Serpentine Pavilion 2020, designed by Counterspace.
Photo: © Counterspace

The Architects of the 2020 Serpentine Pavilion Make History

The founders of South Africa’s Counterspace are the youngest to accept the prestigious commission

Every summer for the past 20 years, London’s Serpentine Galleries has commissioned a temporary structure to be built in Kensington Gardens, next door to its main gallery space. Known as the Serpentine Pavilion, the annual project is masterminded by a prominent architect with no prior completed work in the U.K., like Jean Nouvel (2010), Frank Gehry (2008), and Zaha Hadid (2000).

In a surprise turn, emerging South African firm Counterspace—founded by architects Sumayya Vally, Sarah de Villiers, and Amina Kaskar in 2015—was picked to devise this year’s edition. The trio, all of whom were born in 1990, are the youngest architects ever and the first from South Africa to accept the prestigious commission.

Serpentine Pavilion 2020, designed by Counterspace. Photo: © Counterspace

Slated to open June 11, their structure places an emphasis on sustainability, employing materials like Portuguese cork and unfired bricks made from demolition waste. The design itself consists of the main structure in the park as well as elements scattered throughout the city at strategic locations, including Brixton, Whitechapel, and North Kensington. Ultimately, each of the “displaced” segments will be transported to their appropriate place in the pavilion, an apparent reference to how London’s vibrant immigrant communities are essential to the city as a whole.

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Punctuated by a series of irregular columns, the ovoid pavilion will host portions of the Serpentine’s summer events, including “Back to Earth,” the gallery’s new climate-change exhibition; “Park Nights,” which features site-specific performances; and “Recipes for Change,” a program connecting artists, activists, and community members through food.

Amina Kaskar, Sumayya Vally, and Sarah de Villiers of Counterspace. Photographed by Justice Mukheli in Johannesburg, 2020. Photo: © Counterspace

“The pavilion is itself conceived as an event—the coming together of a variety of forms from across London over the course of the Pavilion’s sojourn,” said Counterspace’s Sumayya Vally, the project’s lead architect, in a statement. “These forms are imprints of some of the places, spaces, and artifacts which have made care and sustenance parts of London’s identity. The breaks, gradients, and distinctions in color and texture between different parts of the pavilion make this reconstruction and piecing together legible at a glance.”

Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, noted the importance of picking Counterspace for the institution’s 50th anniversary. “The idea of working with different communities is very important for us and Counterspace’s proposal does this in a remarkable way; we were totally convinced by the social dimension of their practice. They bring an African perspective, an international perspective, but they are working with locations and communities right here in London and their Pavilion design is inspired by that work. In everything the Serpentine does we want to make those connections between artists, architects, and communities wherever they are.”

The Serpentine Pavilion will be open from June 11 to October 11 at Kensington Gardens in London. 

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