Leading architect Sumayya Vally, Principal of the Johannesburg/London-based studio Counterspace, has won the competition to design this new bridge in Vilvoorde, Belgium. The Asiat-Darse bridge is a project initiated by the city of Vilvoorde and Horst Arts and Music. It is financed by Kunst in Opdracht at the Flemish Ministry for Culture, and ANB, the Flemish Agency for Nature and Forest who partnered with DVW, the Agency for Flemish Waterways. Curator Heidi Ballet is artistic advisor for the project.
Counterspace’s response to the brief uncovered the story and legacy of Paul Panda Farnana, one of the most important, yet least acknowledged figures of the city, who epitomises the region’s complex relationships with past and future generations of migrant bodies and communities.
Sumayya Vally said: “Vilvoorde is a city celebrated for its diversity. It comprises multiple cultures, identities, and narratives. I was deeply moved to uncover the story of Paul Panda Farnana through our research, which then drove our response to the city’s brief for a pedestrian bridge. Trained as a horticulturist at the Vilvoorde Horticultural School not far from the site, this project will revive Farnana’s legacy by foregrounding the concept of the species explored in his research, alongside water architectures from the Congo.”
Vally took inspiration from water architecture of the Congo as one of the starting points to honour this history. Along the Congo River, fleets of dugout canoes are frequently seen docked alongside one another. As a collective, they form a communal platform, from which trading and gathering can take place. These images form the basis for the proposed Asiat-Darse bridge, itself a place of gathering of travellers, whether commuters or visitors. The bridge is constructed of a series of boats tied together to cross the canal.
“Trained as a horticulturist at the Vilvoorde Horticultural School not far from the Asiat site, this project will revive Farnana’s legacy by foregrounding the concept of the species explored in his research, alongside water architecture from the Congo.”
— Sumayya Vally
Vally looked at plants and species to honour Farnana’s horticultural work. Each ‘boat’ form serves as an isolated seed bed, in which specific plants can be cultivated in order for their seeds to be spread on the wind, and carried on the bodies of people travelling across the bridge. As a result, the bridge pays homage to Farnana’s horticultural work, serving as a nursery, or seeding bed from which plants may distribute themselves, migrating across the site.
In addition to the main structure, several smaller boat structures are proposed, which embed themselves along the river bank. Each of them will be named after the labourers whose names were included on the register from the Congo, which the studio discovered in their research. Every boat will act as a pollinator - pollinating an industrial zone and acting as a little garden for reflection for passers-by to rest in.
“A bridge is a connector - in our project, it is a connector to past and future narratives of migration too. It is my hope that this project helps to embody and raise awareness on the story of Farnana, and that it reminds us as architects that we have to listen deeply to the grounds of the contexts we work in. There is always architecture waiting to happen in places that are overlooked.”
— Sumayya Vally
ABOUT SUMAYYA VALLY
Sumayya Vally is Principal of Counterspace—an award-winning design, research and pedagogical practice searching for expression for hybrid identities and territory, particularly for African and Islamic conditions—both rooted and diasporic. Her design process is often forensic, and draws on the aural, performance and the overlooked as generative places of history and work.
In 2022, Vally was selected by the World Economic Forum to be one of its Young Global Leaders, a community of the world’s most promising artists, researchers, entrepreneurs, activists, and political leaders, and, as a TIME100 Next list honoree, has been identified as someone who will shape the future of architectural practice and canon. She has joined the World Monuments Fund Board of Directors, and serves on several boards through her interest in dynamic forms of archive, embodied heritage, and supporting new networks of knowledge in the arts. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada inducted Sumayya into its 2023 Honorary Fellowship, which recognises individuals that exemplify the tremendous impact that architects have—not only on the built environment, but also on public life and the world around them.
In 2019, Counterspace was invited to design the 20th Serpentine Pavilion in London, making Vally the youngest architect ever to win this internationally renowned commission. Vally is also the Artistic Director of the inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah.