Places of Meeting at the Serpentine Galleries

The 20th Serpentine Pavilion, designed by Johannesburg-based practice Counterspace, directed by Sumayya Vally opened on June 11, 2021, in London.

A TIME100 Next List honoree, Sumayya Vally is the youngest architect to be commissioned for this internationally renowned architecture programme. The Serpentine Pavilion 2021 is being supported by Goldman Sachs for the seventh consecutive year. The Pavilion design is based on past and present places of meeting, organising, and belonging across London. The forms in the Pavilion are a result of abstracting, superimposing, and splicing architectural elements, varying in scales of intimacy, from various locations, translating the shapes of London into the Pavilion structure in Kensington Gardens. The structure is a reminder of the spaces that people from around the world call their own in London, a place of memory for the migrants.

The Pavilion references the architecture of markets, restaurants, places of worship, bookshops, and local cultural institutions that are particularly significant to diasporic and cross-cultural communities in neighbourhoods including Brixton, Hoxton, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Edgware Road, Barking and Dagenham, Peckham, and Notting Hill, among others.

For the first time since the programme started, the commission extends to the city, as four fragments of the Pavilion are installed in selected locations across London to support and facilitate gatherings and impromptu interactions and honour places that have held communities over time. The partners hosting these fragments are New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, one of the first Black publishers and booksellers in the UK; multi-purpose venue and community hub The Tabernacle in Notting Hill; arts centre The Albany in Deptford; and the new Becontree Forever Arts and Culture Hub at Valence Library in Barking and Dagenham, which was established this year to commemorate the centenary of the UK’s largest council housing estate.

Fragment of Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace for The Albany © Counterspace Photo: George Darrell

Counterspace is a Johannesburg-based collaborative architectural studio, directed by Sumayya Vally, founded in Johannesburg in 2015. Much of their work emerges from research and interdisciplinary arts-based projects, undertaking predominantly architectural projects, community engagement, exhibition, and installation conceptualisation, and urban research, design, and intervention. Their work is concerned with inclusivity, otherness, and the future; and often intersects with other creative disciplines to form innovative approaches to design challenges. They are the 20th practice to design a temporary Pavilion on the Serpentine Gallery’s lawn in Kensington Gardens. This pioneering commission, which began in 2000 with Zaha Hadid, has presented the first UK structures by some of the biggest names in international architecture. In recent years it has grown into a highly-anticipated showcase for emerging talent, from Frida Escobedo of Mexico to Francis Kéré of Burkina Faso and Bjarke Ingels of Denmark, whose 2016 Pavilion was the most visited architectural and design exhibition in the world. The Pavilion programme has evolved over 20 years as a commissioning platform for the Serpentine’s experimental, interdisciplinary live, community, and family programmes.

Fragment of Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace for The Tabernacle © Counterspace Photo: George Darrell

“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.”

Vally’s design is a result of careful scrutiny and after visiting 50 sites around the capital. She has brought them all together in a curved pavilion with a fragmented collection of plinths and perches, inviting visitors to climb, explore, rest, and recline in its nooks and niches. Vally’s intentionally imposing structure is a proud monument to marginal migrant communities. So, the pavilion has spaces for large groups, for one-to-one conversations, or to simply be alone. Vally wanted to create an image of London that was plural, and accessible to all.

“My practice, and this Pavilion, is centred around amplifying and collaborating with multiple and diverse voices from many different histories; with an interest in themes of identity, community, belonging, and gathering. The past year has drawn these themes sharply into focus and has allowed me the space to reflect on the incredible generosity of the communities that have been integral to this Pavilion. This has given rise to several initiatives that extend the duration, scale, and reach of the Pavilion beyond its physical lifespan. In a time of isolation, these initiatives have deepened the Pavilion’s intents toward sustained collaboration, and I am excited to continue this engagement with the Serpentine’s civic and education teams and our partners over the summer and beyond,” she says.

Fragment of Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace for Valence Library © Counterspace Photo: George Darrell

A new fellowship programme to support artists, Support Structures for Support Structures, is being announced on the occasion of the 20th Pavilion, creating a legacy for this unique commission and signalling a new chapter in the commission’s history. Support Structures for Support Structures is conceived in collaboration with the Serpentine Pavilion 2021 architect Counterspace and draws on the history of Serpentine’s Civic Projects programme. The fellowship will support up to ten artists and collectives in London working at the intersection of art, spatial politics and community practice with an unrestricted grant of at least £10,000 to develop their creative ideas and will also invite grantees to join an interdisciplinary network for support, development workshops and mentoring.  The ten recipients, who will be selected by a jury of leading professionals, will be announced in July.

Image: Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, Interior View © Counterspace

Photo: Iwan Baan