way of manifesting modernity. For me, modernity has nothing to do with Western sensibilities, it has to do with creating an environment that is contemporary to you and to your identity. It is about acknowledging the present and manifesting a future, and that is not necessarily tied to the aesthetic and technology of another place.

What should African architecture be like? I want to make architecture that makes sense for where it is, all the while allowing its users to dream their futures. Architecture is one of the most powerful conduits of culture and self-representation. Many African cities were built during European colonisation, and, therefore, are based on somebody else’s thinking of what a city is like, of what a home should look like and how it should function. Now with the amazing economic boost that Africa is experiencing, it’s a great opportunity to start rethinking many of these typologies that we apply and reflect on the actual needs, the climate and other evolving aspects of the place.

Everything that is going on in the world right now in terms of globalisation, issues with the environment and heightened economic pressures, is felt with stronger intensity in Africa

For example, you’ve said before that high-rise towers and apartment buildings are not culturally appropriate for the region, and don’t respond to social norms in Niger.
In spite of its growth, the population and land availability ratio is such that it is premature to offer high-rises as solution for increasing density. Not to mention that high-rises are actually not the only solution for creating density. There are cities where incredible density is achieved without necessarily having high rises – a city like Paris comes to mind, where buildings are capped at about six stories in most neighbourhoods. Berlin is another example, as it has a good amount of density without necessarily having apartment towers everywhere. So there are different ways of addressing the density aspect, and Niger is definitely one of the places where that’s necessary.

The cultural inappropriateness of apartment towers is related to their tendency to erase social connections. Even in Western countries, we now understand that the by-product of the typology is that it has contributed to isolating people. Niger being a country where social and communal life is really important, you can understand quickly how such a typology would actually be damaging to the social fabric. I find it more interesting to see how we can achieve density with lower rises, keeping people in proximity to each other, thinking of solutions to make sure that in spite of the density people can still interact with one another.

But then going the other way around, what could the West adopt from African architecture?
Everything that is going on in the world right now in terms of globalization, issues with the environment and heightened economic pressures, is felt with stronger intensity in Africa. We are seeing the biggest explosion in urban growth from anywhere and certainly by 2050, and we are experiencing serious consequences from climate change. So it is the perfect time and place to try new things.

Thanks to technology and globalisation, knowledge spreads easier and faster, which means that we get to learn from mistakes that happened elsewhere and leapfrog to new solutions that address problems affecting us all on the planet.

You can witness Mariam Kamara’s talk this Thursday during the Design Indaba Conference at the Artscape Theatre Centre, where she will speak alongside architect John Pawson, costume designer Ane Crabtree, comedian Kagiso Lediga and more.