Sumayya Vally

Architecture of encounter

The Serpentine Pavilion opened in London's Kensington Gardens recently. In an interview, Sumayya Vally, founder of the Counterspace office from Johannesburg, explains how London's migrant communities inspired her design.

Due to the pandemic, Sumayya Vally from Counterspace in Johannesburg had to wait a year until she could present her Serpentine Pavilion in London's Kensington Garden to the public. The architect – born in 1990 – is the youngest ever to be commissioned with the design. She follows in the footsteps of renowned colleagues such as Zaha Hadid (2000), Oscar Niemeyer (2003), Frank Gehry (2008) or Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron (2012).

Judith Jenner: Ms Vally, how did you experience the opening of the Serpentine Pavilion with a one-year delay?

Sumayya Vally: It felt like a huge triumph to open the pavilion after all this time. The delay allowed other, affiliated projects to continue to grow. I'm thinking of the fragments of the pavilion that are set up in different places around the country, but also our accompanying cultural programme. We also set up a bursary programme during this period to support migrant cultural organisations that were financially strapped by the pandemic. Many themes linked to the pavilion are even more resonant because of the experience of isolation.

How does that show?

Sumayya Vally: I spend a lot of time there every day since the opening. It is wonderful to see that people actually use the pavilion in the way I designed it. You never really know beforehand. But I have seen children climbing in. People sit opposite each other and talk in pairs or small groups. It has really become a place of encounter.

How would you describe the idea of the design?

Sumayya Vally: I was inspired by migration movements to London. For this, I looked at meeting places of the different communities that represent a piece of home for them in London. These were spiritual places like mosques, churches or synagogues, but also markets and shops with regional products. I went to restaurants that not only serve food from the old homeland, but also share news from there. I was inspired by cinemas showing films in the native language of migrants, or music that deals with what it means to come from more than one place. In these places I looked for architectural expressions of generosity. All these impressions in the form of structures and sounds flowed into the design.

Do you see a connection between your design and earlier Serpentine Pavilions?

Sumayya Vally: I think there is a resonance with many of them because all the designs have the intention of bringing people together. When we got the invitation to submit an entry, I had to think very hard about what someone from my part of the world had to say in this context. As an architect from Johannesburg, I am always interested in the things below the surface. That's what I want to bring to the pavilion.

What building materials did you use?

Sumayya Vally: The pavilion consists mainly of recycled materials. The basic structure is made of wood from sustainable cultivation covered with micro-cement. The steel structure and concrete come from previous building projects, the cork from the wine industry. The pavilion shows a deep interest in social sustainability and how we can honour things that come from other places. In this context, working with recycled materials played an important role.

Where do you see your role as an architect in discussions about social issues such as migration and climate change?

Sumayya Vally: I think architecture should always be involved in such discussions. If it stays out of it, it supports a certain kind of politics being perpetuated. Coming from Johannesburg, which is so divided on design issues and where there is a lot of inequality, I often perceive architecture as something that divides and tears people apart. If we understand that, architecture can also be a force for the opposite. It can be a force for bringing people together.

You are the youngest architect ever selected for the Serpentine Pavilion. How important is cultural identity for your generation?

Sumayya Vally: Many cultures have such a rich form of expression, but for a long time it had little influence on architecture. I see it as very important for my generation that we express the hybridity that we all have. The challenges we face now have come from looking at it from only one perspective. We have been very selfish in the way we have treated the planet and each other, and are trapped in a neoliberal capitalism. By using the different cultural expressions and backgrounds that are available to us, we can find answers to these questions. Because we are in this situation because we have only followed certain cultural values and left others out.

Which architects inspire you?

Sumayya Vally: I am inspired by architects who express different views of the world. Isamu Noguchi has influenced me a lot, but also Zaha Hadid or David Adjaye, because I think their architecture expresses a different view of the world.

Which building would you like to design in the future?

Sumayya Vally: At the moment I am very interested in working with cultural institutions such as museums, libraries, public and social places. I am interested in rethinking how the typology of these buildings works and designing for them accordingly.

What advice would you give to young architects?

Sumayya Vally: I would advise them not to be frightened by the current challenges and instead embrace them with imagination. Because being young is an important lens that is available to us only for a certain period of time. One should make the most of that time before we become numb or absorbed by the world's systems. This is as important as looking at our world from the different perspectives that come from categories like gender or culture.

Sumayya Vally in Johannesburg | Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace