Sumayya Vally

Founder & Principal of Counterspace—Johannesburg, South Africa

[Q] Question
[SV] Sumayya Vally

Central to the political project of imagining a new world is the need to confront, think through, and embody difference. The languages and tools that we as spatial practitioners have inherited, however, are created for the perpetuation of dominant notions of power, control and exclusion - It leaves no space for other ways of being to exist and thrive. How can the forms of architectural expression and language expand to hold perspectives of difference? What other traditions, narratives, and histories can be referenced to develop these new languages? In this interview we speak with Sumayya Vally about the potency of hybridisation, imagination and speculation.
Your most recent work for the Serpentine Pavilion (2020-2021)1 Serpentine Galleries (2021).
Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Sumayya Vally, Counterspace.
, is an exciting project that speaks to the multiple and diverse neighbourhoods of London—bringing together identities that have not been present or represented in architecture. It is clear that, central to your work at Counterspace2 Counterspace Studio
. is the notion of exclusion—there is an exploration of finding ways to bring in things or people that have been underrepresented or devalued by the profession and beyond into architectural practice and education. How have the conditions of your context (Johannesburg and South Africa) inspired a focus on these topics?

Being from and nurturing a practice that's in Johannesburg—a place which is so rife with the legacies of apartheid—you are able to feel very viscerally how architecture was, and is, employed and weaponised as a tool to segregate people and enforce toxic infrastructures. In saying that, I've always believed that if it is a tool for segregation, then it also can be a tool to bring about other narratives and dismantle those legacies.

Counterspace is an extremely local practice in the sense that the work comes from and is inspired by the specific conditions of Johannesburg and South Africa. There are certain typologies that we're always drawn to working with that are very Joburg centric. For example, working with fences and walls—thinking about them as a typology that we can start to make porous, or that can start to include dignity. We work across gradients; gesturally working with 'flat public art' on walls. Then starting to populate them with furniture so that they become places for pause, waiting and habitation. In some instances, we’re trying to think about other devices for removing them completely.

In our context, we've inherited architectural orders and architectural languages that are not of this place. It's easy to see that the inheritance and perpetuation of those structures is of a particular narrative. This means that even if we aren't actively seeing it in the discipline, other narratives exist and architecture is a force to bring those out. Implicitly or explicitly, Counterspace has always tried to work with that principle.

The urgency of being able to ask these questions in a pedagogical space does a lot for the practice space, because it opens up possibilities for things that don't yet exist in the practice space, especially when we're talking about representation, decolonisation and the transformation of our landscape.
In addition to Counterspace, you have been involved with the Graduate School of Architecture, Johannesburg (GSA)—a project that was started by Lesley Lokko. The GSA was one of the first, and successful attempts to displace the centrality of architectural discourse and production from the traditional places that we are familiar with. How have the questions you’ve identified in your practice transpired into your pedagogical approach?

In both spaces of education and practice, I work very much with performance; with stage setting, with things that are oral, aural and ritual. We call them embodied archives in the studio; they are ways of engaging in and bringing to life other ways of being, in spatial and architectural forms, even if a building is not always required. From early on at the GSA, Lesley Lokko was focused on the notion of speculation—this way of thinking and questioning has become a really important part of my pedagogy and practice. What GSA did was provide a space to ask questions, and to think very slowly and critically about longer game narratives—slower forms of practice around what manifesting identity can look like, or can be, in architecture.

The work of the teaching studio filters down into the work and operation of the practice all the time and at different speeds. It is absolutely important to be working at several speeds at once—from the long term endeavours that come from having a research studio practice; to having a design studio that builds instant installations; and running a teaching studio at the same time. They are constantly in dialogue with each other. The urgency of being able to ask these questions in a pedagogical space does a lot for the practice space, because it opens up possibilities for things that don't yet exist in the practice space, especially when we're talking about representation, decolonisation and the transformation of our landscape.

I want to emphasise that I'm saying this off the back of a lot of studio work that I've been engaging with over the last year from all over the world that have been working to respond to the rupture we've had with the Black Lives Matter movement and so on. Of course, that's very important and it's an honour to be able to see this work happening. But I think that a lot of that work is focusing directly on asking and answering those questions, which are really big and huge. If anything, the work of the teaching studio focuses on being able to be a little bit more soft, slow, indirect and nuanced with these gigantic themes.

Could you expand on what you mean by ‘slower’ forms of practice and learning? Are these urgent questions that are being catalysed by movements such as Black Lives Matter too large to be answered within a design studio format?

I wouldn't say that they are too large to be answered by the studio, but I think that they are too large and too heavy for students to be able to answer directly all the time. This applies very much to everything we experience in our city and in our country. Something that I learnt from Lesley was that the forms of architecture and design language we have, are ways to speak to these issues— sometimes indirectly and with a lot of nuance. Toni Morrison writes that we as people of colour have been duped into doing the work of explaining our existence3. Danille K. Taylor-Guthrie (1994).
Conversations with Toni Morrison. University Press of Mississippi.
Sometimes these big questions force us to justify our existence or justify that these issues even exist and need to be dealt with. This is the work of white supremacist institutions. It prevents us from actually speculating beyond that point and entering a space of imagination—a space where we can fully self-express and self-identify all the glory and potential our lenses and our experiences give rise to.

For me, the way to focus on this, in both practice and the teaching studio, has been to think from the perspective of difference. Students are encouraged to think of other ways of being and to explore alternate modes of articulating and expressing—beyond the prescribed forms of architectural representation and documentation. For example, a student project looked at the spirit world that exists in the Islamic religion, to catalyse a research terrain and a series of performances that set a focus on developing what that language can look like. This way of thinking is decolonial and transformative in nature as it comes from an entirely different way of being that isn’t influenced by mainstream representation at all and that isn't being developed architecturally in most parts of the world.

It is key to focus on the subject matter through the lens of difference and thinking from a place of difference, rather than just purely saying ‘we're addressing difference’, ‘we’re talking about decolonisation’ and ‘we're talking about blackness’ without an understanding on how those experiences manifest spatially or how those experiences can give rise to entirely different ways of being. So many times these lenses and these ways of being can't be held by the traditional architecture that we have in mind. For example, ways of being that are oral and aural that deal with performance and ritual which would therefore require students to work sonically or to work with performance and so on. It is a very exciting thing to see these hybridised with conventional forms of architecture.

I can't think of anything more colonial than projecting solutions really quickly. Projecting an answer and solving a problem when we haven't even understood what the issue is.
As you mentioned earlier, the legacies of apartheid have had ongoing brutal and violent effects within the urban realm; through building, urban planning and so on—things are very physical and not discursive. How do you reconcile or negotiate the tension between discursive and narrative practices and the legacies of the apartheid? Within this, have you found limitations when facing this disparity?

I do think that sometimes the discursive practice, at least for now, is a way to deal with and tackle those questions and issues. I'm drawing on clues that are in the built environment and, without romanticising it, the forms of resilience that people who live in the city have in order to survive. I’m thinking of rituals, church gatherings and practices that happen in these buffer zones and on traffic islands next to a highway. I'm thinking of how people commute and transport themselves in the city despite all of the barriers and all of the disconnectedness that's been designed and enforced. If we can draw on and amplify such moments that might feel discursive, allow them to arrive at a critical mass and then hybridise them with things that are very static and physical, then there is something entirely new waiting to happen—something that's different that we aren't seeing at the moment. Seeing architecture only as static and physical is limiting for our context. The discursive is the beginning of something and that is really important.

The discursive is a key place that can also inspire architectural education to start reorganising and reframing itself. I very much believe in the role of cannon and curriculum in starting to define and shape these forces. If we think of all of the institutional structures that we have—all of the intangible set up; the school, the curriculum, the institutional bureaucracies, the archives and so on—they have all been set up in a particular way which has solidified certain voices, and that solidification then perpetuates in the built environment. We need to think about how we can include other forms of passing down knowledge and other forms of knowledge representation that exist outside the archive in order to give rise to more physical and infrastructural change within our institutions.

Within the school of architecture, there has been a re-emergence of a kind-of neo-pragmatism amongst students, where projects of speculation are framed as a luxury position that only certain people can afford. Things that seem to not have an immediate effect or consequence in practical means are dismissed. Speculation and the notion of dwelling on the question and taking on slower speeds is also rejected. What is your position to this resistance? Have you been encountering this?

Absolutely, from day one. I can't think of anything more colonial than projecting solutions really quickly. Projecting an answer and solving a problem when we haven't even understood what the issue is. I also think that there's nothing more political than the project of imagination. When I was talking about Toni Morrison, I was indirectly saying that we are being forced all the time to declare our position, justify our existence and solve the problem. That's distracting us from the deeper politics of imagination and social justice, which I believe is about expression, identity and imagination. Only wanting to answer that problem pragmatically and looking at it too quickly is also not doing the question justice and it's not doing the imagination that is embedded in all of these other ways of being justice either.

In South Africa, we have a long lineage of this kind of pragmatism that you're talking about. We have camps of practice here. One is looking north or ‘west’- whichever way someone presents themselves - and thinking that we need to show that we are as good as Europe to show that we are a progressive African economy. It is to prove that we've made it and we're doing well with all these infrastructures. Then the other one is masquerading as social justice. I'm not saying that this work is not important, because I absolutely believe that pragmatism is also important, but it's really focussed on service delivery; such as providing schools and providing toilets. It fits into a health and developmental politics. That work needs to be done but at the same time, we also have to be working on the project of imagination—to look beyond solving the problem in the current convention of what the problem is and what it looks like.

Imagination and speculation is the most political tool that we have. It's also the most potent.

We need to be asking other questions and seeing beyond the surface of this problem. In our context, we don't even have enough schools, universities, and housing to cater for and so this work absolutely needs to be done. But while we are saying we need to provide schools, need to provide housing and so on, there's another thing we need to be thinking in the back of our heads. What do schools for our context, our ways of being, our knowledge systems look like? That project is not going to be solved tomorrow by building a new school. It's going to be solved by thinking “how is the school that I'm designing drawing on oral traditions, what other forms are waiting to happen in drawing on our traditions, even just conceptually?”

It's very important to be pragmatic, but to only be focussed on the pragmatics is distracting from much deeper questions and much deeper issues. Imagination and speculation is the most political tool that we have. It's also the most potent.

There is another version of this urgency that we can see in some practices in the United States right now. There is an urgency that is not connected to the apparent social needs, but rather, an urgency for renunciation.

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought a wave of practices that are constructing their impact around policy and discourse. The systems of oppression present in the United States led to the need for figures to rise and declare that 'This is not right. This has to change now'. This type of urgency is also apparent in South Africa, with the inequalities from the apartheid still very present. What is the relationship of both your teaching practice and studio practice at Counterspace to the urgency of renunciation?


Yes it is definitely something we've experienced at the end of apartheid, but I'm thinking more recently of the FeesMustFall protest that happened in 2015. It’s interesting that all of these forces shaped each other the way that they did. What happened then was that students really demanded change and effectively shut down large amounts of the university system in the process of doing that.

They rewrote policies and they said, ‘we want decolonised education, we want to decolonise curriculum.’ Students brought the institutions to their knees. It was a huge moment and that is something very special to be a part of. However, I'm saying that with heaviness considering all of the violence and everything else that was involved.

Universities and the government then said, 'OK, we hear you, we need change. We need to decolonise the curriculum. We'll give you what you want' because they had no other option. But then the question became, ‘Well, what do we want? What does a decolonised curriculum and education look like?’. That is something that we're still asking and forming–it hasn't come to fruition yet. I'm going to say it again but I do think that being able to operate at different speeds is important. On the one hand, as you're saying, this policy needs to change and there's an urgency about this - we want to change, we need change - but we need to also start putting structures in place that start to imagine more slowly what a deeper imagination of what institutions, what policy and so on can give rise to. Then at the same time, we need to be testing some of our initial ideas. There's a kind of instant project, a very pragmatic one, and the project of imagination, all running at the same time.

With all these parallel struggles and issues occurring globally, there are many schools of architecture that are attempting to better engage with these questions of urgency.

How do you interpret the relationship of your practice with these global spaces and the global/local kinship? Your case is both extremely local because it's grounded and situated thematically in Johannesburg but you've become a global example of a way to operate and how to successfully engage with these questions.


This is something I'm thinking about at the moment because I'm being asked all the time where I see my practice being located now. I've always said in the past that I very much believe my practice is Joburg centric. It draws its life, its lifeblood and all of its conceptual energy and intention from this place. I can only ever see my practice being situated here. But on the other hand, what I'm now learning is, if I am in any other place or any other city, there are things that my training here in Joburg has given me that can be augmented with another place. In our city, there is so much that is disguised, so much that's under the surface that we always have to first see what's happening and then dig deep to look underneath at what else is happening. That act of being able to read a place is relevant for so many other places and so many other cities as well. I found that the Serpentine pavilion project, for example, was very much about that. It has a Joburg intent and energy. It is about looking at all of these small spaces and about bringing together other narratives and other histories that have been erased both in the past and present. That way of reading the invisible and reading beyond the surface has come from here.

I'm also developing an awareness that having this lens and speaking from here can be really valuable for lots of other places as well. More and more we are becoming hybrids. We are from so many different places. We speak so many different languages. We have an understanding of so many different cultures and there's something in this that also speaks about a global condition and a global relevance. At the moment I want to be both.

It is interesting to consider how the shifting definition of the ‘global’ has impacted the way architects and spatial practitioners operate and practice. In the 1990s, the global was seen as an imagined flat air space for capital to flow. The global now sees architects and designers actively engaged in international projects. Questions surrounding what a global practice means right now, the shortcomings of that globality and how we can critically conceptualise it, are really important to address. Your practice is an incredibly exciting example that raises the question mark of how you are going to be moving forward in becoming a figure that is both still here and there. What are your thoughts on this?

I really believe in being embedded and in listening deeply to the place. Being situated in a place is the key. It doesn't mean because someone is from somewhere else that they can't practise in another place. Although it's not our work to teach another context what they need to be. Difference is needed and perspectives of difference are hugely important now more than ever. I love how you mentioned globalisation in the 90s. For me, a light bulb went off because it's a very interesting thing to be looking at that globalisation versus the one that we're engaged in now. That one is about flatness, this idea of a common ground and that we all are becoming each other, but in a flat way. This one is more about difference and resonance. I actually don't believe so much in the idea of common ground. For me, difference and diversity is really interesting and exciting, even conceptually. Bringing together perspectives of difference next to each other, allowing them to hybridise and transmogrify each other is a really interesting way forward. I don't know where my practice is going or going to be situated, but I do think that there is something that is valid and valuable in all of us being able to practise elsewhere and in our context as well.

Difference brings about something that is needed in the world at the moment. Really really needed.