by Jincy IypeDec 27, 2022
Rewriting histories to reverse the erasure of overlooked communities is a practice followed by Johannesburg-based architect Sumayya Vally. In a competition to design the new Asiat-Darse bridge in Vilvoorde, Belgium, the South African architect has brought her sensitivity to the Dutch-speaking city characterised for its bridges and a diverse population flooded with local histories. Vally is the principal architect of Counterspace, a pedagogical practice that often focuses on research, especially on "hybrid identities and territory". Describing this approach in a previous interview with STIR, she said, "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." Keeping up with this ideology, she decodes the competition brief for designing a pedestrian bridge, through the lens of communal diversity.
The competition proposal required crafting a connection between Asiat Park to the new nature reserve on the Darse dock, which is separated by the river Zenne. Asiat Park was a former military ground, purchased by the city of Vilvoorde and converted into a public space connecting people to nature, with temporary and permanent structures for a variety of programmes and festivals. The pedestrian bridge was required to be a transition between the two green zones while simultaneously being visible as an artwork. To accomplish this, Vally turned to the narratives and histories of the minority communities, through her extensive research of which she came upon the moving story of Congolese activist Paul Panda Farnana.
Paul Panda Farnana was considered the initiator of Congolese nationalism, which eventually led to the independence of Congo. He fought relentlessly against the injustice faced by the Congolese under Belgian colonial rule. Farnana's story is connected to Vilvoorde because he was sent here as a house help at a young age and later spent many years. Despite his unfortunate circumstances and challenges facing constant discrimination, he studied Horticulture at Vilvoorde Horticultural School and became the first Congolese to obtain a higher diploma in Belgium. His contributions are not only significant in the context of Pan-African politics but also in nature reserves across Belgium. As per Counterspace, Farnana used his position to advocate for the rights of black people and participated in the first Pan African Congress in 1919, initiated by W.E.B. Du Bois. This inspired him to found the first Congolese association in Belgium: the Union congolaise, an association for mutual aid and moral development of the Congolese race. To honour his legacy, Vally based her design on his research and studies of different species, while also representing a connection to Congo.
She drew inspiration from the water architecture of the Congo River, where fleets of canoes and boats are docked together, unconsciously forming temporary, modular platforms that double as community spaces. This organic solution to adapt to waterways posed as a model for Vally. The form of the bridge was that of multiple boats tied together across the river, blending as a community walkway that is truly democratic. Each of these boats was designed to house a specific plant species and behave as a seeding bed that would use the wind and people passing by as pollinators. This idea involved all users unconsciously in the process of participating in the growth and propagation of plant life, integrating them with nature. Therefore, each boat was a pollinator, acting on more than just the immediate location and impacting the site as a whole. Boats were also designed across the river away from the bridge to perform this function. This proposal anticipated and welcomed the plants expanding and eventually consuming the bridge, acting as a garden for everyone experiencing it, meditative and refreshing.
"When we were approached to work on the bridge and subsequently found the story of Farnana through our research, I was interested in the idea of this as an active monument and a space for healing and remembering," Vally explains the driving idea in her cohesive, ecologically-active design.
"Embedded in this project response is an ethos that we hold true in our practice - every project brief, even the most simple or neutral, is an opportunity to write our histories and identities. A bridge is a connector - in our project, it is a connector to past and future narratives of migration too," she adds, empathising from her own experience of being born in a migrant family during the end of Apartheid.
Counterspace has been praised for its research-led approach, which led to the discovery of Farnana and his work, and for shedding light on an otherwise overlooked, vital part of the city’s history. As per Vally, this project helps to embody and raise awareness of the story of Farnana, and it reminds architects that they have to listen deeply to the grounds of the contexts in which one's works are placed. "There is always architecture waiting to happen in places that are overlooked," she says.
This project has received a budget of 300,000 euros and is set to begin in April 2024. It is estimated to be completed by December 2025, which Vally claims is an achievable target.
(Text by Aatmi Chitalia, intern at STIRworld)