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Hot Lunch

Starchitect Sumayya Vally takes flight

Aspasia Karras with Sumayya Vally

08 May 2022 - 00:00
Sumayya Vally, poses for a photograph. Her practice, described as, "Sumayya's design, research, and pedagogical practice is searching for expression for hybrid identities and contested territories."
Sumayya Vally, poses for a photograph. Her practice, described as, "Sumayya's design, research, and pedagogical practice is searching for expression for hybrid identities and contested territories."
Image: Alon Skuy

I meet Sumayya Vally for a quick morning brew at Bean There at 44 Stanley in Milpark. 

Her architecture practice is just upstairs but let me tell you, she has been damn hard to pin down ever since she won the Serpentine Pavilion project in London in 2021.

It’s the kind of prize that sets an architect’s trajectory to stratospheric. So rapid fire morning coffee in this airy coffee bean haven it is. But given her extraordinary capacity for focus and single-mindedness, which becomes apparent in our conversation, I think she has things under control.

 “The Serpentine historically is about the starchitect of the time. But in recent years it’s a prize that is more about emerging architects,” she says. 

“My architecture is so integrally concerned with place and Joburg, so I had to find a way to translate this energy to London.  Joburg has given me a gift in that everything I look at I  also see Johannesburg, I  read things that are happening beneath the surface. I wanted to find a way to express that thing to London.”

Sumayya grew up in Laudium, Pretoria, and Ferreira’s Town in the Joburg CBD.

“Laudium is a  very small community, I just spent Ramadan there with my family. It is  quite a beautiful thing where your body is syncing with nature.

“I went to a Muslim school from preschool to matric so I grew up with a strong sense of community and a strong sense of what it means to help people. We always had community organisation efforts  and I was a huge protester in my teenage days, kind of getting behind causes. It came from having a small, close-knit community. As isolating as it can be, it was also very positive.”  

Her desire to be an architect was grounded in her vibrant interest and curiosity in her immediate world. “I remember wanting to be an architect at several points in my life.  I never quite understood the kind of career I could have or how expansive architecture could be.

“At various points I wanted to study journalism and archaeology.  I had a deep interest in  history, especially the history of our country, but I chose architecture because I really love design. But architecture is a vocation where you bring yourself and your interests to it.”  

Her overwhelming  inspiration is deeply rooted in the city, and Johannesburg in particular.  “I am really interested in how we can bring design, form and expression for hybrid identities and how design representation and manifestation can tell stories about who we are.

“In Johannesburg that is so fraught and so exciting because all of our built fabric was kind of inherited and the life that is enmeshed on top of that, the rituals that people have in the inner city in the ways of being that they have to create to overcome segregation and to overcome being excluded from built infrastructures and opportunities.

“Without romanticising it, it is quite exciting to think about how those things can become design because all of those traditions were kind of stopped or ravaged because of colonisation and apartheid.

“The inner city is the place I find so interesting,  places like the Metro Mall and the Bree taxi rank and the ways in which infrastructures pop up in response to need, the cleverness and agility with which people construct things that can then disappear at 8am. The mobile infrastructure, even the way, when you drive around on a Saturday morning through Hillbrow and the inner city, you see these masses of people dressed in white moving around the city having a church ceremony on a traffic island next to a highway.

“I think these conditions are really interesting in that they can  give us knowledge and learning for how we can create architecture in the way they are focused on things that are agile and atmospheric. There is a sense of ritual in how those things are formed.

“I think in a way they are far ahead of any architecture we have.  We haven’t listened to those ways of being when we make architecture. Architecture is so abstract that everything, even the way we are sitting now, comes from specific ways of being.  

“I am not saying we have to undo everything but we also don’t question what those buildings and forms perpetuate or the way that these forms we have dictate things to us or affirm our sense of belonging or tell people what they deserve. If you think about SA and injustice, there were so many things that were created to affirm a sense of inferiority in so many people.”  

So how does an architect design if you want to change these traditions? “You have to learn and listen from these ways of being and then you work to design for them.  Johannesburg is so far from humane but so incredibly human, it is so incredibly inspiring.”

Sumayya’s distinctive style is both modest and cutting-edge stylish. She is wearing a pair of dramatically playful, surrealist  Schiaparelli earrings.

“I really believe in dress and fashion and lots of other forms of  decoration and expression of who we are and who we want to be in the world, and not so much seeing it as a constraint but as an affirmation of my place and position in the world.

“In a way I think architecture has the same potential for expression.  Many in the modernist architecture position believe that decoration and anything that is superfluous to the design is considered extra — and of course that excludes most of the world in the entire global south, for whom decoration is an important part of functionality.

“Forms of dress are very much a functional thing in how they connect us to higher powers and each other — those things are not really seen as extra in these cultures, they are absolutely integral to where and how one is.

“For me, any form like that is really interesting and if we think of SA, all of those forms have found ways to have such expressive design manifestation. Think of fashion, the musical and visual arts.  SA, in my opinion, is leading — just not so much in architecture.”

But you could reasonably argue that Sumayya is making some serious leadership inroads there.

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