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Interview with Mariam Issoufou Kamara: Founder and principal Architect at atelier masōmī

Mariam Issoufou Kamara's interview delves into her transition from software engineering to architecture driven by her passion for creativity. She discusses the potential of digital tools in architecture and the significance of generosity in African architectural practices. Highlighting projects like the Dandaji Daily Market, she emphasizes the blend of tradition with modernity for community benefit. Exploring the "Bët-bi Museum" in Senegal, she illuminates its symbolic underground galleries, drawing inspiration from cultural heritage, spirituality, and the cycles of life in Africa. She envisions spaces as community hubs rather than imposing structures.

What path led you to pursue a career in Architecture?

I started my career as a software engineer. At the time, it felt like a reasonable career choice. But, I have always lovely drawing and being creative, since I was a child. The desire to be an architect never left me. After a few years of working as a software engineer, I started realising all the different dimensions that architecture had. This is both in terms of how it our environment but also how it shapes the way that we see and project ourselves into the world. Architecture seemed like an incredibly powerful tool. So, I went ahead and went back to school and embarked on this adventure.

Mariam Issoufou Kamara: Founder and principal Architect at atelier masōmī

With your background in the IT field, do you believe that parametric design, facilitated by the IBM system, can be considered the future to conceptualizing architecture as the architecture moves more and more towards digitalization?

My background in software engineering has really been advantageous in exposing my team and I to all the different tools that are out there in order for us to see what tools and processes work best for us as a firm. For us, research into the history, context and culture of the places where we work is an important part of our process.

In the African context, how does the concept of generosity in architecture, as mentioned in your statement "I like that architecture provides the opportunity to be generous," manifest itself?

As much as architecture is an important tool for good, the opposite is also true, particularly in Africa, where it has been a tool of subjugation. In thinking about generosity then, particularly in African cities where the buildings in our cities date back to colonisation, there is a large amount of generosity in thinking up spaces that embrace the climate, context and people for whom the architecture it being built.

What was the design process behind the Dandaji Daily Market, which was designed by Atelier Masomi, of which you are the founder?

We were approached to design a permanent market in the village of Dandaji. The market was organized around an ancestral tree. It was made with simple adobe posts and reed roofs. Our main goal was to create a space that projects a sense of confidence in the future users. The project design references the area’s traditional market architecture of adobe posts and reed roofs, pushing the typology forward using compressed earth bricks and colourful recycled metal for durability. We wanted the market to be visually appealing, so that everyone can be proud of it, and that it could attract more commerce to the area. The colorful recycled metal canopies were produced through a succession of individual shading structures that compensate for the difficulty in growing trees in such an arid, desert climate.

Tell us a little bit more about the “Bët-bi Museum”, what is the reason behind sinking the galleries below the ground?

Render of the new Bët-bi museum in Senegal designed by atelier masōmī and developed by the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and Le Korsa

The Bët-bi Museum is a project commissioned by the Albers Foundation to be located in the Kaolack region in Senegal. The form is a nod to both the logic behind the nearby megaliths and the Saloum Kingdom’s original ethnic groups, the Serers and the Mandinkas, which still inhabit the region along with several other ethnic groups. As a matter of fact, the Saloum kingdom existed until 1969 when it officially joined Senegal. In many African societies, much of art is ubiquitous, and encountered daily, while some art was traditionally used for sacred rites. The Serers held a deeply mystical indigenous religion that had an intimate relationship to the natural elements: the sun, the wind, water, ancestral spirits.

The geometric language of Bët-bi Museum came from looking at this traditional spiritual realm and the series of triangles that describe the relationship between divinity, the elements, the living and the dead – a self-renewing cycle of life that was translated into a triangular building with a ramp system that metaphorically reproduces this sense of the sacred journey.

The triangle (and resulting diamond shapes when put together) are also ubiquitous in design, decoration and textiles in West Africa, further emphasizing its symbolic importance. The museum galleries themselves are buried below ground in the same way the megaliths surrounded a mound under which cherished memories and ancestors were buried and are arrived at the end of the unfolding ramp. Above ground is the place for community and celebration, open to and merging with the landscape to make the project approachable and democratic in its use.

The project is at the surface a public space for communities to come together and use as a destination, rather than a big museum building.

Cultural Centre Niamey, Niger designed by Mariam Kamara, Atelier Masomi

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