Mariam Kamara & David AdjayeBuilding Africa in its own image

Published in January 2020clockTime to read: 2m15s
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Renowned British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye and his protégée Mariam Kamara, of Niger share a conviction that African architecture needs its own identity. During the course of their mentorship, the greatest of the many lessons he passed on to her is “to be true to herself”.

by Sarah Crompton January 2020
  • David Adjaye
    The Mentor
  • Mariam Kamara
    The Protégé

A visit to Mariam Kamara’s native Niger was the turning point in the relationship between her and world-famous Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye. Before that, the architecture mentor and protégée had spent a fruitful year discussing their ideas of architecture, with her gaining insight into his projects around the world and him guiding her creative direction as she built her practice. But in January 2019 they headed together for her home.

“It was the moment he really understood what I was, what I am, where I was coming from, what I really wanted. We went to my family’s village. We went to the desert and camped outside under the stars; we went to a city called Agadez, where people still live in the houses built in the 14th century,” says Kamara, her face lighting up with the memory. “I hadn’t been back there since I became an architect, so it was important for me.”

Adjaye agrees. “It was a real education for me as well,” he says. “It is a very amazing classical place. I don’t know Niger. I just wanted to understand much more deeply where Mariam was coming from. It was wonderful to have her eyes lead me. I just think she is a star and now she has become a friend as well. We have established a very wonderful professional and private friendship.”

The long journeys gave them time to talk, replicating the moments in Adjaye’s own youth when renowned architects such as Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano gave him advice. “I recognize a lot of the struggles she is having and can say, ‘I know what you are going through.’ I think that has been very encouraging for her. She’s a trailblazer. She’s a Muslim woman in a culture that doesn’t expect that kind of leadership. I felt I could support her because being a fast-rising star is not easy.”

He knows the experience. Adjaye’s own rise through the architecture ranks was meteoric; he now has practices in London, New York and Accra, Ghana, where his family has recently moved to live. Kamara, who is 40, lives near Boston with her husband and 10-year-old daughter, but her firm atelier masōmī is based in Niamey. One of Adjaye’s main concerns during his mentorship has been to help her on a practical level in terms of running that office.

I get to learn from this amazing person which completely goes in the direction of the goal that I have of becoming a really good architect as quickly as possible.

Mariam Kamara, 2018-2019 Architecture Protégée

“I am really trying to predict for her the growth that’s going to happen, that is already happening and how to manage that. I can see the pressures that are coming and tell her to think about her infrastructure, so that things don’t overtake her. She clearly knows what she is doing; that’s not an issue. The issue is learning how not to fall over and to create sustainability in the business, to choose projects carefully. Some projects might make a lot of money, but actually, from the point where she is now, are not very valuable.”

For this reason, the pair were keen that Kamara should work on a public project. They came up with the idea that she would design a new arts centre for an area under development in the heart of Niamey. This has been the principal focus of the interaction between them and it has forced Kamara to become a much more public figure than she had been before. “I’m adapting to that,” she says. “It helps that I have fairly strong convictions. I think what I needed was to not be afraid; to just go all out and say this is what I firmly believe in, and this is what I am putting on the table to go in a direction that I think benefits us or benefits the architecture and the environment.”

When we meet, Kamara has just made a presentation of her design at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, explaining her plans for a centre that uses sustainable and traditional methods of building to forge a new kind of architecture. “I fundamentally believe that architecture is about people,” she says. “I want to make space for people to live in and feel good about. I happen to be doing it in Niger, but I could do the same thing elsewhere. Working with David helped me generalize my thinking even more.”

As she developed her ideas, she sent sketches and notes to Adjaye, and he responded but never gave her direct instructions. “I don’t think that would have been interesting for him,” Kamara says. “I think he was much more interested in seeing where my head was and what I wanted to do. Then he would just say things like, ‘OK this is good, but you said you wanted to achieve this other thing, but that’s not what you sent me.’ He’d always push me [to] make it bolder.”

Kamara jokes that she learned that Adjaye had many forms of response. “He’d say, ‘not bad’, or ‘this is good’, or ‘hmm, keep working’,” she says, laughing. “Then, every once in a while, he would express elation, which is obviously what I am looking for.” More seriously, she says the effect on her has been profound. “I think I am going to need another year to process it, because it was so fundamental.

“Normally, I would be so hard on myself, second guessing my design decisions, which is normal because I am at the start of my career… But working through this project with David has allowed me to trust my voice more. His reactions have confirmed that I can trust my design instinct. That kind of confidence usually just comes with time and experience. The mentorship has allowed me to confirm my voice and not apologize for it.”

Adjaye talks of her achievements with great pride. “She’s really grown incredible wings,” he says. “I look forward to her maturing in the world and I am so happy to have been at this critical moment with her. I look forward to her journey, I really do.”

In the course of their work together, Kamara herself has become a role model. When she was beginning the cultural centre project, she ran workshops to investigate what different people wanted. Among those she consulted were a group of teenagers, some of them young women, who quizzed her about her career and how she entered her profession. “I think it opened up possibilities in their minds,” she says. “Now we are helping some of them apply to architecture school.”

Kamara describes the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative as a wonderful apprenticeship. “It’s been life-altering in so many ways,” she says. “It wasn’t just about architecture. We talked about aspirations for the future. About dreaming. What do you dream you could leave behind? How do you live a life that would have had some value?

“I hoped to be David’s protégé pick because I wanted to be a stronger architect. Because there are so many challenges in the African context as an architect, I wanted to develop my skills to be up to the task. That’s what I wanted and I feel that’s what David gave me.”

Sarah Crompton is one of Britain’s most respected writers and broadcasters, commentating on all aspects of culture and the arts. Her work appears in The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Times and The Observer, among others.

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