South African architect and founder of Johannesburg-based architectural studio Counterspace, Sumayya Vally, poses with the 20th Serpentine Pavilion, during a photocall in Hyde Park, central London. Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP
South African architect and founder of Johannesburg-based architectural studio Counterspace, Sumayya Vally, poses with the 20th Serpentine Pavilion, during a photocall in Hyde Park, central London. Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP

South African architect’s 2021 Serpentine Pavilion opens in London’s Hyde Park on Friday

By Vivian Warby Time of article published Jun 9, 2021

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“Dear Architecture,

In the wake of increased migration,

We exclude.

In the wake of ‘progress’, we’re boldly complacent,

We are violently silent.

In the wake of catastrophe, we are earnestly separate,

We are inclining inward.

In the wake of us drowning in environmental racism,

We have been complicit.

“In response, this project (The Serpentine Pavilion) looks outward from the Serpentine in order to look inward at London and beyond; to bring in other voices, narratives, histories and futures to the Serpentine.” - counterspace-studio.com

And so begins South African architect, Sumayya Vally’s journey into designing the 2021 Serpentine Pavilion - which opens in London’s Hyde Park this Friday.

Head of the Johannesburg architecture company Counterspace, who was awarded the commission in 2019 for 2020, Vally is the youngest architect to design the pavilion, and the latest architect since Zaha Hadid created the first in the series in 2005. Because of the pandemic, the commission was extended to 2021 and will finally be revealed on Friday.

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The young multi-faceted and talented architect has become known for her layering of design, history, culture and archival research in her creations that speak to its place and users. It is this that is reflected in this year's pink and grey pavilion structure which references locations across London such as markets, bookshops and local cultural institutions with particular relevance to migrant communities.

The 20th Serpentine Pavilion was designed by South African architect and founder of Johannesburg-based architectural studio Counterspace, Sumayya Vally. Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP

The annual commission highlights the importance of spaces where people can gather, interact and connect. Given the lockdown and pandemic, it is particularly meaningful this year, with the 2021 design paying homage to community spaces across London by translating real architectural elements into the final structure.

Vally, 31, is not new to accolades. She was also recently named in the 2021 Time100next, the list that recognises leaders of tomorrow.

“Everyone on this list is poised to make history,” said Dan Macsai, editorial director of the TIME100. “And in fact, many already have.”

With a mantra of “I want to build differently”, Vally is a firm believer in the social impact of urban design.

South African architect and founder of Johannesburg-based architectural studio Counterspace, Sumayya Vally, poses with the 20th Serpentine Pavilion, during a photocall in Hyde Park, central London. Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP

Vally’s long journey with urban landscapes and communities began in her childhood when she would take long walks from her migrant grandfather’s store in inner-city Johannesburg to the uptown library.

On the pavilion, Vally recently told the Guardian: “I wanted to reflect London back to London.”

From Dec 2019, Vally - born and raised in Pretoria - spent four months in London visiting and photographing spaces of gathering that were significant to migrant communities, including the Fazl Mosque and East London Mosque, which were some of the first mosques built in the city and the Centerprise cooperative bookshops in Hackney, among others.

Abstracted elements of each of these buildings and others and many structures that have been demolished were combined to form the pavilion's columns and inbuilt furniture, which is accompanied by a soundscape amplifying the stories and sounds of London's lost spaces.

Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP

The Serpentine Pavilion will also for the first time this year have four additional structures scattered across the city - the goal is to facilitate gatherings and impromptu interactions - as well as the launch of a new fellowship programme for artists working with spatial politics and community practice.

The design is however best described by Vally herself, on the Counterspace website:

“As a critical take on social sustainability and architectures and institutions of care, this project takes the form of a 4-month-long wake, during which the structure of the pavilion is systematically brought into being from places of community and minority that make London.

“The Pavilion includes moveable small parts that will be displaced to neighbourhoods across London. Following community events at these locations, the parts will be returned to the structure, completing it over the summer.

“In this pavilion – an engagement with the dis-placement, and re-placement of peoples and place – we acknowledge sites of absence and sites of presence.

South African architect and founder of Johannesburg-based architectural studio Counterspace, Sumayya Vally. Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP

"It is a set of architectures entangled in the contemporary reconfiguration of belonging — places of memory and care in Brixton, Hoxton, Hackney, Whitechapel, Edgware Road, Peckham, Ealing, North Kensington and beyond are transferred onto the Serpentine lawn. Where they intersect, they produce spaces to be together.

“Spaces where, perhaps, you could meet someone.

“We’ve always relied on places of gathering to come together and we miss them when they’re gone. COVID-19 has brought the Pavilion themes of community and gathering sharply into focus – allowing us the opportunity to extend and deepen our engagement process over two years.

“...The pavilion is itself conceived as an event — the coming together of a variety of forms from across London over the course of the Pavilion’s sojourn.

“These forms are imprints of some of the places, spaces and artefacts which have made care and sustenance part of London’s identity.

“The breaks, gradients and distinctions in colour and texture between different parts of the Pavilion make this reconstruction and piecing together legible at a glance.

“As an object, experienced through movement, it has continuity and consistency, but difference and variation are embedded into the essential gesture at every turn.”

* The pavilion will be on view in Kensington Gardens from Friday, June 11 to October 17, 2021.

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