Influencers: Sumayya Vally

WORDS Annette Klinger PHOTOS Getty Image, Supplied

Ever wondered who (and what) inspires our current generation of architects? In the case of Counterspace Studio’s principal Sumayya Vally, inspiration can be found in everything from the mine dumps of Johannesburg to the works of BV DOSHI and ZAHA HADID.

When the announcement was made by London’s Serpentine Gallery on 10 February 2020, the moment was unprecedented: not only was Counterspace Studio’s Sumayya Vally the first-ever South African architect commissioned to design the gallery’s annual pavilion – a high-profile temporary structure that’s erected every summer in Kensington Gardens for four months – she was also the youngest.

And now, for the first time in the exhibition’s 20-year history, where “starchitects” from Daniel Libeskind to Frank Gehry have created everything from interactive space eggs to amorphous, technicoloured mazes, Sumayya will also be the first architect to create a Serpentine pavilion in a post-Covid-19 world. Due to the pandemic, the pavilion is opening today (11 June) – in a slightly altered state, of course.

“It was originally meant to be a gathering place for lots of voices from across London,” she says. “Now, the voices will be physical and virtual.”

Sumayya founded her interdisciplinary architecture firm in 2015, and has never shied away from poking
and prodding the ivory tower of formal architecture, addressing its overwhelmingly Western, patriarchal point of view – and, closer to home, South Africa’s fraught spatial politics. “Much of my work is inspired by how toxic the South African landscape is, and how violent its history of erasure,” says Sumayya, who grew up in Pretoria.

Sumayya Vally
The pavilion’s satellite installations are destined for spaces in London that are under threat from gentrification.

Asked about iconic local architecture that has made an impact on her, Sumayya cites Johannesburg’s Public Library and 11 Diagonal Street (colloquially known as the diamond building) as holding a particular nostalgic significance – she remembers the buildings vividly from childhood walks through the city, where her grandfather owned a store. But she also draws inspiration from more unexpected sources: the otherworldly quality and forms of the city’s mine dumps and the inequity they represent; the decay of the Ponte City skyscraper, which was famously documented by photographer Mikhael Subotzky; and everyday architectures like the shebeens that freedom charters were drafted in.

“I’m inspired by architects who manage to create from the perspective of difference,” says Sumayya. “Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi, because what he was creating for his time was completely different to the zeitgeist, and came very specifically from his own identity and influences. The late Japanese-American landscape architect Isamu Noguchi’s playground landscapes feel like there was a search for the soul of a place that he was yearning to manifest.

British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid – an outlier and a woman – managed to create an entire universe and bring diversity into the world. And the prolific Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, who has been a mentor during the process of bringing the pavilion to life.”

The hybridisation of space and identity is something Sumayya hopes to see more of in local architecture in future. “We talk about African identity as something that is quite homogenous, when I think, in South Africa alone, it is extremely diverse,” she says. “What I would like to see is forms of representation in architecture that are different from one another and that celebrate a nuanced perspective – architecture that really grapples with the ways of being and the lives of the people here, and that hybridises all of our influences and origins, taking into account where we are and what we have inherited.”

Looking for more on this project? Read this interview with Sumayya on