After a year’s delay due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the 20th Serpentine Pavilion has finally opened in London’s Hyde Park. Designed by 31-year-old South African architect Sumayya Vally, founder and principal of Johannesburg practice Counterspace, the new structure is bold and majestic. Standing more than six metres tall in Kensington Gardens, almost meeting the height of the trees surrounding it, the two-tone, open-air edifice – pale pink rendered cement mix for the interior and dark grey cork for the exterior – rises above a raised concrete platform.
“The pavilion is about migration,” Vally explains, “and it’s about understanding London as the centre of what was once an old industrial empire and how entangled all of our histories are within that.” To that end, various architectural features from “past and present places of meeting, organizing and belonging” have been abstracted, cut, layered and carved out to create various interior mouldings.
The canopy, for instance, is supported by long slender columns of different shapes and similarly appears to be composed of a multitude of elements. On a sunny day, a gap at the centre of the ceiling playfully throws a crescent-like pattern of light onto the floor. Alongside its own café, remnants of pillars, cornices, plinths, tables and stairs occupy this space, with some becoming nooks ideal for repose while others remain functional as ledges and seats.
The places Vally found inspiration are market stalls, spaces of worship, hair salons, cafes, bookshops and local cultural institutions particularly important to diasporic and peripheral communities from various neighbourhoods of London. In the very act of discerning what these elements are and might signify, we are drawn deeply into Vally’s world. “Architecture is about communicating narratives and telling stories,” she says, adding that these tales are “stories of people, stories of all of us.”
Embracing this narrative potential, the pavilion doesn’t just stop at Hyde Park. It is only one part of a five-piece ensemble, with four jet-black “fragments” – a seat, a shelf, a podium and a stage – dispersed across London to further support and celebrate the activities of each community. One of these segments, the “stage,” sits in the garden of The Albany, a multi-purpose arts centre in the city’s Deptford neighbourhood. Vally was very aware of The Albany’s history, “the Rock Against Racism gigs in the 1970s and all that,” according to Ben Stephen, head of operations and production at the centre. Wanting to ensure that her “fragment” would be actively used during their summer event program, the architect devised a small platform to enable one-person acts with a set of steps leading up to the stage and another set leading up to an imaginary level. Its intersecting composition nods to the language of the main building. The stage may be demure in size, but the gesture is huge.
Meanwhile, the “shelf” has been placed in New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park — one of the country’s first Black publishers and retailers — to display a selection of tomes on its ledges. The “seat” sits outside The Tabernacle, a multi-purpose venue and community hub in Notting Hill, while the Valence Library in Barking and Dagenham gets the trio of forms comprising the “podium.” These sculptural elements are designed to support recordings for the radio station “Becontree Broadcasting” in the organization’s new arts and culture hub.
The pavilion also extends through time. Artists Ain Bailey and Jay Bernard have been commissioned to bring “the stories and sounds of lost spaces across London” into the site. The duo’s recordings (“sonic landscapes” as they call them) will be played both as intimate sessions and as atmospheric rendered sound throughout the space, bringing a number of lost structures that Vally drew from back to life — such as the demolished Four Aces in Dalston.
This year’s build is also — somewhat controversially — touted as being the first carbon-negative edifice in the program’s history. Working with AECOM, Vally utilized a range of reused and repurposed materials, including recycled steel and micro-cement formed out of lime and waste from marble production. For the Johannesburg-based architect, sustainability does not simply stop at these physical materials but extends into architecture’s social dimension as well. “It’s about the longterm impact of relationships,” she says, “[and] the maintenance thereof.”
Grounded by the pavilion’s premise, Vally helped conceive a new fellowship program with the Serpentine Galleries to further work towards a more equitable and sustainable future. Titled “Support Structures for Support Structures,” it provides new opportunities, networks and resources for up to 10 artists and collectives from London engaged in spatial politics and community practice. “It’s about the production of different perspectives and answers to the questions and challenges we face,” she says, “and the role of institutions, like the Serpentine Galleries, in facilitating that.”
Counterspace’s monolithic pavilion can perhaps be seen as a monument to a new generation of underrepresented architects like Vally – “the architects of my context,” as she says, “who often have to work in a small, agile, errant way, on the fringes and on the margins,” whose perspectives and ideas chronically get pushed aside within a largely white, male-dominated profession. In this sense, it feels as though Zaha Hadid, the first architect selected to helm the pavilion two decades ago, is passing Vally the baton to carry on the work of empowering women to reimagine the limits and potentials of the built environment. While the Serpentine’s annual commission has historically been viewed as a victory lap of sorts for prominent architects yet to build in the U.K., for Vally it’s only the beginning of much more to come.
Yuki Sumner is a London-based architecture and design journalist, writer and curator. She also runs Sumner+Dean offering advice for architects and designers to help tell their stories effectively.
The South African practice, led by Sumayya Vally, crafts a decentrered monument to spaces and people on the peripheries.