Arts and Culture

This architect is using urban design to bring communities together

Counterspace Studio of Johannesburg, led by Sumayya Vally (b.1990 South Africa). Materials include reclaimed steel, cork and timber covered in micro-cement. By the Serpentine Gallery, City of Westminster, London.

Architect Sumayya Vally is bringing communities together with her work. Image: Flickr/Images George Rex I think

Andrea Willige
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Urban design can both create and heal division, says South African-born Muslim architect Sumayya Vally.
  • Having experienced architecture as an instrument of apartheid, she told the World Economic Forum that her focus is now on using it as a force to bring communities together.
  • Her approach to embedding nature in urban architecture aligns with a new report from the Forum on nature-positive city design.

Can urban design both create and heal division? The South African-born Muslim architect Sumayya Vally recently spoke to the World Economic Forum about growing up in an Apartheid township in Johannesburg, where she experienced the use of urban architecture as a divisive tool. The experience shaped her ambition to enable people to connect and express themselves through architecture. How can urban design build bridges between cultures?

An example of this is a pedestrian bridge that Vally’s architectural practice was commissioned to design in the city of Velvoorde in Belgium. It was to be designed to connect two parts of the city, one area an industrial zone. In researching the history of Velvoorde, she came across its migration history and the diversity resulting from the influx of labour from the Dutch colonies, she explained.

“I came across this figure. Paul Panda Farnana, the first person from the Congo to study in Belgium. It turns out that he studied horticulture. He was a genius. His research contributed to what the landscape of Belgium looks like. He went on to work for the government and he planted all over the country.”

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Following the war and the extreme discrimination he experienced in the Belgian army, Farnana became a vocal advocate for black equality.

“He spoke out very publicly, very often, and he was very sadly assassinated at the end of his life because of his political position. There is nothing about Farnana in public discourse in Belgium. He is very little known. So it became my mission to honour him.”

“I grew up in an environment where architecture is part of how people were kept segregated from each other,” she said.

“I think if we can understand the power of architecture to force us apart, then we also have to be able to understand it as a force for the opposite, as a force to bring us together, as a force to express our cultures and our identities and who we are. And I really want my practice to be about that.”

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How is the World Economic Forum supporting the development of cities and communities globally?

How do you incorporate different cultural perspectives into a design?

As Vally explains, the design for the bridge took the shape of a series of Congolese boats.

“When boats are stacked up next to each other in many water landscapes in Africa, they become places for people to trade and gather,” she points out. “And each of these boats are planted with species that come from Farnana’s horticultural research.”

The idea is that they will flourish in what was previously an industrial zone.

“In addition to the main bridge structure, we've also proposed several smaller structures that will float along the riverbed, each of them again planted with species from Farnana’s research.”

Vally’s approach highlights the importance of nature in architecture, as highlighted in a new report from the World Economic Forum on nature-positive city design. Nature Positive: Guidelines for the Transition in Cities explores the need to rethink the interdependence between the urban economy and nature.

This year's architects: Counterspace Studio of Johannesburg, led by Sumayya Vally (b.1990 South Africa). Materials include reclaimed steel, cork and timber covered in micro-cement. By the Serpentine Gallery, City of Westminster, London.
Sumayya Vally took inspiration from past and present places of meeting. Image: Flickr/George Rex

How can we make architecture diverse and sustainable?

Vally, whose work also includes the 2021 Serpentine Gallery pavilion, considers perspectives of difference in her design thinking.

“The challenges our world is facing are trapped in a very particular paradigm. The problems we have come from, the systems that we've inherited.

Overcoming this, she proposes, requires “unpacking the world” from different perspectives, such as how we perceive our environment.

“There is not even a word for environment in so many languages because what's around us is not conceived of as outside,” she told the Forum. “There are so many other perspectives that think about the world completely differently.”

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What can Islamic architecture teach us?

Asked about the influence of Islamic architectural tradition on her work, Vally said: “There is so much richness and diversity and, for example, philosophies that come from the Islamic world.”

Talking about her work as artistic director of the First Islamic Arts Biennale in 2023, Vally said: “In the project that I worked on, we explored what these philosophies can contribute to contemporary challenges that we're facing, and how they can contribute to our creative and museum worlds, but also how they think about our planet sustainably and how we respond to people gathering after loss and after migration.”

She notes that impermanence can play a positive role in efficiency: “We had an artist reflecting on some of the earliest mosque structures which look nothing like mosques that we have today. The first mosque structure that we know of disintegrated entirely into the ground. It was made of palm fronds.”

Valley added, “And that's another lesson that we learned. People didn't necessarily build things to last forever.”

Collaboration is vital to urban design

As a member of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders forum, Vally stressed the importance of collaboration with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. The opportunities these situations bring have inspired her and unveiled new possibilities for using urban design to bring communities together, whether in Malmö, Sweden, or in Saudi Arabia.

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Arts and CultureUrban Transformation
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