David Adjaye and his protégée Mariam Kamara talk about their WhatsApp meetings and boosting civic life in Niger
An extract from an eye-opening conversation between Adjaye and Kamara, moderated by Tim Marlow, at the Royal Academy, to mark the Rolex mentorship programme. Icon 198 contains a feature dedicated to the work of Mariam Kamara' and her practice Atelier Masomi.
Tim Marlow: The idea of learning from each other, from a mentor, is fascinating. I am also struck by how much you have had to learn from local communities, tradition, history: the context in which you work. How do you work with a mentor, because it’s your project. How does David help? How does he step back?
Mariam Kamara: From the beginning, the relationship was very easy. The first thing that David did when the mentorship started was to say, ‘here is my Whatsapp number.’ And so we were in contact immediately. We immediately started talking about this idea of the public realm. And a place for people. A cultural place for education. And that was in Berlin before we had even announced it officially. And so the ball had already been rolling.
We would meet in his office in New York or in London. We travelled for these learning architecture trips as well, and then he would come to Niger and that was also really key. We spent a lot of time not only working with the communities, talking to them, but also travelling around the country, going to villages and analysing and seeing different things that have been there for so many centuries. It was a natural, easy process. David was always available whenever I had a question. If I needed feedback I would send [work] to him, and immediately, I would get a phone call or a text.
David Adjaye: I think it is incredibly important that the immediate hierarchy of mentor/protégé is broken at the beginning. So this idea of making it a relationship where one is working with a fellow professional and talking through the issues they are facing is critical for me. I think that what I was very keen for Mariam to explore was to really thrust her much more into the political, civic world of her country. The first projects she had done, which were exemplary for a young architect, were in the private sector and it felt that she was yearning – especially with the mosque project that she had done and subsequently the market project – to have a public voice. And it seemed that maybe this Rolex opportunity was the perfect vehicle to allow her to really get involved in [doing this], a significant [public] undertaking, for the first time in Niger.
There are sports facilities and ethnographic museums, and also incredible pre-history museums, but except for the market and the mosque, there isn’t really a public life. But there is this extraordinary explosion of private initiatives about public life. Concerts would happen in people’s houses, and you would never see anything [like that] in public – it would all take place in people’s courtyards. And it seemed like it was an opportunity to see if we could push that agenda.
So, I feel like that was an amazing place for me to stand and support. When I went to Niger, I felt my role was to encourage Mariam, wherever possible, to find her authorial voice. She has a very strong authorial voice, but in a way she has been thrust [into her position] but she is also more than capable of being in that position. Having people in the professional community endorsing her to do this was a very important part of the project.
TM: It’s a delicate matter but you’ve brought it up in your work, Mariam, which is gender. There is a project that I’m really curious about, called Mobile Loitering. You look at the permission and behaviour which is granted, or not, to young women to be public in a city. You as a now increasingly prominent female architect in a Muslim country, how easy is that? How much does it need a male international star with a global brand behind you to get it built? And how much is there a political and social will for you to succeed on your own terms?
MK: Wow. That’s a big question. I always looked at it as a baby steps type of situation. It wasn’t so much that I was going to go and do all these things. It was about finding opportunities wherever they were, following that and maximising that. This Rolex mentor/protégé programme happened and when David said he wanted to work on a project that the protégé wanted to work on, I thought: ‘This is my chance.’ I definitely wanted to run with that. When something like that happens you have to make the most of it. In the process, what has emerged for me is that I’ve realised it was a really big responsibility when there aren’t that many women architects – not that many architects actually – in the city. It comes with a responsibility to show in any way that I can that this is possible and so every opportunity that I can get, [I try] to make something happen. This added the pressure to follow through and make a big statement out of it.
DA: I think you are a little bit unfair with your statement. I mean it is correct, but it is also a little bit unfair in the sense that any young architect needs the support of other professionals. The competition process is generally about the profession endorsing young architects and bringing them up. So you can play it from the perspective that she is female, but it is really about the profession endorsing the possibility of a young architect to have an opportunity to work on such a massive, civic scale. And I think that is what the convening of Rolex and the mentorship has allowed Mariam to demonstrate in her country. It is more about giving that opportunity rather than waiting for her to build for another 15 years before being given a chance to work on such a project.
I actually firmly believe that the younger generation should be given much more opportunity and be thrown deep in, guided by the generations above, to help them get involved in the building of the city earlier and to speed up their apprenticeship of craft. We have become so used to architects having to come into their own in their fifties that we forget that actually, architects were maturing at 27 and building extraordinary projects at that time. I very much want to see if that opportunity can work within an apprenticeship programme.
TM: Let’s talk about the idea of learning and education. You have both designed libraries, cultural institutions. And this idea about people’s knowledge and learning but also the learning and research you have to do – how easy is it to communicate and build a relationship with the people who use your buildings?
MK: It’s actually quite easy. I think it needs to come first. I think we often run into problems when it is an afterthought. But when it comes from the beginning, before picking up a pencil, you actually go to people and say: ‘Hey, I am thinking about this thing happening, what do you think?’ People from all walks of life, all ages, all background [then get involved], so I find that it’s actually quite easy because everybody wants to feel that their voice matters and that they have a say in what gets built around them and for them. So it’s actually always a fantastic exchange in pretty much all of the public or cultural projects I’ve designed. And it’s always very easy, very engaged. I’m always very surprised by how vocal people are, how much they’re thinking and how much smarter than me they are.
A lot of my practice has become an exercise in listening and really trying to unearth what is at the core of what they are thinking, what they want for themselves, for the future, what they aspire to. And I’m not talking about a form, or anything like that. I mean very deeply, as human beings. So you [need to] think about that when you start designing architecture.