Fragments of fluted classical columns collide with steps, ledges and bits of curved moulding, like an impromptu playground collaged together from an architectural salvage yard. It is an intriguing dream landscape, with ghostly echoes of familiar London features, all rendered in creamy shades of cement and brought together beneath an enormous circular roof that hovers six metres overhead.
This is the new Serpentine Pavilion designed by Counterspace, a Johannesburg practice led by 31-year-old Indian South African architect, Sumayya Vally. It is fitting that the youngest architect ever selected for the annual commission should come up with one of the biggest structures yet. Its size is not only in its physical heft, but in its far-reaching scope beyond the bounds of Kensington Gardens: for the first time, this year sees four additional structures scattered across the city, as well as the launch of a new fellowship programme for artists working with spatial politics and community practice.
“I wanted to reflect London back to London,” says Vally, when we meet inside her structure as the final pieces are being craned into place. “I became really interested in spaces in the city that are important for migrant communities, from cafes and libraries to hair salons and places of worship. I wanted to bring their memory into the pavilion, but also take the pavilion out into London.”
Her design is the result of a kind of reverse archaeology. Vally sampled spaces and details from over 50 sites around the capital and melded them together in a process of layering, splicing and subtracting. The resulting landscape is a fragmented collection of plinths and perches, evoking the casts of Rachel Whiteread, or the stage sets of Adolphe Appia, inviting visitors to clamber, rest and recline in its nooks and niches. The approach recalls the excavated 2012 pavilion by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, which superimposed the foundations of previous structures on the site to form a stepped landscape of cork. But, while theirs was reticently hidden below ground, Vally’s is intentionally imposing, standing as a proud monument to marginal migrant communities.
Emerging from a raised grassy mound, the structure has an archaic, ruined air, with a broken outer skin of dark cork giving it the look of a solid mass that has been carved and chiselled away over time. For ease of assembly (and reconstruction elsewhere), the reality is actually prefabricated plywood blocks covered with micro-cement render, supported by a recycled steel frame – sitting on a substantial concrete foundation. As in previous years, the pavilion has been pre-sold, this time to the Therme Group, an Austrian spa operator which also acquired the last two structures, by Frida Escobedo and Junya Ishigami.
This year’s commission is the result of a long and unusually embedded process. When Vally was selected from a small invited competition (as has been the way since 2017), her first instinct was to move to London to better understand the context. She arrived here in December 2019, when her pavilion was scheduled for summer 2020, and spent four months immersed in the radical archives of the Bishopsgate Institute and wandering the streets, before the pandemic hit. She became obsessed with the capital’s rich histories of immigration, community organising and collective resistance, which often took place in the humble surrounds of cafes, bars and bookshops – many since demolished.
“These spaces became important for people to construct a sense of belonging,” she says. “They held mother tongues, mother sounds, recipes from far away. Part of the reason spaces like that come under threat is because we don’t recognise them architecturally as part of our lexicon.”
The references to these places have been heavily abstracted in her resulting pavilion design – sadly too much to discern any particular locations – but there are echoes of domestic porches in Brixton, market stalls in Whitechapel, and a bar that summons the ghosts of bulldozed music venues, like the Four Aces in Dalston. A long, low bench-cum-table in one corner was inspired by a table Vally saw used for an Iftar gathering in the street outside the the Al-Manaar mosque in north Kensington, which played a crucial role in supporting survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. The stories are not made explicit, but she hopes that the combined fragments conjure an atmosphere of coming together.
“I’m interested in how different scales of gathering are suggested or initiated,” she says. “So the pavilion has spaces for large groups, for one-to-one conversations, or to simply be alone.” It should make a great playground for kids, too, with plenty of peephole gaps and hiding places. Rather than standing as an object to be admired from afar, like some previous years’ trinkets, this year’s structure has been designed very much from the inside out. Those put off by its looming, rather clunky presence above the tree canopy might be won over by the refined, human-scale detail of what they find inside.
Vally is keen to emphasise that the Kensington structure is just one of what she wants to be seen as five equal pieces located around London. She gnomically describes the four other fragments as “stage, podium, shelf, and seat”, each piece comprising a multifunctional furniture-scale object of dark-stained plywood, made for the needs of the venues they serve.
One is a combined shelving unit and poetry-reading podium for New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, one of the first black publishers and booksellers in London. Another is an adaptable stage for the Albany arts centre in Deptford, while the Tabernacle in Notting Hill receives a seating/stage structure that can be moved to a nearby square come carnival time. Valence Library in Barking and Dagenham, meanwhile, gets an adaptable recording platform as part of a radio station project launching in September. It links to a wider sonic theme this year, with commissioned audio works set to be played through speakers in the ceiling of the pavilion, by Ain Bailey and Jay Bernard, connecting visitors “to the sounds of lost spaces across London”.
The pandemic might have delayed the project by a year, but the additional time has allowed this broader programme to develop, and has prompted what might be Vally’s most important, yet invisible, legacy – convincing the Serpentine to establish an annual £100,000 fellowship programme, funded by donors.
“Once Covid hit and we were all in lockdown, I saw so many of these community arts spaces and practices become vulnerable,” she says. “When you’re working on the margins, you’re often excluded from institutional support. If you’re doing something different, you automatically fall outside the funding structures that institutions offer.”
Her pitch to the Serpentine has resulted in Support Structures for Support Structures, which will see up to 10 artists and collectives working at the intersection of art, spatial politics and community practice awarded an unrestricted grant of at least £10,000, and invited to join an ongoing mentoring network.
All of this is admirable, but it brings us back to the question of the pavilion itself. This year the structure necessitated 95 cubic metres of concrete to be pumped into the ground, a vast volume which will simply be crushed into aggregate in a few months’ time. Why not have a permanent foundation that each architect can reuse, or temporary screw-piles? The gallery insists there is a Royal Parks requirement to leave the lawn as it was found every year, and that a fixed foundation would preclude architectural innovation. But, if it wants its sustainability pledges to be taken seriously, after claiming that ecology would be “at the heart of everything we do”, it could start by looking at the embodied carbon of what it annually pumps into its own front lawn.