It made them not only the first South Africans selected to design the pavilion — which has in the past been designed by superstar architects such as Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster and Francis Kéré — but also the youngest people in the project’s 20-year history to be given the chance to design one of the experimental temporary structures.
Their pavilion was to have been unveiled outside the Serpentine Galleries in London’s Kensington Gardens in a few weeks’ time — a curvilinear space “conceived as an event”, according to the architects, that took its inspiration from places where people, particularly migrant communities, gather across London.
It would have been built from cutting-edge, environmentally friendly materials, such as cork and K-Briqs — a new type of brick manufactured almost completely from recycled construction and demolition waste — and would reference new modes of architectural thinking.
But as the reality of the Covid-19 coronavirus set in around the world, the future of the Serpentine Pavilion became unclear. The UK has been one of the worst affected by the pandemic globally, with health authorities recording about 37 000 deaths this week.
And many of the UK’s lockdown restrictions continue, placing stringent bans on public gatherings of more than two people. So what now for Counterspace’s pavilion that focuses on public gatherings? Could it be reimagined? Postponed? And what would architects like Counterspace now create in a society faced with an unsure and unprecedented future?
The answer will soon became clear when Counterspace presents the first part of its new “offsite and online” pavilion concept that will “pop up” throughout the year.
The project’s lead architect, Sumayya Vally, describes this new idea as “Pavilion 20 plus 1”. It will now be extended into next year, with a public opening of the physical space – and the launch of their star-studded Summer Party – scheduled for this time next year.
“We’ve always relied on places of gathering to come together and we miss them when they’re gone,” Vally says. “Covid-19 has brought the pavilion’s themes of community and gathering sharply into focus – allowing us the opportunity to extend and deepen our engagement process over two years.
“We are excited to launch a set of initiatives that will redefine and celebrate the role of gathering, and the construction and preservation of belonging in times of crisis – reversing the original procession, so that a cascade of dialogues, events, programmes and fragments of the pavilion will pop up incrementally in real and digital space this year and come together next year in Kensington Gardens to form Pavilion 20 plus 1.”
The Serpentine Galleries’ trustee and new pavilion supervisor, Sir David Adjaye OBE — who recently designed the extraordinary Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture — says it’s an opportunity for the Serpentine, Counterspace and the rest of the world to “accept the slowness reshaping society today”.
“The global Covid-19 crisis has changed the immediate context. Rather than rush to execute Counterspace’s stellar design as soon as it is safe to do so, the Serpentine has chosen to accept the slowness reshaping society today and use it to develop a deeper relationship with the architects.
“We look forward to working with Counterspace in the next 12 months to draw more meaningful connections between their pavilion and the people, the communities and the nature of London,” Adjaye said.
“While the circumstances that have prompted this evolution are by no means easy, we believe it is an important opportunity for this pavilion to stand as a bridge of sorts between either sides of this unfathomably significant time in history.”
So, while the world waits to see how imaginaries like Counterspace think about our new future, the firm continues to experiment with the local environment and their existing projects under development.
Much of Counterspace’s work as a practice moves beyond “brick-and-mortar architecture” into process-driven design that emerges from research and interdisciplinary arts-based projects.
This innovative approach creates projects that don’t just challenge what society has come to expect of architectural thinking, but ask how we can each engage with ideas as a community, expanding the layers of teamwork and the way architecture in Africa, in particular, can come to define this new school.
The three founders – Vally, Sarah de Villiers and Amina Kaskar – describe the practice as “influenced with ideas towards inclusivity, otherness and future”.
Counterspace’s projects are inspired by its location in Johannesburg – the studio is in the 44 Stanley complex – and the architects are consistently developing unique approaches to design for Johannesburg through their urban research, publications, films, installations and architecture.
Recently the team launched a “Children’s Court” at Constitution Hill in Braamfontein. The project features court-inspired, children-size outdoor furniture-cum-moveable architecture, that attempts to prepare and familiarise children with the workings of the law, rights, equality and court processes.
The team’s multidisciplinary approach resulted in their being commissioned to create artworks for the important Spier Art Collection. The trio presented a set of otherworldly, mirror-based sculptures that create, they say, a “drop of sky” in the landscape. It’s this approach to a new language in architecture that has seen the Serpentine’s artistic director and ubercurator, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, describe the firm’s work and its proposal as “remarkable”.
“The idea of working with different communities is very important for us and Counterspace’s proposal does this in a remarkable way,” said Obrist.
“We were totally convinced by the social dimension of their practice.”
The icon of South African architecture, Kate Otten, whose namesake firm is also an all-female institution, is hopeful about what the future of architecture could look like in the hands of such brave new voices.
“What I think is so amazing about them is that their world is architecture and through their work you understand that architecture is not linear. Through them I appreciated that architecture is not just built form. The way they see the world is about an opportunity and a future. It’s not about making an object, it’s a process. It’s political, very sharp and, if anyone can imagine a world after all this, I think it’s them,” says Otten.
Although no date for the first instalment of Counterspace’s Pavilion 20 plus 1 has been announced yet, you can follow the updates at serpentinegalleries.org, or on Counterspace’s website, counterspace-studio.com
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