Our founder Marisa sat down with the incredible Sumayya Vally – to talk about what London means to her, the power of design, and having the confidence to break the mould.
On International Women's Day 2023 we launched our year-long interview series with women who inspire our founder & CEO. Marisa Hordern is our very own inspiring link, from age eight seeking gemstones on Portobello Market to building Missoma as it is today.
If we could deem anyone a powerhouse, we would choose Sumayya over and over again. Endlessly impressive, not only is she the Principle at architecture practice, Counterspace, and Professor of Practice at University College of London, but now also the Artistic Director of the first-ever Islamic Arts Biennale. Throughout her long list of accomplishments, Sumayya's mission is always to bring people together – primarily through a sense of community and belonging.
As a child, Sumayya grew up in Johannesburg, spending a lot of the time in the inner city – mostly in her grandfather's stores, which sold textiles, and traditional fabrics and blankets. "I was born in 1990, a few days after Mandela was released from prison. I was four years old when South Africa became a democracy. It was a really jubilant time; it was a time when everything felt possible." In the same moment, however, the legacy of apartheid was still tearing cities apart.
When she began studying architecture, Sumayya started to see how buildings and structures played a part in this. "Architecture has the power to bring people together – it's done that since the beginning of time. But, it's also unfortunately been employed to keep people apart. South Africa is an extreme example, but I think we see this in cities all over the world."
We need, now more than ever, architectures that are reflective of who we are and where we come from.
- SUMAYYA VALLY
Despite its complex history, Johannesburg has continued to inspire Sumayya throughout her career – she's called it her 'dream collaborator' – as well as a new city: London. In 2020, she became the youngest architect ever to be selected to design the UK's capital's prestigious Serpentine Pavilion (part of the Serpentine Gallery, nestled in Hyde Park) for its 20th anniversary. "When I thought about the Pavilion, I had to think, what does someone like me from my context have to say on this platform? I started to think about translating London to London."
Sumayya looked to the important places people found for the construction of 'home' and 'belonging' when they first moved to London – some she had sought herself. Mosques, churches, synagogues, but also marketplaces where people could find traditional ingredients from their cultures, venues playing Black music, and other gathering spaces. These were the places she wanted to honour.
"As much as my concept was about folding London into the Pavilion, I also really wanted to fold out the Pavilion into London." Sumayya and her team worked with Thank U – a non-for-profit charitable organisation based in London, with the mission to relieve poverty in children, through reading, in developing countries. Together they placed fragments of the Pavilion in some of the community arts institutions that inspired it – from a podium at the Albany in Deptford (the first socialist theatre in the UK), to a little stage set in Notting Hill in the Tabernacle.
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The projects for Sumayya seemingly never stop coming. Looking at her role as the Artistic Director of the first-ever Islamic Arts Biennale ever, and her other projects, she says: "I feel excited that this work is in the world, and that these themes are given life. But, I also feel that there's so much more work to do."
She's not wrong. When we ask her if there's anything she's excited for when it comes to the future, of course her answer is another world-changing architecture project: "We're working on the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Library in Liberia." The ultimate Inspiring Link, Sirleaf was the first female president of Liberia, and is credited with rebuilding the country and bringing peace after the war. It will be "a centre that's about Sirleaf's life and legacy, and also about building female leadership on the continent." From London to Liberia, the brainstorming never stops.
Lead the way. We can do it differently now.
- SUMAYYA VALLY
If Sumayya could give advice to any women starting out in the architecture industry – or, in fact, in any industry – what would it be? "First, I would say: Listen to your inner voice. We need, now more than ever, architectures that are reflective of who we are and where we come from – that connect with and are relevant and resonant with our lives."
We could listen to her pearls of wisdom forever: "Don't be afraid to break the mould," she says, closing out our conversation. "Lead the way. We can do it differently now."
Each woman we've interviewed for our ‘Inspiring Links’ series has picked out the jewellery that makes them feel empowered. Find Sumayya's picks alongside other powerhouses like Elli Jafari and Chloe Réuter.