by Jerry ElengicalJun 11, 2021
Based out of Johannesburg, South Africa, Sumayya Vally’s design, research, and pedagogical practice Counterspace is an interesting new expression of what a contemporary architectural practice can be. While known for her design of the 20th Serpentine Pavilion (2020/2021), in London, Vally’s methodology has been heralded as one with the potential to shape the future by questioning the canon of architecture. She has recently worked on initiating and developing ‘Support Structures for Support Structures’, a fellowship programme launched at the Serpentine Gallery, designed to facilitate the artists and collectives who support the community through their work.
In a conversation with STIR, the young architect and pedagogical thinker takes us through her process, elaborating on the genesis of Counterspace, and the more recent Counterparts.
STIR: Let's start from the beginning. Counterspace, the practice, and the name, is a provocation. Can you tell us a bit more about setting up your practice and if something, in particular, inspired you to do so?
Sumayya Vally: Thank you for this question. I think it is a really interesting place to start because the name and the intention behind it give insight into the intent of the practice more broadly. Counterspace was formed when I was a student finishing my Master's degree. A group of friends with whom we had a shared studio were thinking about having a place to think about ideas and so on. There was a kind of sadness about leaving school, while I'm very critical of the education that I had. I had some incredible teachers over the years, but the overall system of education that we have in the world has not transformed enough to celebrate and develop the discourse around different positions, different voices, and evolving legacies that have been ravaged on the continent and globally. Despite that, I found with my friends in the studio that we were able to cultivate and give life to this love that we all shared for Johannesburg.
I spent a lot of time being in the city, being as present as possible. That fed into the projects that I was doing in the design studio as a student. I felt it would be important to keep that alive. I had this awareness about how the business practice course is structured. It is kind of structured against developing these bodies of thinking that need to be developed in the world. Counterspace became a place to pour that energy and interest into and to continue this love affair with Johannesburg. I wanted to be able to have a space and a place, to just keep that spark alive. When it started, it was a research and curatorial practice. A lot of the projects that we had came out of what we were doing as students. In particular, my Master's thesis, for example, is a project that we exhibited at the Chicago Biennial and a research project that we then continued to develop in various ways.
It is not so much about Counterspace as only being an ‘anti’ or speaking against. Of course, that is part of it, but I'm interested in the idea of ‘counter’ as ‘other’. The intention is twofold. On the one hand, it's to work with changing the existing structures we have; within the existing structures. But there is also an intent to imagine things completely differently, outside of the systems that we have. That is why it's called Counterspace, because it was holding the energy of existing next to all of these other things that I was involved in and doing. It was a place to just imagine things differently.
STIR: Some of the terms that one comes across quite often with your projects and research are "hybrid identities, territories, and diaspora". Could you contextualize these terms to some of the work done by your studio?
Sumayya: When I started the practice, I did not intentionally position any of those things. They just naturally evolved because of the things around me that I was drawn to and interested in. I have been asked about this before, if it was intentionally positioned as an activist practice that is concerned with identity, that is concerned with forms of manifestation and representation around the diaspora, and so on. Of course, those are things I'm deeply interested in and find extremely rich conceptually. But when I started the practice, things were all instincts. The reason that they are politicised is that they are on the fringes of the canon and the profession, even though they are not on the fringes of the city. I don't know how I would frame those terms in the projects. Definitely the projects touch on them, but it is not intentional. It is a natural way of looking at the world that also involves a lot of other complexities and a lot of contradictions, like all of our identities do.
STIR: One of the notable documents on your website is a letter you have written to your younger self. Can you take us through that?Do you think it would change with time?
Sumayya: I'm sure it will change given the current challenges that I'm experiencing. What prompted the letter was a request by the Architectural Review; they had an issue that consisted of letters to younger architects. I had this burst of energy and thought to write to my younger self, because as I was reflecting and thinking about the idea - often being a younger person or being a student - I felt for the most part quite misunderstood, partly because of the struggle to articulate the issues and these instincts that I mentioned that I was just drawn to. But also, I think those things were inarticulable because the profession and the canon weren't open to them. The realm of architecture is more open to engaging with subject matter that's on the fringe, but that subject matter has to state explicitly. It is about identity politics. Broad stroke statements dumb the project down and they do not allow nuances to enter the conversation. They become entirely about this kind of reductive checkbox. Those things mentioned in the letter are affirmations towards a younger person who is instinctively drawn to looking at things in a different way or from a different place.
STIR: We wanted to circle back to something you said in your previous statement, which was on the idea of articulation. There is a dictionary on your website. The need to have one on your portal - was that something linked to what you call the “African and Islamic conditions”, or is it a general architectonic dictionary?
Sumayya: Language is something so interesting. Architecture is also, of course, a language. It is an abstraction, it has a set of codes, and it also communicates to us who we are. It affirms our place in the world in terms of what we deserve. We see ourselves in our surroundings and then we're in conversation with those surroundings and we evolve them. That's why representation and a manifestation of our identities in design are so important because we are in dialogue with it. I think there is also something about spoken language and what it can offer to our understanding of architecture. I often think about how different the world looks from different perspectives, and so many of those perspectives are deeply embedded in language.
We think of spatial terms in different languages. In many African languages, there is no word for private or public. The words are much more about intimacy or about being communal or coming together, which is a very different understanding of what a private or public space means in a conventional Western perspective. That is the struggle to articulate what we are trying to do in our work. And hopefully, the work does speak for itself, but there is a point of reflection to observe as our interests grow and shift.
STIR: To conclude this conversation, from Counterspace to Counterparts, what aspect of your practice, from research to exhibition and design, led you to realise that perhaps there was another, more collaborative program that was needed as part of your practice?
Sumayya: Because it was formalised during COVID-19, it also had some challenges, because of a lack of being able to convene physically and also a lack of being able to invite other people to convene physically. There are two things at play. One is that I have always worked in a shared office environment, where a group of friends join together and work in the same space, but bring different interests into the space. It was also intergenerational, which was useful for me as a young person straight out of school because I had immediate assistance. But for the older people in the studio, it is also really valuable to have the energy of youth and people who are savvier with technology and rendering and so on.
Something that we did that I enjoyed was working on curating exhibitions in our space. Counterparts are something that naturally evolved because of a series of ingredients and conditions that were at play at that particular moment in Johannesburg. Counterspace was at another stage of evolution where people were taking different directions and so on. And I think it's very healthy to be able to have a space of collaboration where it's understood that people have individual interests and endeavours, but that we can come together sometimes to collaborate. It is not that you are constantly and completely married to each other's interests. It is really beautiful when it works, but when the model starts to shift, it also can become quite difficult to manage. So counterparts is an evolving experiment into testing structures for collaboration and for generating discourse.
Sumayya Vally has been appointed to the curatorial team for the first Islamic Arts Biennale, which is set to take place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in December 2023. She will also be collaborating with Nigerien architect Mariam Kamara to design a presidential library for Liberia's former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Monrovia.