When asked what inspires her, Sumayya Vally lists sunsets, prayer sermons, rain dances, and the constituent mythologies of cities among the many references that feed her idiosyncratic practice. As founder and principal of Counterspace, the 33-year-old Indian-South African architect, who divides her time between Johannesburg, London, and Jeddah, layers overlooked migratory histories with expressions of Islamic and African hybrid identity. On the Counterspace website, she has included a lexicon featuring words like “divination,” “recipe,” “magic,” “manipulation,” “ghost,” “community,” “border,” “diaspora,” and “enchantment.” Click on one and you’ll find a definition and a list of related projects that enact the term in one way or another. Focused on both architecture and research, Vally’s practice is steeped in reverence for ritual and myth and often involves performance, such as her contribution to the 2023 Dhaka Art Summit, which involved a rain ceremony where women washed her pavilion made of unfired clay vessels until it completely dissolved. Vally’s breakthrough came in 2019, when she became the youngest ever architect commissioned to design a Serpentine Pavilion. For her design she looked to London’s migrant communities and their storied meeting places for inspiration: two of the city’s first mosques; the Four Aces Club in Dalston, one of the first venues to showcase Black musicians; and the Mangrove in Notting Hill, the Caribbean restaurant run by civil-rights activist Frank Crichlow. It’s only fitting that the pavilion functioned as an asymmetrical arrangement of places for groups of all sizes to hang out and gather. In her role as Artistic Director for the inaugural 2023 Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Vally applied a similarly galvanizing community approach, calling on a diverse group of artists to transform a crucial transitional site for religious pilgrimage — the Western Hajj Terminal at King Abdulaziz Airport — into a space that highlights Islam’s creative contribution to the world. With her most recent project, Vally is activating another overlooked yet vital part of a community’s history: the new design for the Asiat-Darse pedestrian bridge in Vilvoorde, Belgium, pays homage to Congolese anti-colonial activist Paul Panda Farnana (1888–1930), who attended university there. The design is inspired by a series of Congolese river canoes that create a communal platform for trading and gathering while acting as little gardens from which plants may migrate across the site. This convocation of nature and community cross-pollinates all of Vally’s interests and creates the beauty of Counterspace’s varied practice. For beauty, as Vally affirms, “is the most powerful and integral part of social justice and transformation.”
Emmanuel Olunkwa: What does architecture mean to you?
Sumayya Vally: I’ve always thought that architecture is about the physical makeup of space and bringing people together. The way we gather in a space depends not only on its basic physical attributes but also on ritual and atmosphere, and on forms of dress and decoration. Architecture is the manifestation of all forms of culture, a solidification of these rituals. If we look at all the spaces we have, they represent something ideologically. Think, for example, about how a body of people convenes in a lecture hall: there is a certain hierarchy present, with one person speaking on a stage and an audience sitting and listening. This arrangement comes from a set of ideologies, rituals, and belief systems that go back to ancient Rome and beyond, and it’s something we don’t actively question. We tend to accept architecture as a kind of background status quo. In terms of system building and networks of making, jewelry, sculpture, fashion, and music are also a kind of architecture unto themselves and have the potential to resonate within the infrastructure of architecture itself by injecting magic into it. This is why everyday objects and design have always influenced the work I make.
Where does your skepticism come from?
I don’t know that in the beginning it felt critical, but I think I had these instincts around what I saw in Johannesburg. I’m really interested in the city’s smallest mythologies, and was attracted to thinking about how these ideas and curiosities translate into form. There’s this story — in fact it’s scientifically true — that Johannesburg sunsets are extremely iridescent because of all the dust in the air from our mining history, a lot of which is toxic because it contains uranium. This extraordinary quality of light inspired a project I worked on which translates those colors into an installation. There were many early projects where I was really working with the histories and ecologies of the city, such as informal trade systems, ceremonies in traditional healing markets, church rituals, and jazz sounds, which were all direct manifestations of what I was experiencing daily. I didn’t think about them as critical at all or in opposition to an idea of architecture, I was just following an instinct about how much the city has to give to architectural practice, a line of cultures and influences that I now see has greatly nourished my practice.
You’ve spoken about how we all inherit different definitions of language. What are the circumstances of the world that we have inherited?
We’ve been handed down things from an extremely warped place. Architecture is so incredibly abstract that we don’t question what we have inherited, and we perpetuate the ideologies that surround us. On a baseline level, this world we’re living in is completely twisted in that it is full of colonial constructs. The nine-to-five workday is a capitalist system that, as we know, doesn’t take into account the rhythms of a woman’s body or any of the mythologies that come from different belief systems. It’s something you can particularly feel in South Africa.
What's happening there politically? Do you feel it aligns with what’s urgent in architecture?
We’re having a lot of conversations in South Africa about race, gender, the future of art, and cultural typologies. It feels much more relevant there than discussing those things in the global north. I think that the reason architecture in South Africa is less progressive than fashion, music, art, and other creative realms, the reason it’s still incredibly slow, white, and stuck in a colonial apartheid system, is because it requires so many resources and so much effort, and is therefore a much bigger ship to turn around. You need an entire infrastructure to make a building: a full suite of staff, hardware, and software, as well as a patron who has enough money and is willing to gamble on your work as an individual.
Coloniality and apartheid are still very real and active. What do you think Africa wants from the West today?
I don’t particularly believe that we want anything from the West, although we do have the same systems because we are living in a globalized world. We’ve inherited these distant systems that don’t quite fully map onto some of the more local economies. When you’re on the ground in Johannesburg, you can see infrastructures, technologies, and building materials that are obviously inherited from elsewhere. I don’t think the West should be our focus and center, and it certainly isn’t mine. But there is an interesting conversation to be had about hybridity because of how people have moved and migrated. Cities are also maps of that movement and migration. People’s DNA is a map of it too, while the food in their homes, the music they listen to, and the way they dress embody that kind of hybridity. I think Africa has so much to give and say to the world, and the future is really there.
What is the future?
There are different worlds that are waiting to be imagined from the things that we have inherited. I don’t like talking in terms of solutions, but if we cite Mali as an example, Timbuktu has one of the oldest university systems whose structure is entirely integrated in the city. And so the university model functions as part of the urban model, and there’s no siloing or distinction between where education happens and where the city is living and breathing. I was working on a research project a few years ago about these women who harvest mussels on South Africa’s coast, a practice that’s been done for centuries. They have poems about how they know when the mussels are ready to be harvested because of the blossoming of a certain tree. Not only is the poetry very beautiful, it’s also a form of scientific knowledge about the seasons and not exploiting resources. And now those women are being pushed out because of commercial overfishing, losing not only their livelihoods but also something that’s been a part of their culture for centuries. I think in a way we’re all African, in the sense that the pre-Enlightenment West had similar systems with respect to living with the seasons, systems that manifested themselves in all sorts of small details, from the way people braided their hair to how they mourned their dead. There are two ways of making architecture: one where you listen and are in dialogue with a place, and another where you come to it with preconceived ideas and systems without really understanding what that place actually needs.
How do you see your project in relation to the future?
I really want to work with the future of cultural typologies. I know anything can be a cultural typology and can express who we are, but I think the project of the museum, the library, and the archive are all in crisis because they’re holding specific bodies of knowledge.
You’ve talked about the necessity of mistrusting the historical record with its absences and silences. How does this feed into formalizing your own language?
The only way to formalize language is to make work. In that same thing you’re quoting, I note a number of reference points like indigenous plants, a coffee ceremony, and the choreography of prayer and what that does to the city. Initially, we think everything is intangible and unrelated to architecture, but the way we sit, sleep, and eat comes from an informal set of systems, or a system that’s not yet a building. Architecture comes with its own set of conventions, plans, sections, elevations, and orthographic projection. We are seeing so many architects working in film and different forms of image-making, but I think there is a step of translation involved between these intangible theories and buildings. My early practice was focused on translating those things into art installations, foam, color charts, and periodic tables, as a way of understanding them and bringing them into visibility — that way we can start to build up a library or repertoire of the city.
When did you transition from these small-scale pieces into larger work and buildings?
Once I had a platform to build. I think that’s very much tied to space, resources, and trust from a commissioning entity. I think about an artist’s practice in relation to architecture. Architecture mobilizes enormous resources — it requires a team, trust from clients, and a lot of money to make something happen, and you’re so reliant on others.
Can you share something about your practice that people wouldn’t necessarily expect?
Everything. [Laughs.] A sunset and a prayer sermon sit on the same plane of inspiration for me. I’m really inspired by everything about cities and the way people construct their lives in them. If I think back to some recent projects, there’s the performance work I made in the form of a pavilion for the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh, which was inspired by ceremonies and rituals of rain calling, both in South Africa, where there are Rain Queens, a matrilineal line of women who do the work of calling for rain, and Bangladesh, where there’s a similar ritual that was the starting point for thinking about the project. But actually it goes back deep into the psyche of growing up in a landscape like South Africa, where some of our earliest memories are seeing neighbors’ homes struck by lightning and the smell of grass after. It made me grapple with the power of nature and the rain and made me run towards it, trying to find ways to represent it. Shortly after, I visited a village where people were making these beautiful black ceramic vessels that reminded me of pieces by Constantin Brâncuși, Elsa Peretti, and Isamu Noguchi. I was interested in clay and the sculptural forms it takes and how they transcend and cross so many cultures. The material is so ubiquitous, but it’s tied to ritual as well. My own response was born from these two interests, one in sculpture and another in the literal references that are guided by a particular set of intuitions. We built the pavilion as an enclosure made up of unfired clay pots. I worked with a group of men who treated them as instruments to make sound, and we also invited a group of women who performed a rain-calling ceremony where they washed the pavilion with water. Eventually it started to disintegrate — over the course of nine days it dissolved entirely. I was inspired by traditions of building that are not attached to permanence, like the mud masons in Mali, and how their structure is rebuilt every year through performance. I’m inspired by rituals, which I think have the ability to create forms in many dimensions and capacities. They’re tied to the material and to the temporal — for me, they are form waiting to happen.
What ideas went into designing the 2021 Serpentine Pavilion?
The pavilion was about making a form that drew on and referenced all these places I’m familiar with that don’t exist in the formal architectural canon. I was looking at different spaces of cultural production, drawing them out architecturally, and then abstracting them into a single infrastructure. When I was working on the pavilion, someone on the Serpentine board said the DNA of the prompt wouldn’t be the same in the future because nobody had done something where they worked on a programmatic level before. For my project, we worked with 52 institutions in the city, and there was also a fellowship program initiated from it. I was very interested in how this temporary structure could do something on an institutional level. And I think I achieved that through its form.
What do you think about beauty?
Architects seem to have reached a point where they’re less concerned with beauty. Architecture is a framework for solving problems — if we think about all these immediate concerns, challenges, and crises we have, architecture has to fit into answering some of them. I think we’ve fallen out of love with architecture for good reason, because the system that our generation inherited is really messed up and came from a broken colonial, capitalist world. Often, when our generation speaks, we only talk about the problem with the system, and not about physical forms. But I think that’s a mistake, because if we are dedicated to the project of social justice and transformation, beauty is the most powerful and integral part of this, because projects of beauty are seen as willful. The provision of services is tied to the same old system and there’s a rollout of mass housing without really thinking about how these forms can be different and what the deeper social project is at large. When we are talking about beauty, we’re talking about forms of adornment, decoration, and when we’re talking about aesthetic worlds, we’re touching on a deeper social project.