The Serpentine’s 20th Pavilion is designed by Johannesburg-based practice Counterspace, whose director Sumayya Vally is the youngest ever architect to undertake the prestigious commission. Like three-dimensional collage, Counterspace’s design involves splicing together architectural features from culturally significant structures and building types across the capital, particularly those important to multi-cultural communities. These include the Fazl Mosque and East London Mosque, some of the first mosques to be built in the UK capital, and Notting Hill’s Mangrove Restaurant, a hub of London’s Caribbean community recently featured in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film series.
As part of her research for the pavilion design, Vally spent four months in London investigating these and other spaces that have been important to the city’s past and present migrant networks. The architect states: “by engaging with stories of migration – the dis-placement and re-placement of people – the design symbolically folds London onto the Serpentine lawn to bring together a multitude of histories, referencing diasporas and geographies within and beyond the city.” This latest reimagining of the Serpentine’s Kensington Gardens space was unveiled on 11 June alongside a series of connected structures.
Sections of the Pavilion design have been reimagined across the city: a set of “Pavilion Fragments” placed in locations which inspired its creators. Sites include Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, one of the first Black publishers and booksellers in the UK. Here, the architectural intervention functions as an additional display space, a seat for reading or a stage for performance. Another fragment, at The Albany in Deptford, extends the art centre’s seating into the garden. At the Valence Library in Barking and Dagenham, Counterspace’s design can be subdivided into recording spaces for a broadcasting station.
Further extending the scope of the commission, a new funding programme, Support Structures for Support Structures, will offer grants of at least £10,000 to up to ten artists and collectives across London. This new funding scheme, developed in collaboration with Sumayya Vally, has a socially engaged remit connected to “spatial politics and community practice.” It responds to what Counterspace’s director sees as a lack of secure funding routes for artists and collectives who uplift and build communities. She notes that the fellowship will “nurture the practice of individuals and collectives that hold space for communities to gather across London.” Elsewhere, a sound art exhibition, Listening to the City, rounds off the project series, featuring installations from artists Ain Bailey and Jay Bernard. Made with community participants and archival recordings from South London, it “connects visitors to the stories and sounds of lost spaces.”
Counterspace’s commission, bringing the city into the pavilion and the pavilion into the city, is the latest example of architecture extending into the realm of community activism. It makes a formally inventive and socially resonant contribution to the Serpentine Pavilion series, whose temporary structures have been created since the year 2000 by renowned architects with no completed projects in England.
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Words: Greg Thomas
Image Credits: Serpentine Pavilion 2021 designed by Counterspace, © Counterspace Photo: Iwan Baan