All-female, Johannesburg-based architectural studio, Counterspace has taken their pioneering designs to Kensington Gardens, London after accepting the commission for the 20th Serpentine Pavilion. Being the youngest designer to ever take on the commission, Counterspace Director, Sumayya Vally has used her unique design and work style to expand on the legacy of the Pavilion as a key meeting space in a time when it is arguably needed most.
“My practice, and this Pavilion, is centred around amplifying and collaborating with multiple and diverse voices from many different histories; with an interest in themes of identity, community, belonging and gathering. The past year has drawn these themes sharply into focus and has allowed me the space to reflect on the incredible generosity of the communities that have been integral to this Pavilion. This has given rise to several initiatives that extend the duration, scale and reach of the Pavilion beyond its physical lifespan. In a time of isolation, these initiatives have deepened the Pavilion’s intents toward sustained collaboration, and I am excited to continue this engagement with the Serpentine’s civic and education teams and our partners over the summer and beyond.” Explained Sumayya.
Wanting to include the community, Sumayya is the first Pavilion architect to move to London for the project in order to create a design that is better informed by the community in which it is used.
Breaking Things Down
The inclusion and involvement of different parts of the city are physically shown is the inclusion of four Pavilion fragments that have been placed at partner locations in the North, South, East and West of London. The aim of the fragments is to bring people from different backgrounds into one conversation. The initial idea was for the fragments to eventually be brought together at the main Pavilion but that idea has evolved. The fragments will now stay in place and be used for different activities during and after the Pavilion’s season.
“It’s the first seed of collaboration… One of them is about sitting with another person and being contemplated, another is a stage, which allows for small scale performance and a very intimate audience. The one in the opening is a podium and is about reading and being able to sit and engage with material. The fragment for Valence Library in Barking and Dagenham is for an interview or conversation setting, as it will become a part of a radio station later. Each of them is also designed around intimate scale of gathering.
Architecture is about being together and about being apart but making together and moving apart. To imagine architecture as decentralised, as agile, or as archipelagos, is to see things in relation to each other. To understand that structures can support each other but decentralising is also to understand diaspora a tactic – without romanticising it – to negotiate, shift and bring different territories together.” Said Sumayya.
Space for the Arts
As always, the Pavilion and its fragments will host a full programme of art installations, performances, conversations and activities until the end of September.
Creating an environmentally responsible structure was at the heart of Sumayya’s design. Salvaged steel was used for the primary structure. This was then covered in upcycled cork from the wine industry and plywood, which was weather-treated with a micro-cement derived from lime and waste from marble production to make the unique structural forms and bespoke details.
Despite working across continents with the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, at over six meters high and with a 350m2 footprint, the team have been able to construct one of the tallest and largest Pavilions in recent years with an alleged carbon-negative Pavilion build.
As part of a new generation of young, inspiring African creatives, Sumayya and the Counterspace team are definitely ones to watch!
“…There’s an infinity of untold stories, unheard voices to be told, retold, made and remade. There are many unrealised worlds to be made, as yet undreamt dreams. We need to be looking for architecture in unlikely places, and most of all, we need to be looking for architecture in ourselves. My dream project is for this generation to really take off and start building multitudes.” Concluded Sumayya.
Images: Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Exterior View © Counterspace Photos by Iwan Baan