In August, the African Futures Institute (AFI) kicked off its inaugural Alero Olympio Memorial Lecture series with a presentation from Nigerien architect Mariam Kamara. The series is the first of what will become an annual occurrence in honor of the late Ghanaian architect, Alero Olympio, who was renowned for her commitment to using natural and local material like laterite, wood, and stone. As part of this series, the lecture will feature the works of architects that support women in design, champions the use of sustainable materials in construction and building methods, and provokes a new type of architectural vision in Africa.
Kamara– who is the founder and principal of atelier masomi, in Niamey, Niger– dedicated her AFI talk to highlighting sustainability, particularly in the context of African cultures. She calls out current construction and building practices that prioritizes building fast and cheap while disregarding the waste and pollution it creates. She also argues that the desire to appeal to certain aesthetics, particularly those of Western standards, results not only in unsustainable building practices, but also a loss in cultural identity.
“One of the things we don’t often realize, especially when you’re not in the building industry or are not architects, is that we are massive culprits of what’s happening to the planet because of the industrial materials that we are using,” says Kamara. “The construction industry is single-handedly the third most polluting industry in the world and that’s not even counting the materials. The materials themselves come in at number six.”
Kamara’s architectural beginnings in Niger, where it is incredibly hot and there is a scarcity of outside resources, forced her to always consider the economic and environmental impacts of her work. She quickly realized the cultural significance of the projects she creates and how they contribute to the communities in which they exist are equally important considerations.
“Sustainability is not just about the environment. It’s about how you sustain people and their lives, economies, and cultures,” she explains. A major step in achieving these goals is considering using readily available, local materials and craftsmen that can also allow spaces to be built economically while also reintroducing African identities to the rest of the world. In doing this, architects enforce a form of cultural sustainability that helps to salvage African heritage damaged as a result of colonialism. “After colonization, we started thinking that being modern and contemporary meant going with a certain aesthetic...so the local materials got left behind.”
Kamara references a project her firm completed in 2018 where a dilapidated mosque was reinvented as part of a community center in Dandaji, Niger. Niger is a predominately Muslim country and the project caused controversy since it involved turning a religious space into a library. In order to make sure the new mosque properly served its community, Kamara and her team had to carefully consider what it should look like.
“We had an old mosque in a village that was supposed to be destroyed,” she says, describing the Hikma Religious and Secular Complex. “It was kind of this quintessential example of traditional architecture, so we tried to save and refurbish it. ”One of the issues Kamara had to reconcile was her country’s tendency to embrace Islamic styles of architecture that don’t always consider local Nigerien identities.
To create a community center that honors the Muslim religion while also accounting for Nigerien cultural values, Kamara researched and found examples of 19th-century mosques to learn whatever she could from those examples and how those spaces were organized. She also honed in on the aspects of Muslim religion that views knowledge as sacred and powerful. In creating a modern interpretation of these examples, Kamara designed the new mosque using compressed earth bricks, soaring ceilings, and concrete in areas where it made sense. This sort of hybrid building required her to assemble a team of both traditional and contemporary masons who had to learn from one another in order to execute Kamara’s design. A garden linking the old mosque-turned-library and the new mosque eased the tension between the two spaces and made it easy for those studying to take breaks to fulfill their daily prayers.
The process of merging traditional building materials and techniques with more contemporary ones helped her realize the powers of honoring both cultural sustainability and heritage. Kamara found herself most impressed with the collaboration between traditional makers and modern artisans and she realized that the need to copy other cultural ideals comes simply from a lack of confidence, not skill or ability. By challenging the various types of artisans to work together, they managed to employ some of Africa’s older forms of constructing, proving that they still are vital to modern-day building practices.
The Dandaji Regional Market project, also completed in 2018, was not only constructed with cultural sustainability in mind but also aimed to be economically feasible. By employing local builders and using materials like recycled metal and compressed earth, the project was able to provide 52 vendor stalls for the same price that it would’ve cost to construct 30 with outside materials. This creates economic sustainability for the village by affording more vendors the opportunity to sell their merchandise and participate in entrepreneurship. The whimsical design of the marketplace also inadvertently became a communal gathering hub where community members congregate and school children flock to after classes to play.
One of Kamara’s current projects in Niger, called Artisans Valley, earned her a spot at the 2021 Venice Biennale where she was given the opportunity to recreate, in part, its design. While doing so, she also used the opportunity to showcase the skills of the local craftsmen that brought her vision for the market to life, while also including them in the actual fabrication of the installation in Venice. “Rather than focusing entirely on the project, we decided to make most of the installation about the [artisans] and the things that they produce to really show off their skills...and what they can do.”
“When you talk about local materials, we always like to relate them to villages. But the challenge is showing that these building systems and materials are actually appropriate anywhere,” says Kamara. To prove that earth is not inferior simply because it requires a different type of maintenance, Kamara points to an office building she designed in Niamey that employs both compressed earth blocks and concrete, similarly to the mosque. The building was the city’s first to be constructed multi-story to be constructed using compressed earth blocks with the intention of keeping culture in mind.
Kamara’s current project is arguably her biggest to date. The Niamey Cultural Center in Niger’s capital city will be composed of five raw earth buildings housing performances spaces, galleries, community facilities, and a library. To honor the site’s rich architectural history, Kamara and her team crafted a space that takes inspiration from Hausa and Songhai traditional architecture but also takes the area’s climate into consideration. Sustainable practices like harvesting rainwater and a reliance on solar energy, while continuing to allow the use of the site as an urban agriculture hub, not only honors the historical context of the space, but also the environmental.
“The cultural center assembles everything...in terms of cultural, environmental, and economic sustainability,” says Kamara. “It looks at the cultural history while also looking at the climate in a very serious way, both in terms of the shapes that it uses, the spaces that it produces, and how it seeks to stretch the skills of local masons.”
Kamara wraps up her presentation by pointing to a proposal she and her team created for the National Black Theatre in New York City. Since the proposal was for the building’s interiors, she imagined a space where wood could be used as a local material, in the same way that earth bricks are. In her research, Kamara found parallels between African slave cabins and some African architectural languages. Ultimately, Kamara crafted a design that she hoped would honor the culture of the African American experience as well as the pain and resiliency that accompanies it. By considering the importance of the National Black Theatre and the opportunities it has created for black artists, Kamara hoped to nurture the history and significance of this cultural anchor.