Sumayya Vally and Alvaro Barrington work between the folds of familiar and imaginative belonging

For Document’s Fall/Winter 2023 issue, the architect and artist assess the importance of embracing historical nuance to fabricate new futures

A third space is a cluster of islands, an archipelago, pieces that complete a dreaming whole. There are people walking their dogs, families hosting birthday parties with herds of excited children, businessmen shouting on their cell phones, and couples on park benches trying at love. Gathering places contain their own unique languages of being. They belong to the communities that inhabit them. They make a home of a neighborhood, create feelings of connection, and facilitate communion with other residents. There is a choreography to the dissonance of the street, a familiarity in its noise—a synchronic breath that reminds us of our separateness, and at the same time, our simultaneity. The idea of imaginative spaces, that are bound by a sense of conservatism or tradition, creates a sense through which we can be in conversation with the world around us—in a way that helps us challenge our views, shape our sense of self, feel safe, and inform how we create in tandem with others.

Sumayya Vally creates spaces in which you can dream. Whether it be a structure in a bookstore or a pedestrian bridge, the environments she conjures are ones for sharing, for aspiring, for sighing deeply. Vally’s laurels are impressive. In 2021, she was the only architect to make the Time 100 Next list, and was also appointed to design the 20th Serpentine Pavilion—the youngest architect to do so. In her conception of the structure, her work acts as both a reimagination of what communal spaces can be, and of how to pay homage to sacred, forgotten histories.

This respect for space is what caught Alvaro Barrington’s eye, leading him to commission Vally to create a pavilion for festival-goers at the 2022 Notting Hill Carnival. In similar ways, Barrington’s artistic practice leans heavily on his experiences of diasporic community—garnering his strength from collaborations in both physical and performance projects. His material work is expansive, working across mediums and repurposing an array of media like concrete, yarn, wood, and chain. Particularly, his ideas reach beyond the inner world as they extend into accessible sites for congregation; for example, renovating a community basketball court, or painting stages at festivals.

Both of Vally and Barrington’s lives and works are forged by an amalgam of cities—across Johannesburg and London, the Caribbean and New York. Their migration to major metropolises say much about their spiritual and cultural identities, quilted together like strips of lace, cardboard, wool, and silk: a gorgeous cross-section of personal history that asks, What are the things that create a sense of home, a sense of dreaming? Barrington and Vally use classical modes of creation—painting and architecture, respectively—as vessels to mold their ideas into something entirely new, as in, keeping the baby and the bathwater.

Here, they both speak not tangentially, but with footnotes—every idea, every word carefully employed and explained. They unpack the careful nature of their practices, assessing the importance of familiarity and belonging in order to understand where we are going and where we have been. Their conversation brings to mind Edouard Glissant’s credo: “I can change through exchanging with others, without losing or diluting my sense of self.” Gathering spaces, like pavilions and public parks, seem to be the perfect venue for applying the philosopher’s thoughts. It’s these spaces that allow us to keep our sense of imagination while also paying dues to the communities that shape us.

Left: Sumayya Vally wears bodysuit and trousers by Alaïa. Necklace and bracelet by Cartier. Headwrap (worn throughout) by Romer Millinery. Shoes by Gucci. Right: Jumpsuit by Issey Miyake. Coat by JW Anderson. Earrings by Bottega Veneta.

Alvaro Barrington: I’ve been curious about spaces that feel familiar: Why is it familiar to me? How much of a place do I end up missing because I have a narrative of it before I get there? It’s like when someone says, ‘I don’t like that person’s energy.’ Maybe you don’t like that energy because it’s unfamiliar to you, or somebody told you something about that person. I’ve been trying to fight against myself in terms of what draws me to a place.

Sumayya Vally: Something that I find so beautiful in your practice is that it really straddles these lines between familiar belonging and imaginative belonging.

Alvaro: Well, you create spaces that make someone go, I could sit here. I could be comfortable here. I belong here.

[How do you] do that?

Sumayya: It’s somehow intuitive. When I’m working on something, I’m in the forest, and finding things interesting without necessarily seeing a thread. It’s only after a project is complete or conceptualized that I reflect on how those intuitions line up.

I’m working on the [Asiat-Darse] pedestrian bridge in Belgium now. When I started to look into it, I found that Paul Panda Farnana, the first [Congolese] person to [earn a degree] in Belgium, studied in this town, Vilvoorde. His research contributed to what the landscape of Belgium looked like, and subsequently, what the landscape of the Congo looked like. He then fought for Belgium in [World War I], and like many of his peers, saw firsthand how people of color were treated with extreme discrimination. He became an activist, advocating for the legal system of Belgium to change, for the wages of Black people to be fairer. He was rubbing shoulders with people like [W.E.B.] Du Bois, and organized Pan-African conferences all over Europe. I was really taken by how he’s not as known as the other figures we associate with movements like Negritude, and started to think about what a memorial [to his work] could be in this context.

I became really interested in these boat forms from the Congo, and how, when they’re stacked next to each other, they become platforms for people to trade and gather. So, the bridge takes the form of this series of conjoined boat structures, and each of them is planted with species that come from Farnana’s research—it’s an homage to him, but also, metaphorically, it’s about pollinating these previously industrial zones with species that come from his research. [I became] interested in this idea of people moving across places.

Alvaro: It’s interesting to hear you talk about forms [of familiarity] in architecture, because one of the things that I think about in my practice is images common in our imaginations, and what makes something visually familiar.

“When I’m working on something, I’m in the forest, and finding things interesting without necessarily seeing a thread.”

Sumayya: You talk about your work as imagery—do you think it’s also about materiality?

Alvaro: Yeah. Picasso had his Blue and Rose periods, and I feel like the work I’m making now is my Blue Period—thinking about a past, and not necessarily about a future. I’m okay with being there—it’s about learning my own narratives of things, like that famous phrase, You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you come from.

You talk about familiarity, and form as familiarity. I’ve been thinking about aspiration as a familiar form, and what that means. You look at the Hypebeast kids and they all wear the same things, because conceptually they have a certain idea that says, This is how you perform this aspiration.

Sumayya: Aspiration is about manifesting forms of imagination that link back to myths from different landscapes. But they also are about imagining costumes, imagining colors.

Alvaro: When I think about the bridge that you’ve designed, it’s interesting, because that boat and the plants are so specific. But they’re both understandable forms.

Sumayya: Most of the architecture that we have is driven by forces that were decided by someone. And, of course, now, the forces are development and capital and efficiency of space and so on. But the arrangements of how things exist also come from somewhere. A corridor, for example, is a Victorian invention, which was about separating staff and people who lived in a home so that they didn’t have to see each other. It’s a form that we now use all the time, with various intentions. I’m not saying that we should be throwing away all of these forms that we’ve inherited. But there are so many cultures that have different ways of being. And we haven’t always translated those into architecture yet.

I think that it’s very important that we build up a lexicon of these different points of origin. Because architecture is so abstract, sometimes, when we make something, we don’t question where the thing is coming from, or what functions it’s serving. There are so many other imaginations that are just waiting to come up.

Dress by Paul Costelloe. Dress (worn as headscarf) by Dolce & Gabbana. Gloves by Gucci. Bracelets by Tiffany & Co.

Alvaro: We operate, I think, in quite conservative disciplines. Architecture and painting are pretty conservative when you think about other forms that seem to be moving so fast. Music is a great example of something that has moved at a much more rapid pace. In our disciplines, maybe we don’t question its history as much. What makes something like music move so fast is [that] they’re always willing to throw away the last generation—which has pros and cons. But they’re always willing to find what’s valuable in this generation.

I think, unfortunately, painting is dominated by extreme conservatism right now. It’s interesting, because modernism and all the early painters who have become dogmas were extremely radical. They were pushing against everything, until, all of a sudden, their radicalism became our Bible.

“I’m not saying that we should be throwing away all of these forms that we’ve inherited. But there are so many cultures that have different ways of being. And we haven’t always translated those into architecture yet.”

Sumayya: If we think with different ideologies as a starting point, then inevitably, they’re going to translate into different forms. When I worked on the Islamic Biennale, I was inspired to work with artists who work with sound and performance and who have different craft-based methods in seeing how they took philosophies from rituals, and translated them in a very direct way. There was an artist, for example, who created this 50-meter-long table structure that zigzags and has pieces that come from different places. And that was inspired by rituals of eating and gathering from around the Muslim world, of breaking fast together. I can see that translating into something architectural. Religion is perhaps one way of being to draw from, but there are so many other ways of being: the ways that people trade or celebrate.

When you were talking about the conservatism of our professions—and I’m saying this in the hopes that it’s going to change or is already changing—architecture is so resource intensive, and it requires so much infrastructure. It needs to have a patron who’s trusting; it needs to have a certain amount of capital.

I think in your physical forms and images, you’re seeding different aspirations. They’re presenting us with images and forms that are coming from different places of identification and aspiration, which is really blowing open a whole new set of spaces for imagining into, which is incredible to see. But you’re also saying, like, What are the things we can bring together to create these scenarios that are going to birth new imaginations? You’re an engine for birthing so many other forms.

Alvaro: You too. We’re not anti-things. I have friends who are anti-capitalist, but [who are], in their day-to-day life, very, very capitalist. I’m a Christian, but I’m the first person to say, Christianity has been an extremely violent force on the planet. We don’t move toward something if we’re going to throw away the baby with the bathwater. One of the things that connects us is that we’re curious about the baby and the bathwater. We may take a sip of the bathwater once in a while, but not in a way of pretending that a certain aspect of how we live isn’t violent.

Sumayya: I think we’re both really interested in nuance and complexity. We come from so many places, we’re formed by so many conditions. It makes the conversation generative, because if we decide to burn everything down, forging out a path feels very burdensome, perhaps, because every origin point you can imagine from is just as complex [as the one you abandoned]. So where do you start? No one thing is completely pure and essentialist.

Hair Shunsuke Meguro at Future Rep. Make-up Machiko Yano. Photo Assistants Karolina Kuzma, Marianne Broeker. Stylist Assistants Amy Seo, Humaira Rashid.