Where Soul and City Connect: A Personal Reflection on Serpentine Pavilion 2021
In my mind’s eye, the project was a physical and metaphorical meeting of parts... Vally's vision resonated with me on a deep, personal level.
In the design of the Serpentine Pavilion 2021, Johannesburg-based architecture practice Counterspace, directed by Sumayya Vally, drew on places of meeting, organising and belonging for London’s cross-cultural and diasporic communities. The Pavilion paid homage to these increasingly scarce spaces, and, for the first time, the Pavilion commission extended beyond its site in Kensington Gardens. Four Fragments designed by Vally were placed in partner organisations which had helped to inspire the Pavilion’s design. One of these was The Tabernacle, a venue and community centre in Notting Hill, and another was New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, the first Black publishers and booksellers in the UK.
In this essay, New Beacon’s team member and educational outreach worker, Nadia Joseph, follows the profound connections that the Serpentine Pavilion 2021 – and the Fragment which lives in her workplace – opened up with her life, family history, and experience of shared space in the city. As we look towards Theaster Gates’ Serpentine Pavilion 2022: Black Chapel opening in June, Joseph’s observations of coexistence and exchange in the Serpentine Pavilion 2021 are a reminder of what can emerge from this temporary forum.
In early 2021, during a working day at New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, a visitor to the shop introduced herself as one of the curators of Serpentine’s annual Pavilion in Kensington Gardens. Natalia Grabowska spoke gently, was friendly and down to earth, and said that the Serpentine Pavilion 2021 was being designed by a Johannesburg-based practice called Counterpsace, led by a young woman architect, Sumayya Vally. My interest in art and my South African family background made me instantly curious.
Natalia told me Vally’s design was inspired by the meeting places of London’s diasporas and cross-cultural communities, and was informed by specific sites in the city. Four fragments of the Pavilion would be installed in different neighbourhoods in the North, South, East and West of London, linking these pieces and locations. In my mind’s eye, the creative intention of the project was a physical and metaphorical meeting of parts, with the Pavilion acting as a central body and the four fragments as its limbs – both independent and connected to the core. Each ‘limb’ was to have a function in its neighbourhood, and Natalia had visited to ask if New Beacon would be part of Vally’s project. She said that each fragment would also have a useful function – in New Beacon, one could form a display unit of some sort. I was sure that the shop’s directors, Michael La Rose and Janice Durham, would fully support this exciting proposal.
Often, we admire architecture from afar, or pay to visit a building and wander around quietly, with a sense of awe but distance. While the material qualities of many buildings invite us to touch them, this is rarely encouraged or permitted. A fragment in the shop could generate a dialogue between the artist and users of this space.
Vally’s vision for the Pavilion resonated with me on a deep, personal level. While I started working at New Beacon Books in 2019, I had visited the shop when I was child, as a young adult living nearby, and in recent years to attend book launches and discussions. Its founders, John La Rose and his partner Sarah White, were friends with my parents. John and my father had both been trade union activists in their countries of birth, Trinidad and South Africa respectively.
My parents, Paul and Adelaide, were involved in the South African liberation struggle. In 1956, my father was one of the 156 people accused in the Treason Trial alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Lilian Ngoyi, and Ruth First. He eventually needed to flee the country after periods of imprisonment, torture and banning orders; he and my mother went into political exile in London in 1965. By then, John La Rose had already settled in London and New Beacon Books began its life in 1966, which, coincidentally, was the year of my birth.
New Beacon Books was the first bookshop and publishing house in the UK to specialise in books by and about people from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. Those associated with New Beacon have always supported the global fight against racism and been active in campaigns for social justice, and the shop has survived for decades with its strong community roots and its work in education and culture.
Once my parents were granted political asylum, they rented a small, ground-floor flat at 37 Powis Square in Notting Hill – my first home. The Victorian terraced houses in the area were largely owned over generations by wealthy, white, English families, but many properties had fallen into disrepair and effectively become slums. The infamous Peter Rachman financially exploited local working-class residents by renting them cramped and inadequate accommodation. The race riots of 1958 were present in the memories of Notting Hill residents, and racial discrimination continued. Nonetheless, ever-evolving, vibrant and diverse cultures flourished in the area.
During the years we lived in Powis Square, we were immersed in the colour, political energy and sounds of the 1960s. The annual Notting Hill Carnival was gaining popularity and hippies were hanging out in Portobello Road alongside Caribbean and white working-class communities. My family met people from all parts of the world and campaigned with like-minded neighbours to make Powis Square’s central garden accessible to its residents, rather than remaining locked up by an absent landlord. They eventually won. Several left-wing activists with whom my parents forged lasting friendships lived in the area; together, they protested against the Vietnam War and atomic bomb. My parents screened Peter Watkins’ controversial film The War Game (1966) in their flat. Made for the BBC, this pseudo-documentary depicted a nuclear attack. The alarm it provoked led the government to withdraw it, although it later screened at film festivals.
The culture of the era permeated our neighbourhood. Nic Roeg’s cult film Performance used a house on Powis Square for filming, and my eldest sister, who was around nine years old, can remember her excitement at spotting Mick Jagger. Powis Square’s beautiful and impressive Romanesque Tabernacle started its life as a church and later became a community and arts venue which I frequented in my late teens and early twenties. When Natalia told me that one of the four fragments would be at the Tabernacle, my heart warmed – the building had been one of our neighbours.
The streets of W11 are where my soul and the city connect. The neighbourhood always lifts me, even though I have lived away from there for most of my life.
Other geographical markers, memories and strands of my past were brought together in the most beautifully nostalgic way in the Serpentine Pavilion 2021. Long before the first Pavilion had ever been built, my mother used to take me and my sisters to meet my father after work for an early evening walk in Kensington Gardens.
As Michael La Rose, Natalia Grabowska and Sumayya Vally developed the plan for a fragment of the Pavilion at New Beacon, I looked forward with great anticipation to the culmination of the work. On the August Bank holiday weekend, I made my first visit to the Pavilion itself. Leaving Lancaster Gate tube station, I crossed the road to the park, admiring plants and birds, and passing people enjoying ice-creams from a retro-style van.
Arriving before the friends I was meeting, I had time to explore the Pavilion alone. As I walked around the Serpentine and saw it for the first time, it felt at once new and familiar. I was struck by the Pavilion’s form and colour, as the sunlight altered its tone depending where the rays hit the varying shapes of its structure. The base of the ceiling appeared sepia while the curved exterior of the roof was closer to a dazzling white under the brilliant summer sun.
The colours of the supporting columns seemed to have two contrasting palettes: one ranging from charcoal to the opaque, dusty quality of blue-black olives, and the other with shades of the palest salmon through to pink champagne complete with the tiniest bubbles formed by some porous surfaces. The grooves and the tone of the structure’s truncated blocks made me think of delicate pages of The Financial Times, folded neatly into strong and upright paper fans. As I walked around and within Sumayya Vally’s Pavilion, I understood its appeal to me. It was both modernist and classical, beautiful and useful.
One of the things that I love most about London is the architecture of the underground system. I am fascinated by its history, the hard labour involved in building it and the fine details of its design. The periods in which the stations were constructed reflect changes in architecture over three centuries. I have spent ages looking at the London Underground’s tiles, admiring Johnston’s font, Harry Beck’s incredible map and the beauty of the stations themselves. The Serpentine Pavilion 2021 reminded me of Charles Holden’s design for Southgate tube Station. This is not solely because of a similarity in overall appearance but also because the function of the tube is to keep London’s citizens and visitors connected. It is a tapestry of beautifully independent stations that together create a huge and organic structure. Vally’s Pavilion celebrated the diversity of London’s inhabitants as well as its historical and contemporary buildings. It too had a functional value by providing a space for people to explore and make use of, in their own ways.
Some edges of the structure were smooth and rounded, others rectangular and perpendicular. There were areas of both soft and hard undulating shapes which could be used as seats or spaces to recline as you would in your home. Other parts of it could be traversed at a height. This enabled children, as well as adults confident enough to express their inner child, to leap and clamber across sections of it with abandon and joy.
Tourists and locals wove in and out, and stylish young people posed for photos using the structure’s apertures to illuminate and frame their images. Kensington Gardens provided a perfect backdrop. Some visitors were having conversations punctuated by laughter whilst others relaxed alone and in silence reading. My friends and I sat within it drinking tea and eating chocolate, talking enthusiastically about all things from art to identity politics.
A dynamic emerged between the people and the Pavilion, which brought it to life. It was like a shared house whose occupants were happily co-existing. The experience made me think of another word to describe the Pavilion: ‘forum’, as it evoked images of ancient Rome.
On 24 September 2021, New Beacon Books hosted an event at the bookshop in collaboration with Serpentine. Owing to COVID-19 restrictions, we could not invite many people, but it was nonetheless a wonderful evening. The fragment designed by Sumayya Vally was already installed and we used it to display books from writers who had been asked to participate in the evening’s programme.
Unfortunately, Michael La Rose was unable to attend but asked me to step in as host. While slightly daunted, I was also excited. It was wonderful to finally meet Sumayya, who was charming and unassuming, like Natalia. It was, on a personal level, a moment of unexpected pride meeting this young South African woman. I felt she had achieved so much through her work with sensitivity, respect and beauty.
The writers included some of New Beacon’s extended family, such as Professor Gus John, editor Margaret Busby, and other established and new writers: Courttia Newland, Derek Owusu, Irfan Master, and Tice Cin. As they read excerpts from their work, New Beacon once again provided a space for celebrating books, reading, listening, debate, and socialising. It was a fitting way to mark its 55th year and 24 September was also my 55th birthday. I felt blessed to have some of the strands of my life both past and present come together among some dear New Beacon colleagues.
I returned to the Pavilion the week before it was taken down in late October, this time with another friend. I asked him to take photographs, and, unusually for me, I requested that he also photograph me; I wanted to have a keepsake of that connection.
As the season had changed to autumn, so too had the light. It was a quieter day, allowing more time to reflect. I felt somewhat melancholic knowing the Pavilion would not be there on my next visit to Kensington Gardens. I contemplated its temporary life in this particular place and time. Some of London’s buildings date back thousands of years and new ones are always being created. Likewise, changes in the composition of its population, structures and spaces evolve but what remains is its dynamism. Serpentine Pavilion 2021 is all these things too: past, present and future, as its fragments remain in the city. Now the Serpentine Pavilion 2022 is being dreamed of, and London and its visitors will spend this summer in Kensington Gardens.
Nadia Joseph has been involved in South African politics personally and professionally. The daughter of veterans of the liberation struggle, she herself worked for the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London and remains an active campaigner around issues of social justice. She has written on politics and on cinema and now works in publishing and education. She lives in London, a city she loves.
An evening of readings at New Beacon Books
Below you can watch the recording of Belonging & Resistance, the literary event which Nadia Joseph stepped in to host at New Beacon in September 2021. Themed around constructing belonging and the history of places of resistance, the event was co-organised with writer Courttia Newland, New Beacon Books, Serpentine Pavilion 2021 architect Sumayya Vally and Serpentine. The evening featured Margaret Busby, Tice Cin, Gus John, Irfan Master, Derek Owusu, and Courttia Newland. You can find out more about Belonging & Resistance here.
New Beacon Books
Founded in 1966 by John La Rose and his partner Sarah White, New Beacon Books was the UK’s first Black publisher, specialist bookshop and international book distributor. For over 50 years New Beacon Books has made poetry, literature, non-fiction, history and children’s books from Africa, The Caribbean, Asia, African America, Europe, South America and Black Britain available to various communities. Voluntary work from the community has sustained New Beacon throughout the years and recently a new generation of social media activists, students, educationalists, parents, and children have shown interest in its work.