interview with sumayya vally of counterspace on the design of the 2021 serpentine pavilion

interview with sumayya vally of counterspace on the design of the 2021 serpentine pavilion

designed by johannesburg-based practice counterspace, directed by sumayya vally, the 20th serpentine pavilion is now in situ in london’s kensington gardens. the design of the temporary structure is based on past and present places of meeting, organizing and belonging across several london neighborhoods significant to diasporic and cross-cultural communities, including brixton, hoxton, tower hamlets, edgware road, barking and dagenham and peckham, among others. ‘the pavilion transfers some of these places, and I was interested in architectures that are generous, and that suggest coming together,’ vally tells designboom. ‘sometimes it might be a set of porch steps, and other times it might be an archway for two people to sit and have a one-to-one conversation. sometimes it’s about a larger scale gathering.’

interview sumayya vally
image © designboom

 

 

this year’s serpentine pavilion extends outside of kensington gardens and into some of the communities that influenced its design. four ‘fragments’ of the pavilion have been placed in partner organizations: new beacon books, one of the UK’s first black publishers and booksellers in finsbury park; the tabernacle, a multi-purpose venue and community center in notting hill; the albany, an arts center in deptford; and becontree forever, an arts and culture hub, which was established this year to commemorate the centenary of the UK’s largest council housing estate. a gesture of decentralizing architecture to include a multitude of voices, these fragments support the everyday operations of these organizations, while enabling and honoring gatherings of local communities that they have supported for years.

 

designboom attended the pavilion’s press preview where we spoke with sumayya vally — the youngest architect to be commissioned for the serpentine’s internationally renowned architecture program. read our interview below ahead of the pavilion’s opening on june 11, 2021.

interview sumayya vally
image © designboom

 

 

designboom (DB): can you please start by telling us about the design process that led to the realization of the pavilion?

 

sumayya vally (SV): I was really inspired by places in london with histories and presences significant to migrations. of course, that’s all of london, but in particular I started to look at spaces that have actively held communities, allowed people to be able to express themselves, and have allowed identity and belonging in london to evolve. I started to look at all sorts of spaces where people come together to meet and organize and construct belonging — everything from places of worship, including some of the first mosques in london, to everyday spaces — marketplaces, restaurants, and even grocery stores that hold ingredients significant to traditional recipes. I was interested in how these spaces become, and are, places for people to meet. for example, some become spaces where people look after each other’s children, where neighbors are able to exchange conversation and get to know each other — really starting to develop a sense of belonging with each other.

interview sumayya vally
image © designboom

 

 

SV (continued): when I first got to london, I spent a lot of time at the bishopsgate library archive. I was interested in finding events and gatherings that might not have physical presences any longer, but that were really important at some point. for example, I was drawn to the theater of black women (britain’s first black women’s theatre company), east london mosque, the ‘four aces’ club in dalston, which was the first venue to play black music, and the west indian gazette headquarters. I was thinking about these as important spaces where culture was produced and people started to assert a sense of belonging. that belonging was also held beyond the architecture in those forms of publishing and cultural production. formally, the pavilion transfers some of these places.

interview sumayya vally
image © designboom

 

 

SV (continued): I was interested in architectures that are generous, and that suggest coming together. sometimes it might be a set of porch steps, and other times it might be an archway for two people to sit and have a one-to-one conversation. sometimes it’s about a larger scale gathering. those were the architectures that I was interested in transferring. I was also interested in embodying the sense of generosity that those places had embodied so that when people visit here, they experience that generosity. programmatically, we’ve also partnered with several institutions across london, and really this pavilion is conceived in five parts. this is one part of the pavilion, but equally as important is that it is housed in four spaces in the city.

interview sumayya vally
image © designboom

 

 

DB: how do those four ‘fragments’ help the pavilion engage with different communities?

 

SV: all of the partner institutions that I’m working with are absolutely incredible. new beacon books is, I think, one of the first book shops in the UK to have a focus on afro-caribbean and african diaspora literature. it’s also housed so many revolutions across time. I was interested in being able to support the daily function of these spaces, and to be able to lift things out of shadow. gesturally, it is an act that is about gathering. for example, at new beacon books, the typology is a shelf that houses literature, but there is also a little niche and a podium for someone to be able to sit and read in silence, or for someone to use for a recital or a reading for a small audience. each of the fragments has a different typology in mind, but all of them are engendering and suggesting some kind of gathering while supporting existing functions and ways of interacting with community in those places.

interview-sumayya-vally-counterspace-serpentine-pavilion-designboom-1800b

image © designboom

 

SV (continued): I think it’s very important to focus on how incredible all of these spaces are, and that they hold communities. but I’ve also learnt that communities actively hold them. many of them were saved from being closed because of the generosity of so many bodies that stepped in. I think that there are so many places that the pavilion draws from that weren’t so lucky and that didn’t survive.

interview with sumayya vally of counterspace on the design of the 2021 serpentine pavilion
image © designboom

 

 

DB: throughout the project, what direct engagement did you have with the communities and individuals involved?

 

SV: I think there are politics and contentions and different dynamics that come about with this kind of work. it’s not as simple as asking people questions in such direct terms. I did engage in lots of archival research, so when I worked with community organizations and institutions, there was a lot of resonance between the research and their own embodied experience. I think some of the most rewarding experiences I had were meeting these partners for the first time and talking through some of my research. for example, matthew phillip at the tabernacle was able to identify people in my research photographs by face, name, and anecdote.

interview with sumayya vally of counterspace on the design of the 2021 serpentine pavilion
image © designboom

 

 

SV (continued): I think that in going through the process of absorbing a place and learning about it, one is never sure where it’s going to go. I’m interested in how, through the act of making something, there is also a process of dialogue with many different things coming together. architecture can go beyond being a singular voice that makes something. of course, conventionally we think about all the labor and all the parties that build a place, but we can go beyond that to think about everyone’s involvement — from the idea to the realization of the idea. drawing as many voices as possible, and sharing that platform with as many people as possible.

interview with sumayya vally of counterspace on the design of the 2021 serpentine pavilion
image © designboom

 

 

DB: how much of the project was accentuated with the pandemic and the increasing lack of community space?

 

SV: I hope that people will listen more deeply to some of the issues and some of the realms and spheres that the pavilion touches on. this includes the importance of physical spaces to gather, meet, and organize – as we’re doing now. but also to think about diversities of voices, and to think about how narratives are made, who shapes history, and the role of institutions. conceptually, this pavilion was always talking about those things, but because of the pandemic it was deepened. I hope that all of us will listen more deeply.

interview with sumayya vally of counterspace on the design of the 2021 serpentine pavilion
image © designboom

interview with sumayya vally of counterspace on the design of the 2021 serpentine pavilion
image © designboom

interview with sumayya vally of counterspace on the design of the 2021 serpentine pavilion
image © designboom

interview with sumayya vally of counterspace on the design of the 2021 serpentine pavilion
image © designboom

interview with sumayya vally of counterspace on the design of the 2021 serpentine pavilion
sumayya vally of counterspace | image by justice mukheli © counterspace

 

 

 

project info:

 

name: serpentine pavilion 2021
location: kensington gardens, hyde park, london, UK
design: counterspace, directed by sumayya vally
technical advisor: david glover
engineering and all technical services: AECOM
creative services: stage one

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