At home with Sumayya Vally

South African architect Sumayya Vally of Counterspace talks to us about Johannesburg, Geoffrey Bawa, and how if she weren't an architect, she'd be a storyteller

Portrait of architect Sumayya Vally in Johannesburg
Bree Street Taxi Rank, Central Business District: Vally studied the area, an economic hub for the Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora, as part of her research on trade in Johannesburg. Photograph taken by artist Mikhael Subotzky for the architect’s profile appearing in W* 265
(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

South African architect Sumayya Vally was propelled to global prominence for designing the 2020 Serpentine Pavilion in London, UK. Due to the pandemic, the structure was not inaugurated till the summer of 2021, but this did not slow down the dynamic studio founder and director of architecture practice Counterspace.

Vally’s knack for blending research and practice, and infusing her work with her passion for her home country (she grew up in a township in Pretoria called Laudium), community and fine art, has guided several of her projects. However, her work expands far beyond the African country's borders.

Working between Johannesburg and London, she is intent on uncovering layers of architecture that have been neglected by the field. ‘My work is focused on how architecture can be social and public and inclusive and diverse, but it’s from the perspective of a deep social project. There is this layer about history, future and archive that is left out [of mainstream architecture] at the moment,’ the architect told us when interviewed for our article ahead of the Serpentine Pavilion opening in Wallpaper's May 2021 edition (and Vally's first-ever profile). Since then, she's been hard at work designing and curating. She has been appointed to direct the first Islamic Arts Biennale in Saudi Arabia (launching in 2023), while her recent work includes a pavilion for the 2022 Notting Hill Carnival in London that opens today (28 August 2022).

At home with Sumayya Vally 

Architect Sumayya Vally wearing colourful long dress and shot outside Johannesburg

Sumayya Vally photographed in Johannesburg in 2021 by artist Mikhael Subotzky

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

W*: Where are you at the moment? What can you see?

SV: Number 11, 33rd Lane, Colombo, Sri Lanka – in what was the architect Geoffrey Bawa’s home. To my right is a set of rubbings that Bawa made of the Seema Malaka temple. To my left is a courtyard with a central tree and the sound of crows. Ahead of me is a beautifully blurred weather line – a moment of the outdoors open to the skies inside the house without any glass – that Bawa magically constructed throughout his home.

W*: What’s the last thing you bought? 

SV: A silk pink Valentino bomber jacket, a vintage painted wooden bangle, and Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace print. 

W*: What’s the last phone call you made? 

SV: I just spoke with [Serpentine Gallery CEO] Bettina Korek. 

Pink serpentine pavilion in Hyde Park designed by Sumayya Vally of Counterspace

Using Portuguese cork and bricks made of construction waste, Counterspace’s Serpentine Pavilion features textures, shapes and gradients. It opened in June 2021.

(Image credit: Iwan Baan)

W*: The last object you lost? Will you replace it?  

SV: I perpetually lose, replace, and find my AirPods and my heart-shaped sunglasses.

W*: Where and when do you find you are most productive?

SV: After Fajr (dawn) prayers, on long-haul flights, and in quiet moments in new cities (when the rest of the world feels at bay).

W*: Favourite place, anywhere in the world? And why? 

SV: At home, which is now in many places – Laudium, Johannesburg, London, on the radio – wherever my parents and grandmother may be, where I can taste and smell ‘home’ in recipes and where I can hear it in the soundscapes surrounding me. 

Ponte City tower Johannesburg, photographed by Sumayya Vally

Sumayya Vally captured Ponte City tower in Johannesburg during a research visit linked to her project, AfterImages: Ponte Archive

(Image credit: Sumayya Vally)

W*: Ten years from now you’ll be…

SV: 42

W*: What are you reading, and what do you think of it? 

SV: Santu Mofokeng's Stories 1: Train Church. To quote Mofokeng: ‘These pictures capture two of the most significant features of South African life, the experience of commuting (migrancy) and the pervasiveness of spirituality.' Reincarnating Marechera: Notes on a Speculative Archive by Tinashe Mushakavanhu, as honouring the dead is about correcting the record – this is a truly fascinating account of one of Zimbabwe’s most complex literary figures. I Write What I Like by Steve Biko; I have revisited this book often over the years. And The Archipelago Conversations by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Édouard Glissant. 

W*: Currently watching?

SV: William Kentridge’s Norton Lecture series. 

Number 11, 33rd Lane, Colombo, Sri Lanka, former home of Geoffrey Bawa, interior with arches

Number 11, 33rd Lane, Colombo, Sri Lanka, a photograph taken by Sumayya Vally during her time at Bawa's home to deliver the 18th Annual Geoffrey Bawa Memorial Lecture 

(Image credit: Sumayya Vally)

W*: What’s inspiring you right now?

SV: At this very moment, the thunderstorm at present in Colombo – in the weather and in the political revolution.

W*: How do you switch off? Do you switch off?

SV: Rest and silence are very important work.

W*: Favourite material to work with and why?

SV: Earth. Done sensitively, to build with the earth of a place is to hold and embody its history and to honour its present and future.

Tree inside Number 11, 33rd Lane, Colombo, Sri Lanka, former home of Geoffrey Bawa, photographed by Sumayya Vally

Tree inside Number 11, 33rd Lane, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

(Image credit: Sumayya Vally)

W*: What one piece of advice would you give for the next generation?

W*: What one piece of advice would you give for the next generation?

W*: What’s been your biggest failure and what did it teach you?

SV: I trust exceptionally easily, and I believe the best in things, even when they are not there. 

Planting inside Number 11, 33rd Lane, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photography: Sumayya Vally

Planting inside Number 11, 33rd Lane, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

(Image credit: Sumayya Vally)

W*: Who is your dream collaborator?

SV: It is and always will be, Johannesburg.

W*: If you weren’t an architect, what would you have been?

SV: An archaeologist, a storyteller.

Meet more leading architects, designers, artists and other creatives in their field in our At Home With interview series


Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture & Environment Director at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018), Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020) and House London (2022).