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In conversation with Sumayya Vally, architect of the Serpentine Pavilion 202

28th Jan 2022
In conversation with Sumayya Vally,  architect of the Serpentine Pavilion 202

A refreshing new voice on the London architectural landscape

South-African born Sumayya Vally’s design, research, and pedagogical practice, Counterspace, is centred on finding form and expression for hybrid identities and contested territories. Sumayya’s work is often forensic and draws on the aural, the performative, the supernatural, the wayward and the overlooked as generative places of history and work. 

A TIME100 Next List honouree and designer of the 20th Serpentine Pavilion (2020/2021), Sumayya Vally, at 30 years old, is the youngest architect to be commissioned for the internationally renowned architectural programme.

The Serpentine Galleries’ Summer Pavilions have run since 2000. The first one was designed by Zaha Hadid and in the following years have seen Pavilions designed by architects such as Sminjan Radic, Ai Wei-Wei, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry and others.

Sumayya has recently worked on initiating and developing Support Structures for Support Structures, a new fellowship programme launched at London’s Serpentine Galleries, an initiative that supports and provides a network for artists “working at the intersections of arts and ecology, social justice and the archive”. Sumayya is currently serving as the Pelli Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at the Illinois School of Architecture.

 

You are in a field which traditionally does not have many women How did you manage to get into this discipline, and what were some of the challenges you faced to make architecture a career in life?

 

I don’t quite know when I decided to become an architect. I think I wanted to be many different things. I remember wanting to be a journalist as well. I also wanted to be an archaeologist. In addition, I was interested in history and in writing. And sometimes when I think about the way that I practise architecture, I think that many of these different interests have found their way into the manner in which I practise.

In my final year of architecture school, my friends and I spent lots of time in the city, being in Johannesburg, working to read and translate and explore it. Counterspace was born out of a desire to create a different canon and to be able to find what we were missing in our architectural education.

Teaching is probably one of the most important things missing from the profession I feel — and since clients and architects work together, certainly the architect should, to some degree, be teaching the client, this is historically done through styles of architecture, which is very limiting and always retrogressive because it can only look back at a catalogue of easily recognisable architectures. In places like Johannesburg, we don’t have the luxury to be regressive.

To quote Steve Biko, “change the way people think and things will never be the same”— so to be progressive is to assume that teaching is about guiding someone to find architecture and to do that, you need quite an esoteric process of discovery, transcription, translation, negotiation and a fair dose of patience from everyone involved.

Your rise has been somewhat meteoric. You come from downtown Johannesburg and are building a pavilion for a site in Central London. While the contexts are different, your work seems to reflect some common themes. Can you comment on this?

 

Being in a place, absorbing it, ingesting it, and then translating it is very important to my design process — how we can articulate identity through architecture. Rather than a distinction between north and south (or an attitude of essentialism toward African identity), I’m interested in the complexity and intersections between them — relations between host and home, between past and future too — we have been deeply connected for a long time. Some connections are difficult and dark but in all of us, we have bits of both north and south, through colony, empire, and migration.

Everything I look at is through the lens of fundamental interest in territory, identity, belonging, and trying to understand architecture beyond that which is built. In the Serpentine Pavilion, for example, sharing and the exchange of pieces bring together people, places and ideas onto the same platform and the same realm.

The architecture that moves me most is the architecture that makes an offering about the human condition and about people that facilitates and has something to say about our relationships to each other, and our relationships to territory and place. On some level, the Serpentine Pavilion is a recognition of this tension and this opportunity as a moment to say something about who we are and how we interact.

 

Architecture, like all other expressive forms is not neutral. It makes a statement. The pavilion you buil articulates the use of space by ordinary people, which way does your pavilion embrace these lived experiences of ordinary people? Can you elaborate?

 

Now, more than ever, spaces of gathering need to be valued. They are sacred. Discourse, dialogues, publishing are all integral forms of practice too — and they are part of the fabric we have to work within bringing people together and sharing beliefs, ideas as spaces to share and to differ.

It is essential for the project to take root in other places and to situate media, thinkers, work and programmes from different realms into the same platform. This is an essential part of the way I work. It is about trying to bring together different forms of expression to imbue architecture with some life and some chutzpah.

Architecture is about constructing spaces and situations. Of course, that involves the built realm, but there are other ways to understand it, too. Ritual, atmosphere, and even forms of dress are essential parts of how a space is constructed. I’ve always been really interested in how we can work with those other ingredients and in the construction of situations beyond just what is built.

In a sense, the Serpentine Pavilion has a much-decentralised methodology, with parts determined by forces beyond ourselves. This reconfigures my role to something more akin to a co-author, allowing other voices and stories to help shape the pavilion. Trying to push the programme and the structure in these ways has its challenges, and working in a more communal way necessarily involves the responsibility of representation, which needs to be understood as an ongoing task, beyond the finite scope of these design decisions, and I am rapidly learning and growing as a researcher, “choreographer”, designer, and person through this process.

 

Which aspects of London’s urban life did you study to conceptualise your design, as obviously your project embraces the experiences of many diverse immigrant communities? Can you explain which elements of diasporic concerns you had to grapple with?

 

I was really interested in how people have started to construct belonging and a sense of home in London. I was also exploring the idea of an exchange, or hybrid, or a mutation between host and home. I spent lots of time in archives and investigated spaces and neighbourhoods with histories of migration where important parts of history have been erased.

For example, I looked at the first radical Black publishing houses, the first venues to play West Indian music, the first West Indian restaurants in London, the first mosques, and streets and areas that witnessed significant protests, carnivals and festivals as important forms of cultural production and gathering. The archive of these elements is not just in the formal archives, it is oin the street too, and in the ways people transfer culture and identity in everyday life and rituals as everyday forms of resistance. And the forms in the Serpentine Pavilion are all inspired by those. The Pavilion draws on and honours past and present places of meeting, organising, and belonging across several London neighbourhoods of significance to diasporic and cross-cultural communities. Responding to the historical erasure and scarcity of informal community spaces across the city, the Pavilion references and pays homage to existing and erased places that have helped communities over time and continue to do so today.

References:

Click here to read ‘Excavating the Social Layers of London’ an essay by Colin Prescod in response to Sumayya Vally’s research, writing from a local perspective he traces stories of resistance and the struggle for belonging held in some of London’s most iconic sites from the Mangrove to Notting Hill Carnival.

Click here to read ‘Counterimage’ a response to the Serpentine Pavilion 2021 by Emanuel Admassu.

Click to download this map of gathering spaces that the Serpentine Pavilion 2021 draws on and honours.

 

Space use conveys many dimensions of life and relationships regarding gender, class, economics, social, cultural, religion, etc. Could you throw some light on this?

 

I’m in love with buildings and architecture, but there are so many other ways of space-making in other traditions that are not only focused on the static. Think of the many African ways of being — from ritual, dress and adornment to sound. So much can be created without much physical infrastructure, which is why we need to supplement our inventory of design language to include new ways of seeing.

The dominant Western narrative has taught us that ornamentation is a crime and that such forms of expression, or otherwise, have no place in architecture. So, even though I work within certain conventions, I also very much believe in privileging other modes of representation, because I think our forms of articulation are limited. We can only see and think through what’s possible with the language we have to articulate it. As the Black American writer, feminist, librarian and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde, said, “Our visions begin with our desires”. Once we expand on that language, we can produce entirely different worlds.

 

You were brought up largely in post-apartheid South Africa but needless to say, as you grew up, the fault lines of inequality were still visible, though not as starkly as before.. Can you highlight how an understanding of that dynamic influenced your work generally and more specifically through the pavilion you have designed?

 

As a young architect in Africa, I think it is important to work at many speeds and many streams simultaneously — toward the project of finding and forging African design languages. We need to be working at the slow pace of a generational project — researching, finding and forging the archive, but also at the really gutsy pace of making things happen very quickly. I believe that if we look deeply at our own context, we will find new architectures waiting to happen. This is the work of research.

I find the cultural and urban diversity in London very interesting. It is a sum of so many histories, socio-economic forces, and stories. It is a living record of where we’ve come from and a constantly evolving renegotiation and reimagining of the current moment. London can be read as a microcosm of a much larger global phenomenon that is more relevant than ever. For me, the Serpentine Pavilion 2021 was not about showcasing my design style or aesthetic. It was really important for me that the project is, as much as it can be, about truly sharing this platform with a greater story — to bring migrants’ memories into the pavilion and reflect London back to London.

The forms in the pavilion are all inspired by everyday rituals of gathering, everyday forms of resistance and being in a city, from street iftaars (Ramadan ‘breakfasts’), restaurants and moments of street performance. Throughout the summer we launched a set of initiatives (along with the four Fragments of the Pavilion), to host these same kinds of rituals — celebrations of gathering and belonging in various forms. Last month, we launched Becontree Broadcasting Station, an online community radio station serving the Becontree Estate and London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. Established as part of the 2021 Serpentine Pavilion and the accompanying programme Listening to the City, the Fragments draw on and honour the legacy of Radio ballads and the Serpentine civic team’s legacy of collaboration in Barking and Dagenham. Made for the radio station (a very important form of public space), the podium supports the daily operations of the Becontree Broadcasting Station and creates a place for gathering and sharing of stories. It honours the histories of places and people in the neighbourhood with its design and programming that engages with the communities in the surrounding area.

 

Your pavilion was dismantled in October as is normal with all the temporary Serpentine Pavilions. What has been the general user feedback you have received, and as an architect, what have you learned from this project, and what might you do differently if you had to start all over again?

 

I am honoured by the response to the Pavilion because so many people have engaged with the complexities that I myself am grappling with. Many people have told me that they didn’t quite understand the space from the images, and I’ve seen many social media responses about how surprising the real experience is compared to the experience of the image, and about how different the exterior is versus the experience of the inside. I hope that the experience carried in the Pavilion does transcend, because I had hoped for it to carry the spirit of learning from the generosity of architectural gestures in all of these gathering places across London—the formal, informal, ritual, physical, tangible, intangible, etc.

We convene in buildings, and we are convened by building. The act of making this Pavilion has been a gathering and a growing chorus of so many voices, from the past, present and future—and will continue, echoing through each of the Pavilion fragments.

It is a gift to imagine something and to see it being realised, and even more of a gift to see it being lived. I am honoured that it’s not mine anymore and that it belongs to the world. That’s a really beautiful feeling and is, for me, the best part of being an architect.

 

What is your vision of the future? How do you envisage using your experience in contributing to greater cross-cultural sensibility in the profession about the built environment? How do you feel you would like to contribute towards this happening and what challenges do you envisage?

 

A free, decolonised tertiary education for everyone in South Africa!

Access to education is perhaps our only hope against systemic apartheid and socio-economic injustices. More than that, our country [South Africa] is exceptionally rich and diverse with bodies of knowledge and alternative curricula and modes of practice, waiting to shift institutional models and thinking.

Writer and social activist Arundhati Roy said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” That resonates with me so much because expanding our forms of practice is an integral part of creating spaces for diverse voices, negotiation, listening—finding the fact that architecture is in everyone, working with platforms and resources that we have access to, in the service of projects of difference, all present an opportunity to imagine the world differently. Creating platforms that function in entirely different ways through these avenues is an opportunity. Take the Support Structures for Support Structures fellowship programme, conceived in collaboration with Serpentine’s Civic Projects programme with the intent that year-on-year it will build and grow a deeper network of bodies of knowledge that are coming from places of difference so that we can seed and see different pathways and other worlds.

 

(Photo courtesy of Counterspace)

Interview by Dr Mohamed Keshavjee, LLM (Lond)

Diasporic scholar & Specialist on International Cross Cultural Mediation

 

 

 

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