Wallpaper|May 2021
Counterspace is the fast-emerging South African architectural practice commissioned to create the latest Serpentine Pavilion in London. Here, its founder Sumayya Vally takes artist and photographer Mikhael Subotzky on a whistle-stop tour of their adopted hometown, Johannesburg
Sumayya Vally

Looking at each individual project by Sumayya Vally, it’s hard to pinpoint a ‘signature’ look or subject. There are installations, film and sound pieces, projects around food, community-focused schemes, fine art research, and traditional building works. Yet zoom out and examine her portfolio as a whole and her fascination with the ‘city’ becomes clear. Listening to her talk reveals even more: Vally is ‘obsessed with Joburg’.

Vally grew up in an apartheid-era township in Pretoria called Laudium. She credits the tight-knit community, ‘strong urban atmosphere’, and her experiences of going to a Muslim school from a young age and living in a relatively small space with informing her sense of community and city. Witnessing many people transcending that small-town context, through their work or studies, also played its role.

But it was Johannesburg that shaped Vally’s architectural approach and her passion for urban space. She often spent holidays with her grandfather, who owned a store in the city. Eventually she studied for the second part of her architecture degree there (architecture studies in South Africa include two parts in university, usually split by a break in practice). During this time, she admits to being completely taken by the varied, rich, urban environment of South Africa’s largest city. ‘I was obsessed with the city; reading it, understanding it, drawing it, filming it, absorbing it,’ she recalls. ‘I became really concerned that, after graduating, I would lose what that felt like, and that is how Counterspace was born, as a response, refusing to become jaded.’ Vally set up her practice in Johannesburg in 2015.

Working in the city before completing her studies– practising architecture at an NGO, and conducting research and installation projects for several national museums – proved transformative. ‘I had a lot moreexposure to what was actually going on in the city,’ says Vally. ‘Seeing how people find ways to function economically, understanding ritual practices of the city – seeing how belief systems, for example, filter down into how people live. This can birth different or new kinds of architecture that we may not be focusing on in school. This is really rich ground to create architecture.’ And why shouldn’t buildings be created by taking into account different uses and ways of life? This is exactly the point between formal and informal architectural space- and place-making that Vally likes to unpick. ‘My work is focused on how architecture can be social and public and inclusive and diverse, but it’s from the perspective of a deep social project. There is this layer about history, future and archive that is left out [of mainstream architecture] at the moment.’

Over the years, Vally explored multiple areas of Johannesburg, choosing different communities to focus on. All of these places influenced her practice, she admits. There is Bree Street, an economic hub for the Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora, which helped her understand forms of trade in the city; and Ntemi Piliso Street, home to her grandfather’s store, where she spent much of her childhood and first encountered Basotho textiles, and their ‘language’ and meanings.

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