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Forging a fresh design language: Celebrating Africa’s vibrant mosaic of textures and cultures

Written by Editor

July 25, 2023

(Image courtesy of Counterspace Studio)

 

Meet Sumayya Vally — catalyst, innovator, and rising star

By Raine St.Claire

South African architect Sumayya Vally embodies these well-deserved titles as her remarkable achievements continue to accumulate.

She firmly believes that her identity as an African, Muslim, woman acts as influential perspectives shaping her vision for the future in challenging architectural norms.

 

Uncovering the interface of practicality and imagination: concurrently narrating city chronicles and envisioning tomorrow’s possibilities

Her firm, Counterspace, derives its name from the concept of elevating the ordinary and is driven by a belief in the social impact of urban design. It started as a side project founded by Sumayya and her colleagues in 2015 while they were students at the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Pretoria. Dissatisfied with the curriculum, they sought to explore architectural themes that resonated more closely with their surroundings.

Sumayya’s position as an outlier in the architectural profession has led her to embrace her unique perspective. She remains optimistic about architecture’s potential to effect change, firmly believing in the wealth of untapped richness that can be translated into innovative design forms.

For Sumayya, architecture is not confined to static or commemorative purposes. Instead, she views it as an expression of embodiment, akin to performance and ritual. Her aspiration is to build in a manner that breaks free from conventional norms.

 

Roots

Sumayya’s upbringing significantly influenced her journey, facing obstacles as a woman of colour in architecture.

Her personal experiences, which exposed her to the striking contrasts between the imposing Johannesburg Public Library and the lively textures of the city streets, have deeply influenced her understanding of the significance of land, place, and the powerful role architecture plays in fostering connections among people.

Having acknowledged the detrimental effects of apartheid city planning, Sumayya is driven to challenge the existing norms and explore how architecture can serve as a catalyst for positive change.

Sumayya’s personal journey instilled a profound appreciation for architecture’s power to foster connections and drive meaningful transformations. Her work boldly challenges conventional practices, inspiring aspiring architects to create purposeful and significant spaces.

 

Exceptional accolades

One remarkable achievement stands out: Sumayya’s invitation to design the 20th Serpentine Pavilion in London in 2019. As the youngest architect to accomplish this feat, she initiated the Support Structures for Support Structures fellowship program with the Serpentine project, nurturing artists exploring art, social justice, archives, and ecology intersections.

Sumayya’s unfolding journey as Artistic Director for the inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale held in April 2023 in Jeddah marks a significant career milestone. This event holds immense importance, celebrating the global contributions of Islamic faith, practice, and traditional creativity.

At the biennale, her transformative work took centre stage as she reimagined the iconic Hajj Terminal at Jeddah Airport—a site of profound sacred importance for the pilgrimage to Mecca. With her creative vision, she delved into centuries of Islamic creativity, infusing the space with a renewed sense of artistic wonder. Collaborating with OMA, she meticulously crafted the scenography, ensuring a captivating and immersive experience for all participants.

Looking to the future

Sumayya is actively engaged in several groundbreaking projects, each reflecting her commitment to creating a lasting impact. Notably, she is involved in designing the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development in Monrovia, Liberia. This groundbreaking endeavour will be the first presidential library dedicated to a female head of state, symbolising progress and empowerment on multiple levels. Additionally, she is working on a garden and gathering place commemorating the 5th Pan-African Congress held in Manchester, UK, in 1945, paying tribute to historical events that shaped the trajectory of the African diaspora and preserving the memories and significance of that pivotal moment.

 

Comprehensive scope: Design research, publishing, architectural creations and pedagogical approaches

Embodying the spirit of continuous exploration and growth, Sumayya also serves as the Pelli Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Architecture, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Through these academic roles, she champions a progressive approach to architectural education, fostering a diverse and inclusive future for the field.

Sumayya’s passion for teaching and nurturing young talents is evident in her involvement with the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. Leading the master’s studio, Unit 12, for six years, she sought to create a curriculum specifically tailored to the African continent. Her vision and guidance have left a lasting impact on aspiring architects, inspiring them to embrace their unique perspectives and cultural backgrounds in their creative journey.

 

Unwavering dedication: A narrative of relentless pursuit and boundless creativity

Sumayya’s vision for a fresh design language that pays homage to the diverse textures and cultures of the African continent is clearly reflected in her works. Embracing those who have been marginalised in the field, she draws inspiration from diverse environments, fostering an inclusive approach to her work.

Breaking free from conventional norms, Sumayya’s passion for innovation leads her down a unique path, seeking meaningful design solutions that resonate with the world. 

Her remarkable achievements have garnered international recognition, positioning her as a catalyst for transformative change in the architectural landscape. As she continues to shape the future through visionary projects and mentorship, Sumayya’s influence is poised to be enduring and inspiring, reaching beyond the realm of architecture.

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