African cities are developing rapidly, some faster than others. The problem is that these cities are obsessed with a development modeled on the Western model which is not always adapted to local realities. Mariam Camara is part of the younger generation of African architects working for an architectural renewal on the continent. After studying in the United States, she returned to Niger where she created a pilot project: Niamey 2000. Affordable housing built with local materials. Its architecture firm Atelier Masomi focuses on local architecture.
Have you encountered difficulties in your approach to promoting a local architecture?
At the beginning, the difficulties I had expected were from the point of view of skills. But I thought it was the simplest part. We have qualified contractors and engineers. What is more delicate is from the point of view of the workforce. We are making architecture often (in the case of Niger, the local material is of the earth) or it is necessary to carry out techniques that are now forgotten or to introduce new techniques related to architecture in earth that are not known. Instead of spending 10 years saving to build a house, one could do it in a shorter time with local materials. Unfortunately our workforce is much more focused on learning Western techniques, or using foreign materials (such as cement or concrete).
Has this vision of contemporary, African architecture been difficult to accept locally?
At first this idea amused more than anything else. After 2 or 3 projects we were able to convince. So I quickly realized that it was necessary to show concretely what it meant. Because we talk a lot about contemporary African architecture, adapted to the needs. But there are not enough examples. And these are the examples that have managed to convince. Instead of copying what is being done in Europe, we should focus on how spaces are arranged to serve our cultural way of having relationships with each other, working or friendly relationships, and so on. And use these local materials but high-tech.
What were the prejudices you faced?
In the case of Niger, one has a priori with respect to all that is material in earth, it is considered that it is the material of the poor. We needed to show that it is a good product and that it is resistant. People think that a house built of earth cannot last and is doomed to collapse. But in Niger, we have the chance to have examples of buildings and houses that have been there for 300 or 400 years. They are very well preserved. We have family houses in some cities that are very well preserved and are in the 8th or 9th generation. This is a concrete example. We must remind people to get rid of these prejudices.
What are the advantages of building a local architecture?
It is not as a matter of necessarily introducing traditional know-how, but of making what makes more sense. In developing countries that are struggling to keep economically, what makes more sense is to make responsible architecture. It must be responsible in several ways. Using local materials, one can produce an architecture that is affordable. Instead of spending 10 years saving to build a house, one could do it in a shorter time with local materials. And these materials are adapted to the climate. When I take the example of Niger where temperatures often reach 45 degrees, it is somehow irresponsible to build with materials like metal or cement that trap heat. As a result inside buildings, it is even warmer than outside. The fact that Western architecture and Western materials are copied is not reasonable for our realities and our climates.
Is such architecture possible in big cities like Lagos or Kinshasa?
Sure why not? Historically, cities were densely populated and used local materials such as wood. Things have to make sense, you can not apply what you’ve seen elsewhere. In a city like Lagos, building a 50-story tower is a bit inevitable. You do not really have a choice, you have to use certain materials. But in a city this kind of buildings are more the exception than the rule. So for the majority of other buildings, we can make thoughtful and economically and culturally sustainable spaces. How they are organized, how do they reflect on the culture in which they are, how they accompany it instead of destroying it as is often the issue.
Is there an African country that could inspire others?
I would not say that there is a country specifically, but I think there is a whole new generation of architects who are beginning to take these issues seriously and to be inspired. There is, for example, Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso who has done much from the point of view of local architecture, but in innovation. He is constantly innovating using local materials wherever his projects are located. There are many others like Kunlé Adeyemi from Nigeria. So I think that there is a movement that is being created and that I hope will last. African architects are realizing that we also have a lot to offer in our own countries. They are really trying to advance this contemporary architecture