Artist of the Week: Philippe Kame on the Transformative Power of Art and Design

Photograph by Best Chantanapongvanij

Ever since Philippe Kame ’23 was six years old, he knew he wanted to be an architect. To him, architecture is an art form that has tangible, transformative powers, allowing him to both channel his creativity and connect to his community. 

“As an architect, we design spaces in which people live, work, eat, and play. There is a direct relationship between me, the community, and the space. To me, this felt really empowering to know that spaces that I would design in the future will impact people’s lives,” Kame said. 

Though Kame initially wanted to attend a higher-education institution that offered a fully-fledged architecture program, his high school college counselor, who attended Williams College, encouraged him to be open to a liberal arts education. 

“She told me it was important for me to keep learning disciplines outside of architecture and expand my horizons and the way I see the world,” Kame said. In his third year at Swarthmore now, Kame is grateful that he listened to his counselor and does not have any regrets in choosing to come to Swarthmore. 

“At the end of the day, when I think back, I feel like if I had gone to a bachelor’s program in architecture in another school, it would have felt suffocating. I love that, here, I am able to take music classes and set design classes … and I believe that these classes really add up and inform the way I want to practice architecture in the future,” Kame reflected. 

Photograph by Best Chantanapongvanij

Kame also expanded on how his understanding of architecture as an art and a practice has evolved during his time at Swarthmore. 

“Since there is no architecture program here at Swarthmore, I have had more freedom to explore my own interests and take what I learn in other classes to combine them in my practice,” Kame noted. In particular, he noted how his art classes and research into various artists have reshaped his idea of what architecture is in relation to art. 

“I always believed that architecture was an art form in and of itself, but in the past I had a very superficial understanding of how architecture manifests as an art form … However, after studying the American architect Frank Gehry and how he approaches the design process, I began to understand how art manifests in architecture, and how architecture itself can evoke a sense of beauty and not just be a functional space,” Kame said. “My art history class right now on Marcel Duchamp and his Readymades also challenged me to think about architecture as a form of sculpture and what people think is beautiful and what aesthetics is.” 

Simultaneously, as his Swarthmore classes influenced his pursuits in architecture, Kame’s passion in architecture is markedly evident in his assignments for his various classes as well. This semester, in Kame’s introductory sculpture class, he was tasked with reimagining an object on campus with different materials. As a prospective architect, Kame started looking into distinct components of Swarthmore’s buildings that are often overlooked. An example that resonated with him was the power outlets that hang from the Singer lab ceilings. 

“I thought about how [the outlet] operates in the space — the room — and I wanted to take this mundane, functional object, and instill it with sculpture-like qualities while maintaining a sense of functionality. I decided to pick acrylic as the material for my reimagined object, because I love its transparent and reflective qualities, and I decided to place a light source inside the object to allow it to continue to be useful in this new form,” Kame explained. To Kame, balancing form with function is one of the most important things in architecture, along with conserving the culture of the space an architectural structure occupies. 

“Since I am from Cameroon, I am also concerned with the preservation of my own history and culture through art. I am always looking into postmodernist ideas, processes, and designs and how they embrace modernism while also going back to history and cultural roots. I want to try to participate in the conservation of indigenous arts and cultures through architecture,” said Kame. He also notes that there are some notable architects in the past and present he looks up to who embody this spirit. “There is an architect from Burkina Faso, Francis Kéré, whose work is incredibly respectful of his environment and culture. He works more with local communities and often utilizes local material to maintain sustainability and empower the people he designs for. Two other architects I want to mention are David Adjaye, who does not need to be introduced anymore, and Bjarke Ingels. They are both very forward-thinking and design in a way that tries to uplift people in a sustainable way,” Kame expanded. 

Photograph by Best Chantanapongvanij

At the college, Kame can always be found at the Makerspace working on his own architectural models. Since there is no architecture department at Swarthmore, Kame’s art professor, Professor Randall Exon, encouraged him to get in touch with Jacqueline Tull, Swarthmore’s Makerspace manager, to dive into his own personal interests. Kame is grateful for this resource as he was only able to explore architecture theoretically before he came to the United States. 

“Before coming to Swarthmore, I explored architecture more theoretically — it wasn’t hands-on. I was just reading about it and watching documentaries on it. But now I am able to learn by making. At the Makerspace, I can experiment with new ideas and figure out how I want to make art for myself,” Kame said. 

Looking forward, Kame hopes that he will be able to use his art in his architecture to join all the people working in Cameroon and Africa to revive appreciation for the arts and culture and celebrate indigenous Cameroonian history, culture, and arts and crafts. 

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