Writing Sumayya Vally Adrian Lahoud
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2021 Serpentine Galleries: Art & Ideas

Belonging in Unbelonging

#Article: Sumayya Vally & Adrian Lahoud in Conversation

Adrian Lahoud, Artistic Director of the inaugural Sharjah Architecture Triennial in 2019 and Dean of the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art in London sat down with this year’s Pavilion architect, Sumayya Vally, to explore their shared focus on hybridity as a way to expand the definitions of architecture and this year’s Pavilion design as a site of reclamation and refusal. We began the conversation with a simple prompt: How do you see the city as a site of inspiration?

Adrian Lahoud

Maybe the first place to start would be growing up with the civil war in Lebanon and experiencing the war as a first-generation child of migrants in Australia. Following it on the news, and traveling to Beirut during the civil war, those are a few of my family’s experiences of it. Encounters in a divided city where you couldn’t go from one side to the other and all of the core infrastructure had to be doubled in order to service a divided population. This was foundational for me. I think it also was formative in the sense that from that point on, I always understood the city in terms of conflict, as a political space and as a space where different kinds of communities encounter each other with all the complex negotiation, richness and difficulties that those kinds of encounters entail.

So the first part of my academic or research career began with trying to think through the impact of these events, conflicts, natural disasters, etc., on cities. How do they rebuild themselves, not just physically, but also socially and politically?

Sumayya Vally

How moving to hear it explained like that. And of course, when I think about it, it’s in your work and in your DNA.

I can reflect similarly on growing up in a context that experiences conflict in a different way – perhaps silently violent – if we consider how designed segregation plays out in our city in so many layers – from the scale of dust (pollution) to the scale of the urban fabric. I am also from a family of migrants who moved here during Apartheid which has its own complexities around shared and splintered geographies and identities. My grandfather moved to South Africa just before Partition and lived through Apartheid there. Although we have inherited Apartheid legacies, I was also born in a time of extreme shift and change – at the very time during which Apartheid crumbled. [Nelson] Mandela was released a few days before I was born, and our first democratic election was in ‘94 (when I was four years old). So, on the one hand, there was still this extreme segregation in Joburg, and so many of our old systems that were still negotiating and navigating the start of change – like schooling systems, where people live, and what it means to cater to many different publics – but my experience of the city as a child was very much about having access to things I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to – and, despite so many of the challenges our country was facing, we still had so much optimism – we were the Rainbow Nation.

Also, more invisible (or less overt) were the kinds of conflicts that have always been a part of my experience of the city. An awareness of the power of architecture to divide and exclude is intrinsic to my practice. Our city was designed to privilege white people during Apartheid, and this has now translated to privileging upper-economic classes to the extreme as we struggle to cater to the 90%. Understanding land as archive, city fabric as archive, and city rituals as archive – experiencing people who the city was designed to exclude who were able to construct belonging – and construct new and alternative archives in the city despite being so excluded from formal infrastructure has really been at the core of my practice.

Adrian Lahoud

There’s a phrase that I always use to try to talk about these kinds of positions and it’s “belonging in unbelonging” which is somehow a way of talking about your status as a consequence of that diasporic condition, of either the migration of parents or grandparents and what it means to sit in that outsider position. To both be in and outside, and the kinds of challenges that come with it. But also, the special freedoms that affords you or perhaps even the kinds of skills that you start to build, the skills that allow you to move between different contexts more easily and more fluently because, in fact, you’re trained to move between different kinds of contexts from the very beginning.

So my experience growing up in Australia was always, a sense of not belonging in Australia, of the answer to where you’re from, always being somewhere else regardless of whether it was asked in Lebanese or in Australian (English). As I’ve gotten older, I’m also realising that it comes with a certain level of benefit even though maybe when you’re younger, those kinds of things are more challenging.

Sumayya Vally

I never experienced this particular challenge. I did to a degree I have deep frustrations around much of the form and subject matter of my work not being received or understood in the canon and the professional landscape in the beginnings of my career. But my own personal position in relation to my ancestral and present geographies and the complexities of what it means to be diasporic, African, Muslim, South-African-Indian have hybridised in me. And I’ve always considered my work as optimistically working to celebrate plural positions of hybridity and in imagining differently from them. Being inside and outside, and being subversive and promiscuous with our modes of practice and the media we work in is perhaps also a reflection of the ways in which all of our references merge and interface inside of us and around us.

On the theme of being an insider and an outsider, I am reminded of a conversation with David [Adjaye] and Hans Ulrich [Obrist] last year – they were reflecting on my work and asked if I would position my practice as frenetic – doing 13 different things at once; and practicing in so many different forms of media from sound to film to drawing practice and installation work. Perhaps it is frenetic, but it also comes from a desire to find resonances with many different contexts and conditions. It comes from the condition of being hybrid, this condition of being inside and outside, which is a deep strength because it does allow us to resonate with many different contexts and to connect deeply with so much.

Adrian Lahoud

Yeah, exactly. Can I ask you about where architecture sits in relation to that, what David described as that kind of breadth of practice? Where does architecture sit in relation to these different kinds of interests?

Sumayya Vally

I definitely see all of those interests as architecture, and I also think it’s important to be able to claim them as architecture because if we think of lots of different ways of being African, Southern, or otherwise. There are so many ways of space-making that are not tied to just the physical alone. So my interest in all of these other media is searching for tools that can somehow translate and absorb those conditions and push our ways of space making forward. I really enjoy practising in other media – for me, all of it is an act of drawing and an act of architecture, and all of it is really towards and in the service of architecture. The question of my practice is always the same at its core – towards finding form and expression for hybrid identities and territories – and the responses are always really different takes (different media, different pace) on the same asks.

I see teaching studio as architectural practice. I see research practice as architectural practice, and I can genuinely say that research praxis does translate when I am able to make something physical and I wouldn’t have there arrived in the same way were it not for the space and pace of having research in parallel, next-to and inside of the pure practice of making. For example, in thinking about the Pavilion – it has become for me, a thesis about the city. That is actively being formed by the city’s histories and presences and in part, its choreography and life in neighbourhoods across the city is also a form of active and continued research prompts and practice is something that’s translated down from my methods of research practice. The opportunity to physically build is just an encapsulation of something that comes from a much deeper and slower set of questions that are constantly brewing and forming.

Adrian Lahoud

That resonates a lot for me, the institution-building of the School of Architecture of the Royal College of Art, which I think has been a kind of collective architectural project as well in terms of the way that we’ve thought about the feelings and effects that we want that particular institution to produce and to be able to reproduce. But also, the way we think about it existing in time and evolving in different kinds of ways is definitely under continuation of an architectural practice and only would have been possible coming out of architecture education. But I also really appreciate what you’ve said around it all being architecture because one of the things that kind of distinction between what is architecture, what is landscape, what is art practice, fine art, painting, etc. In fact, we know how much all of those lines drawn between those disciplines need to be decolonised so that we start to see what we thought was not architecture but was just merely landscape or decoration or whatever, was actually architecture.

I think what we’re both trying to do around expanding that idea of architecture is actually integral to that project of decolonisation, to let in all of these other kinds of experiences and practices which fulfil the criteria of being architecture: people use them to organize themselves socially, they use them to archive their own histories, to tell stories about themselves, etc., [these] are kinds of architectural practices. That’s a really important and profound move that I can also say, exists not just in your work or even in the work that we tried to do in the Sharjah [Triennial], but as a kind of sensibility that is emerging in many places around the world. I think this is a consequence of a more serious and different engagement with non-western forms of life.

Sumayya Vally

I think that these lines that are drawn are, as you said, a complete construction that in many other ways of being doesn’t exist. If we trace back humanity’s collective to the very beginning, they were so much more tied to forms of honouring, to ritual practices, to forms of decoration. There was no binary really between art, science, mythology, tangible and intangible (like aurality, orality, the atmospheric) forms of space-making. In claiming all of these other ways of practice as architecture, I think it’s also thinking about architecture in those ways.

Adrian Lahoud

I’m really curious to hear more about this term that you use, ritual, because obviously, it’s so important in the Pavilion and a lot of the research work that I understand you did in the lead-up to it looked at ritual and space, the relationship between those two things, and especially in equalised and marginalised communities, black and brown communities here in London. What is the relationship between ritual and space for you in relation to the pavilion?

Sumayya Vally

I think that it’s, definitely for me, an important part of space making. I often find inspiration in my own city context where there are so many rituals – economic, spiritual, and otherwise – existing alongside and in-between the city’s physical fabric – that are integral to how spaces are made and experienced.

So much of architecture is not really looking at these ritual practices or ways of being and incorporating them into the profession or thinking about how they can push the discipline forward imaginatively. These conditions are either treated as a form that architects don’t engage or listen deeply to; or they are ignored entirely because we don’t have the tools to be able to read these conditions so we become blind to them. Architecture is so much about how we identify. Architecture is an extension of who we are and how we recognise ourselves and how we assert our forms of belonging.

Understanding that and thinking about how it could be imagined otherwise through these ‘other’ forces around us (for example rituals, or how concepts are defined and viewed in other languages) is something that I’m continuously aware of. Architecture is an important arena and form for connecting with people. Ritual is an important form of creating community. It’s somehow a connection to something deeper or greater. I always have a sense through my own rituals that I’m connected to my family or my mother or my ancestors. So in the many ways, there is overlap, that architecture is an important agent of constructing and asserting belonging – as are so many of our forms of cultural expression – and ritual is also that.

Adrian Lahoud

When we worked on the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, we opened with certain kinds of rituals, for example, we had a procession of sailors who worked on dhows, bringing a flag from a shrine in India and installing it in as work that kind of opened the exhibition, or the Cape Malay choir leading us on a procession through the streets of Sharjah.

The relationship between those rituals and architecture was so immediate, and natural in that context that in fact, it would have been kind of violent to try to pull them apart or to try to remove the spiritual undertone of the work. I think that’s something really important. If we think about ritual and habit, habit is meant to be all the unconscious stuff that you do every day, whilst ritual is in a sense, bringing your consciousness or your attention to what you’re doing to break that unconsciousness or break that mindlessness of repetition to make you more aware of your actions, movements and their sequence.

It’s extremely political. If architecture is viewed as a kind of art of the everyday, perhaps one of the differences between architecture and fine art is the attention you pay to it. Unless you’re an architect, you might stare at a building in the way that you watch a film. So architecture is about both its beauty and its power. It’s that subtle solicitation in everyday life. Ritual and architecture are important because ritual is the coming into attention and consciousness of your embodied relationship to both space and the world, and that makes it an incredibly powerful thing to think through.

Sumayya Vally

Thinking about the idea of generations and your project, The Rights of Future Generations. Someone asked me recently if the audience for my work has shifted because there’s a lot more visibility now through the Pavilion. And I thought about it. I’ve never really had an audience for the kind of work that I’m doing, in the way the work is understood and received, but I have always been working with an imagination of an audience – of our ancestors and our futures that my work is working to honour and represent and imagine from and for. And that has not shifted in the slightest. I still work with that audience in mind. Working towards a project and developing it for “the rights of the future generations is thinking about the deepest social projects embedded in all of our works and how our work responds to that.

Adrian Lahoud

One of the things that I think is really incredible about the Pavilion is that it evades a kind of categorisation that an easy criticism would like to make of it. It’s a slippery Pavilion, there’s a kind of refusal to sit within not only a series of formal or compositional things that are familiar but even to sit within a set of cultural references that are familiar and material. Could you say a bit about that because I think that’s also why it has provoked such an incredibly positive response because it’s unexpected and I think that’s a massive…that’s a huge strength.

Sumayya Vally

Thank you.

Adrian Lahoud

It’s really hard to do something unexpected.

Sumayya Vally

I always expect to find difficult responses to my work, because for so long, the intents and core of my practice have not quite felt understood. I have had to learn how to read and receive responses. I am honoured by so much of the response to the Pavilion because so many people have engaged with the complexities that I myself am grappling with. Many people have told me that they didn’t quite understand the space from the images, and I’ve seen many social media responses about how surprising the real experience is compared to the experience of the image; and how different the exterior is versus the experience of the insides. I hope that the experience carried in the Pavilion does transcend the imagery of it, because I had hoped for it to carry the spirit of learning from the generosity of architectural gestures in all of these gathering places across London – formal, informal, ritual, physical, tangible, intangible, etc.

I’ve tried to express the generosity that I’ve learned from those forms somehow. I think it’s important to express the complexity because what you’re saying about it being slippery is very true, and I hope that it does evade lots of known or stereotypical definitions and connotations around what we think is Western and non-Western or Southern and Northern, African, colonial and other, etc. It was really important for me from the beginning that it is a Pavilion that is troubling and it is working to be plural without falling into postmodernism.

Adrian Lahoud

It’s definitely not a Greek temple. The gesture of generosity of the whole project is the interior and the way the fragments compose and afford different kinds of spatial relationships and settings for interaction between people. It is by far the richest pavilion in coordinating those kinds of spaces that I’ve experienced in the history of the Serpentine. I also think what struck me about it is that it also does not try to produce an image of the pavilion from the exterior, and almost every pavilion circulates as an image of the exterior. This pavilion circulates as a series of images of the interior because it’s much more…it’s almost like a pandemic project. It’s quite close to your body in all kinds of ways that are very intimate and it is about being inside whereas a lot of the previous pavilion’s ground, standing outside kind and looking in and this Instagrammable event. I think this pavilion completely refuses that kind of perspective.

Sumayya Vally

Thank you for saying that. It’s such an honour to hear you say that as someone whose work has really been canonical to my own practice and education. But that’s also difficult to grapple with. At the moment, architecture is so experienced in the flat image and people who don’t get to visit this pavilion will never really know what it feels like. I do think it feels totally different from the images and the photographs. And it’s also very difficult to cohere it in the sets of images like when you see them, you can’t quite work out how it feels as an experience.

Adrian Lahoud

Let me then ask a more difficult question around the idea of the pavilion and the idea of ritual. I have to say, I was really almost convinced that the Serpentine Pavilion as a project had kind of reached an endpoint primarily because of all of the ecological questions that are circulating around temporary projects and it’s really fascinating to hear you talk about wanting to build in the disassembly[fragmenting] of the pavilion in the original proposal. One of the crucial functions of the pavilion is a kind of social, party, fundraising thing and it’s for serving like champagne and canapes under. So how to make that project in that location resonant given all the social changes and all of the kind of the civic ecological consciousness that is sweeping around the world, I think, was an extremely difficult task. I really think you’ve somehow managed to breathe life into a very, very challenging project.

Sumayya Vally

Thank you. I must say it was something that I was particularly aware of. For me, it was as much about moving the pavilion into the public realm and moving the fragments into the city but also thinking about how we bring in the periphery more to the centre. For example, Matthew Phillip from the Tabernacle, walked into the pavilion and told me that he wanted to have the Notting Hill Carnival press preview at the pavilion [cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions]. For me, that is a success. For someone from that space, which is totally other to the Serpentine to some degree, for them to feel welcome and like the space is about them or about honoring different voices and for them to feel like they want to have their project in the space is a success.

Adrian Lahoud

So would you say this pavilion is a kind of an attempt to reclaim that space?

Sumayya Vally

I think so. I think it’s perhaps the reclamation and also bringing together and situating different dialogues onto the same platform.

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Notes