Articulating hybrid identities through architecture

Architect Sumayya Vally is the founder and principal of counterspace, a design research practice based between Johannesburg and London.

Serpentine Pavilion, London

In search of expression for hybrid identities and the expression of place, the practice’s current projects are focused on articulations of African and Islamic hybrid identities – both rooted and diasporic – through design research, publishing, pedagogy, built things, buildings and other forms of architecture.

Vally describes her work as “often forensic, drawing on the aural, the performative, the supernatural, the wayward and the overlooked as generative places of history and work.”

In 2021, she became the youngest architect to ever be asked to design the annua summer Serpentine Pavilion in London. In 2022 she was appointed to the curatorial team for the first Islamic Arts Biennale, which is set to take place in Saudi Arabia in late 2023.

We caught up with her to find out about her thoughts on how architecture and the built environment are shifting globally and in South Africa, as well as her vision for the future.

You have said you believe in the social impact of urban design. Tell us more about that.

Joburg has given me a gift in that everything I look at, I also see Johannesburg. I work to read things that are happening beneath the surface.

Johannesburg is a place built on and designed for extreme segregation. If we can see and understand this – that design has such power to segregate – then it is also clear that the opposite is also possible. Design must have the same power to bring us together.

I am really interested in how we can bring design, form and expression for hybrid identities and how design representation and manifestation can tell stories about who we are.

In Johannesburg that is so fraught. All of our built fabric was inherited and the life that is enmeshed on top of that – the rituals that people have in the inner city in the ways of being that they have to create to overcome segregation and to overcome being excluded from built infrastructures and opportunities.

Without romanticising it, it is quite exciting to think about how those things can become design because all of those traditions were kind of stopped or ravaged because of colonisation and apartheid.

The inner city is the place I find so interesting. Places like the Metro Mall and the Bree taxi rank and the ways in which infrastructures pop up in response to need, the cleverness and agility with which people construct things that can then disappear at 8am. The mobile infrastructure, even the way, when you drive around on a Saturday morning through Hillbrow and the inner city, you see these masses of people dressed in white moving around the city having a church ceremony on a traffic island next to a highway.

I think these conditions are really interesting in that they can give us knowledge and learning for how we can create architecture in the way they are focused on things that are agile and atmospheric. There is a sense of ritual in how those things are formed.

In a way, they are far ahead of any architecture we have. We haven’t listened to those ways of being when we make architecture. Architecture is so abstract that everything comes from specific ways of being.

I am not saying we have to undo everything, but we also don’t question what those buildings and forms perpetuate or the way that these forms have dictated things to us or affirm our sense of belonging or tell people what they deserve. If you think about South Africa and injustice, there were so many things that were created to affirm a sense of inferiority in so many people.

Designers need to move forth with imaginations rooted in different belief systems, world-views, ways of thinking and being. And we have all of that right at our fingertips in Johannesburg.

As somebody who believes in architecture as a force for change, what are the mega trends that currently interest you most in real estate (and why)?

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 new platforms that function in entirely different ways through multiple various avenues is an opportunity. Take the Support Structures for Support Structures fellowship programme as an example. It was 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.

In the urban realm, I am slightly alarmed at a lot of the current romantic notions of the rural and the countryside. Of course, I think listening to the seasons and living in and with; being deeply connected to nature is imperative, but the new models must be hybrid. I think the city of the future is going to be much more hybrid – in the diversity of its inhabitants, in the construct of its rurality and urbanity and its real and virtual interfaces.

As a South African, questions of the public are still at the heart of everything. We have the responsibility and the potential to imagine differently here: what is a museum for here, and who is it for; what is a gallery here, and who is it for? Traditional notions of programme are waiting to be undone by our African conditions.

How would you like to see the sector change in the years to come – what are your dreams for architecture?

Teaching is probably one of the most important things missing from the profession, I feel. 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.

We need for the discipline to involve many other forms of space-making – the aural and the atmospheric, the performed; ways of being that are resonant with here; have the potential to alter the profession.

I would love to see South Africa move forward with confidence and a conviction in multiple forms of architecture that truly express our identities.

Exhibitions and Installations in Stellenbosch – Folded Skies

What are you most proud of in your journey to date?

I am honoured by the response to the Serpentine Pavilion 2021 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.

Serpentine Pavilion –

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.

I recently worked on initiating and developing Support Structures for Support Structures, a new fellowship programme launched at the Serpentine, which supports artists and collectives who support community through their work at the intersections of art and social justice, art and the archive and art and ecology.

What is your advice to other young professionals in the built environment or property sectors?

As a young architect in Africa, I think it is important to work in 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.

There is always architecture waiting to happen in places that are overlooked: you will soon fall in love with gold, kitsch, supernatural ideas, with very strange and everyday things – a disco-church on wheels in the inner city, the performance of a ritual gathering on a patch of veld-grass of a traffic island next to a highway, the rhythms and space of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, the smell before a Highveld thunderstorm, the choreography of Fordsburg on a Friday before, during and after prayer time, the specific colour spectrum of a mine-dump sunset, the tenacity of indigenous plants and indigenous ceremonies and practices – all the magic that is Joburg. There is another canon here. Ingest atmospheres – learn how to read and feel colour, dust, mist, the phases of the moon. There is another canon here.

Sumayya Vally, Counterspace. Sunday Rice Ritual – Glazed ceramics

Look at these things deeply. Feel them, absorb them. You will soon develop a mistrust for the historical record. Listen to that. Look so deeply at what is present that you notice the silences and the absences too. There is yet another canon here, in these silences and absences. Read in other languages. Write in your mother tongues. Look deeply at sentence structure and vocabulary. There is another canon here. Learn how to dissect the index of an archive. And how to make your own indexes for archives. Stay soft and sensitive – it is a deep strength, and architecture needs it. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that everything you can ever imagine has already been done. They are incorrect. Beauty and social justice are not mutually exclusive. Beauty is social justice. There is an infinite number of untold stories, unheard voices, unrealised dreams, undreamt worlds. Poetry is a necessity. And dreaming is everything.

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