Architecture should be a force for change

Counterspace, the Johannesburg firm designing the Serpentine Pavilion this year, roots its practice in the idea that architecture as a social practice can be inclusive.

Every European summer, London’s Serpentine Galleries spend several hundred thousand pounds erecting a building that will stand at its Kensington Gardens location for only four months. The Serpentine Pavilion, as this temporary construction is called, is the ultimate architectural feat – a grand but momentary monument to culture on the doorstep of one of London’s preeminent contemporary art institutions, and a place for people to gather where not much is prescribed in the way of function or custom. Not surprisingly, in the past its execution has been reserved for a roster of international “starchitects”. However, in 2020, the pavilion is in the hands of a small, all-female architecture studio from Johannesburg that until a month ago, many hadn’t heard of. 

A socially driven practice

Called Counterspace, and directed by Sumayya Vally, Sarah de Villiers and Amina Kaskar, this research-driven, experimental practice is inspired by the complex urban realities of Johannesburg. Vally, De Villiers and Kaskar are interdisciplinary, curious and sensitised to the importance of environmental stewardship and social inclusivity. They also punch far above their weight. In 2019, Counterspace was named one of Domus Magazine’s top 100 architecture firms internationally, sharing the ranks with firms that far outstrip them in size and capital. Some of the more prominent names on that list are Gehry Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects, Rem Koolhaas’s OMA and Herzog & de Meuron, all of whose principal architects have been awarded the Pritzker Prize, the architectural equivalent of a Nobel Prize. 

Notwithstanding that in the previous four years the Serpentine Pavilion has been repositioned as a platform for “emerging talent”, the commissioning of Counterspace represents a shift. Each aged 30, they are the youngest team ever to receive the commission. They are also the first to propose the use of almost entirely recycled and low-carbon materials in their design, a change from the material extravagance of previous pavilions. According to Vally, the project lead, this approach is grounded in the idea that the pavilion is an evolving part of society and the environment, and not simply an intervention. “Materially, the pavilion takes into consideration construction’s role not only socially, but also its wider impact on the environment,” she says.

Every year the Serpentine Pavilion attracts thousands of visitors, locals and tourists, some of whom are casual passersby, but many of whom make the trip specially to see this architectural spectacle. In 2016, Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ pavilion was the most visited architecture or design “exhibition” globally that year. Home to the Serpentine Galleries’ popular free summer programme of art-related talks and events, the pavilion is not so much responsible for containing these events and their audiences as it is for creating a talking point, and for connecting the Serpentine Galleries to life outside the rarified institution.

For the Serpentine Galleries a fresh start and a wholesome public image, the likes of which Counterspace bring, are no doubt welcome after a difficult 2019. The construction of Japanese architect Junya Ishigami’s pavilion last year was tainted by an outcry on social media against his exploitation of unpaid interns. The Serpentine Galleries attempted to contain the fallout by issuing a statement that no interns were used in the making of Ishigami’s pavilion. But the ensuing lull was not to last. A few months after interngate, and just before the opening of the pavilion, the institution attracted further public criticism for the familial association of its former chief executive officer, Yana Peel, with a dubious Israeli cybertech firm. 

Inspired by the city and its people

Controversies aside, for Counterspace the Serpentine commission is an opportunity to test the relevance of a very local approach to architecture in a distant social context. “I’ve approached it very much with the same ethos as designing something in Joburg – looking out for the inspirations in the fabric of the city and the lives of people in it,” Vally says. “Like previous projects, the methodology for the pavilion is shaped through the lens of a fundamental interest in territory, identity, belonging and trying to understand architecture beyond that which is built.”

Counterspace’s pavilion design speculates about what architecture can say about physical, social and economic mobility. Instead of a single structure, the pavilion will be made up of a collection of architectural fragments that will begin their lives in other parts of London and will relocate to the pavilion lawns at Kensington Gardens over the course of the summer. The pavilion will effectively be scattered across various places, each hosting parts of the Serpentine Galleries’ summer programme. After each satellite event, the architectural elements installed at that site will be incorporated into the main pavilion. These elements will reflect the visual character of the urban forms in each area, so that what is brought together in the final composite pavilion will be a blend of styles, shapes and materials. 

The politics of space

For Vally this mixing of styles affirms the diversity of London, which has not exactly been a priority for previous Serpentine Pavilions. Located close to Kensington Palace – home to the royal family – and to London’s most expensive residential street, Kensington Palace Gardens, past pavilions have stood alongside some of the most ostentatious real estate in the world and have not been found wanting. A different approach is possible, though, says Vally: “Architecture is complicit in separating, othering, excluding – but it can also be a force for the opposite.”  

The dispersed locations and forms that will be so integral to Counterspace’s design are “drawn from places of gathering specific to migrant and peripheral communities across London”, Vally says. As a famously cosmopolitan city, London’s population is substantially made up of people who come from somewhere else. Many of them have settled in London and many are trying to. Only some will succeed. If you are an immigrant, space is never neutral. The places that are seen as “yours” are where you live and operate itinerantly and precariously, and where your functional exclusion from privileged culture-consuming circles – like the Serpentine Galleries’ regular audience – is passed off as natural. This is why Vally’s intended scattering and converging of the pavilion is more than an aesthetic gimmick – it’s a loaded experiment in spatial politics.

That Vally’s approach is groundbreaking is not lost on her hosts. According to Serpentine Galleries director Hans-Ulrich Obrist, this commission represents an important occasion for the institution to connect with communities across London. “The idea of working with different communities is very important for us and Counterspace’s proposal does this in a remarkable way; we were totally convinced by the social dimension of their practice,” Obrist says. 

As a rejoinder to Mies van der Rohe’s adage “less is more”, the architect Robert Venturi once quipped, “less is a bore”. Venturi believed that the clutter and complexity of human beings should be celebrated in design rather than minimised or erased – that architecture is all about its social dimensions. Vally shares his sensibility: “Architecture that moves me most is architecture that makes an offering about the human condition and about people – that facilitates and has something to say about our relationships to each other, and our relationships to territory and place.” 

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.