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As one of the most successful architects of his generation, has designed some of the highest-profile buildings of recent years. In 2016 he completed the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, in 2019 he built the first-ever pavilion for Ghana at the Venice Art Biennale, and this spring he’ll complete his first skyscraper, a luxury condo in downtown Manhattan. Yet for the past two years, he’s taken the time to mentor emerging architect Mariam Kamara, the Niger-born, Rhode Island–based principal of the firm Atelier Masomi. “He’s demanding, which is fantastic,” says Kamara, 40, who has come to interpret the many text messages he sends her across multiple time zones. “I learned what was lukewarm, what was ‘This is amazing,’ and what was ‘You can totally do better.’ ”
Their partnership is part of Rolex’s two-year Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, started in 2002, which pairs marquee names in different creative fields, from literature to dance and theater, with rising talents. In architecture the program has called upon the likes of Peter Zumthor and David Chipperfield as past mentors.
Adjaye chose Kamara not only for her credentials—she studied at the University of Washington in Seattle and has taught at Brown University—but also for her “unique coordinates that were very special.” He is fascinated by Kamara’s homeland and the challenges it faces in the 21st century. Namely, how design can solve problems without imposing European ideas on a country still wrestling with the legacies of colonialism.
The pair traveled to Niger to study the country’s rich—and in many cases still intact—precolonial architectural heritage. It’s a legacy that’s rare for West Africa. They also explored concepts that informed both their practices; bridging cultures and influences is key to their work. In Niger, says Kamara, “there’s a conversation between what came before, and what came after with colonization. What do we do with all of that? We make something new, something that moves us forward.”
The relationship has culminated in plans for a cultural center designed by Kamara in the heart of Niger’s capital, Niamey. The project would address the general lack of public spaces in the city (both indoors and outdoors) and include a library, art galleries, and educational and performance areas, all built by local craftsmen using mostly local materials.
While Kamara has completed similar projects in Niger before—including an open-air market and a religious-secular center—they haven’t been this big or this closely scrutinized. “The past two years have been preparing her to really accept the fact that she’s a public person,” Adjaye says. The encouragement to develop her “authorial voice,” as he describes it, was invaluable to the young architect.
Kamara says Adjaye’s mentorship helped her embrace being a role model as a female architect in the culturally conservative Muslim nation where she was raised. The entire experience “really made me understand that it also comes with a responsibility. When you’re operating in a realm where not a lot of people look like you, and then you have young people who identify with you realizing they see it as a possibility for themselves, that’s incredibly humbling.”