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Dandaji market: social empowerment through design

Anna Wall

Amie Haven, Journalist

Contemporary architecture is more than just form and function – when done right it can empower communities and inspire social change.

When we lay people think of architectural design, we might picture futuristic buildings full of glass and light. Often, we forget that the purpose of good design is practical use as well as intoxicating aesthetics. The spaces we use to live, work, shop, learn, pray, and play have an enormous impact on our interactions, engagement, and appreciation of our environment. Architectural design is about making best use of space, materials, technology, and people whilst never forgetting the importance of beauty and joy. But it can also tap into something deeper: social empowerment. 

In a newly built market in Dandaji, Niger, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the market floor was the bed of a pond and above are a canopy of colourful metal lily pads floating in the sky. But this extraordinary construction serves as an enticing modern design to support the expansion of the local economy. It is a wonderful example of architectural design that ticks all the boxes: local involvement, conscientious use of materials, respect for local culture, potential for growth, and pride of recipients. It serves as a form of social empowerment. 

Completed in 2018, the project was designed to support the growth of the rural village of Dandaji, Niger. The village hosted a weekly market for buyers and sellers of local goods from around the region. Yet the weekly market was restricting economic growth for the expanding needs of a growing community, so now the redesigned market runs every day in an attempt to increase commerce and help the community to thrive.

At the centre of the market, within an amphitheatre, sits a majestic ancestral tree. The tree represents the respect for culture and tradition in the project’s design and provides a place for people to gather and for children to play. Culture, tradition, and local knowledge were at the forebear of the market’s design. Through consultation, sellers reported that they needed enclosed facilities to store their wares, a need now served by individual earth brick buildings (built by local masons) for each of the 52 stalls. The canopy has been given a modern twist, with colourful recycled metal discs serving as sun protectors and air flow facilitators to protect produce and cool shoppers. Modern design, rural location, and local knowledge were combined to produce an area that is both playful and practical, and certainly unique.

For the architecture studio behind the project, Atelier Masomi, the uniqueness of the project was born out of its rural African location, which freed the project from being tainted by Western design trends. Atelier Masomi are an architectural design team that believes in social empowerment through design. Their goal with Dandaji market was to instil faith and pride in the local community and give them the confidence to see a future of growth and prosperity. 

The market project was completed alongside the Hikma: Religious and Secular Complex project in Dandaji, continuing the theme of social empowerment. A derelict mosque was converted into an inclusive community centre which sits alongside a new mosque. The community centre was designed with the input of women, young people, and village leaders. It houses a library which forms the base of a culture and education hub for the entire community. 

Atelier Masomi’s most recent project proposal is telling of their awareness of Niger’s tensions between tradition and change. Their designs attempt to respect people’s need for tradition whilst supporting young people’s desire to grow and change. This is evident in the proposal for a project in Niamey called Mobile Loitering. In Niamey, the conservative Muslim community frown upon local young women who want to meet and socialise openly. Atelier Masomi propose creating urban routes between youth hot spots that can provide privacy and a safe space for young women to meet and socialise. Designing spaces that are truly inclusive is certainly challenging but holding social empowerment at the heart of design may be the key. 

The idea of social empowerment through design has led to the Regional Market in Dandaji being shortlisted for the Dezeen Awards 2019. The design’s focus on economic growth, faith and pride in community, respect for tradition, development, and hope for the future are an inspiration to us all. 

Now, the lay person can consider architectural design as something both moral and ethical, as well as a joy to behold.

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