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Sumayya Vally, Counterspace
NR Magazine, Vol. 13 


When Sumayya Vally founded the Johannesburg-based architectural studio Counterspace in 2015, it was against the backdrop of a deeply entrenched narrative of western hegemony. As an architectural student in South Africa, at the University of Pretoria and then the University of the Witwatersrand, Sumayya found the curriculum pivoted around a western worldview. And as the name implies, Counterspace seeks to redefine such a narrative, to amplify the lived experiences of those who have, historically, been overlooked. Earlier this year, Sumayya’s efforts to incorporate marginalised and underrepresented architectural ideas into an existing lexicon were internationally recognised when she was included as one of the TIME100’s most influential people.

Sumayya’s architectural perspective is one shaped by her experience growing up in a place less openly inclusive, though equally diverse. Now 30, Sumayya’s early life was spent in the final years of Apartheid-era Pretoria. And as child, she experienced first-hand the impact that architecture and design can have on people’s lives. As South Africa nears 30 years since Apartheid’s end, it’s a country that remains deeply segregated by race, class and wealth. Architecture and city planning is not an innocent bystander here and have been used throughout history as tools for control, subordination, and exclusion. Sumayya’s exposure to this complicated reality informs the interdisciplinary, and often imaginative, work that Counterspace does.

In 2019, the studio unveiled Folded Skies - a series of three sculptural structures made from interlocking tinted mirrors. The iridescent glow captured in the surfaces of the structures appears to represent the history of a city built on the vast gold deposits discovered in Johannesburg in the 1880s. While the legacy of this glittering past is reflected in the city’s colonial architecture, Folded Skies recalls instead  the ecological aftermath of the gold rush. The city remains blighted by toxic pollution emanating from the equally vast number of waste dumps left behind from abandoned gold mines. The presence of these dumps is a reminder both of the aphorism that ‘everything that glitters is not gold’ and of the country’s history of segregation and suffering.

Johannesburg was a city divided right from the start, with mine-owners, wealthy from the gold rush, living separated, then segregated, lives from a black population who were eventually forced into townships in the city’s suburbs. The hangover of that gold discovery continues to wreak havoc. The large domineering heaps act as a physical barrier between rich and poor, black and white neighbourhoods; a reminder that segregation still exists. Toxic fumes from the dumps, which are themselves now being mined for the fragments of gold they may contain, are carried south by the wind, poisoning the black communities who live in their path - environmental racism in practise. Though human-made, the waste heaps demonstrate how materials can be used to control, to divide, to enslave people; as tools to construct a built environment, or as resources to build global trade.

By engaging with Johannesburg’s complicated history, Sumayya and Counterspace’s practice is as much social history as it is about designing for a better future. Uhmlaba, a film made in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum, will explore South Africa’s history of segregation using soil (as land) as both its catalyst and focus. The studio often uses film and photography (archival and contemporary) to animate their ideas; visual evidence to demonstrate the fluidity of life and people in an urban environment. And if Johannesburg exemplifies how the architecture is used to control and segregate, the architect’s plan cannot always anticipate the unpredictability of the lived city experience. Counterspace celebrates, and designs, with small acts of subversion in mind. And so, as Sumayya explains in our conversation below, a new approach to architecture and the way we look and engage with urban spaces begins with interweaving unheard and overlooked histories into the fabric of our built environments.

Would you be able to share some insight into the upcoming film Umhlaba?

Umhlaba translates to land in Zulu. The land in South Africa, like many places in the majority world has been implicated in our histories of movement, dispossession and displacement, empire and extraction. The film considers the depths, scales and layers of connection (and violences) in our relations to land - through the narration of recipes, stories and ingredients that become part of our cultures and constructions of belonging - to the violence of breathing toxic dust and the zoomed out segregation and separation of bodies from land in Apartheid city planning. The film is a collage of these various scales and entities, and weaves together connections and links between what was assumed unconnected and innocent.

How did you develop the approach that Counterspace takes through research, practice and pedagogy?

Johannesburg has served as a source of immense inspiration for the practice. Because so much of the city exists below the surface, so many ritual, economic and other practices have developed incredible resistances and are able to surface and exist, despite being excluded by our city's histories and infrastructures. There is so much that lives beyond the limits of traditional planning, design and beyond the tools of the architectural plan, section and elevation. These ways of being invite us to imagine different ways to draw - to find tools to learn, absorb, understand, listen to and interpret our conditions. Many of them are aural, oral, atmospheric - which has given rise to drawing through film, performance, choreography, the digital, sonic and atmospheric field notes, temperature, colour, etc., to develop an expanded lexicon and ways of reading and seeing Johannesburg.

What informs your approach as an architect to incorporate performance, the medium of video/film, cultural histories into the practice?

Rituals, ways of being and the lives of people in my city - and this intent to draw, make visible, amplify and sharpen aspects of our histories and cultures that cannot be included in the traditional tools and ways of archiving that the discipline and the profession of architecture has inherited.

Counterspace’s work delves into materials like sand, soil, everyday detritus, so I’d love to know what you see as the cultural importance of “material”?

I very much see materials as shifting earth and land; constantly being negotiated, reconstituted and reconfigured. Whether implicit or explicit, all projects stake a political claim in their approach to materials. I am very interested in the use of detritus, in traces and reconfigured leftovers, in how these give us a reading of our relationships to the earth. Materials are not neutral - everything, from cane and cotton, to concrete and gold - is a reading of our ties to each other and our histories (and consequential futures). I am also interested in blurring the binaries that we have drawn between ourselves and the world we are in, and a part of. Johannesburg has also given me an implicit desire to be resourceful and to piece together a lot with very little.

How do you navigate the kinds of architectural malpractices/Western authority that shaped the studio’s raison d’être?

I see my practice as an effort to realise design languages from places of difference - different ways of being and seeing, different histories and stories - and in that sense it has always existed tangentially to the dominant canon. I think things are changing now, but for a long time this meant that the work was quite invisible to the dominant canon. I very much see myself as part of a generation and a movement working to translate and embody our own positions of difference and bring a critical mass of them into the world. Any identity that is different to the dominant discourse is a lens with which to see the world from a different perspective - which is so needed, now more than ever.

It’s interesting to think of spaces where people gather as places that weren’t always envisioned as serving those very purposes. How did growing up around Johannesburg shape your understanding of this?

Our city, of course, has a history of clandestine meeting and organising -  from pirate radio setups on kitchen tables to underground jazz during Apartheid. The city has such a divisive understanding of what public is and looks like. In many regards, we never had public spaces that are truly designed for everyone and that have truly drawn on our ways of being and our understandings and cultures of what 'public' is and looks like. But, in many other ways, the resilience of practices and gathering that exist outside of, and despite formal limitations, has been a revelation. Being able to see and read these, and learning from the atmospheres and spaces that are created by people and their practices of gathering and constructions of belonging - whether at a carwash, at a petrol station, for a lunchtime gathering, or church on a patch of leftover veld grass in the centre of the inner-city - has been deeply fundamental to my practice.

April 2021