Counterspace: A new way of practising architecture| Future Cape Town

“The idea of obsession for us, suggests that architecture can be derived from anywhere; personal  interests, behaviour of people, societal trends or the logic within science.”

Counterspace is a Johannesburg-based collaborative studio of young architects, who recently completed an exhibition of architectural work in Cape Town. Future Cape Town sat down with the founders to hear more about their passions, their work and their vision for the future role of architects in a changing society.




Meet the collaborative studio, Counterspace. This group of passionate young architects are turning traditional norms about the role of the architect in our societies on its head. Their original ideas, contagious  energy and keen observations of their surroundings gives a glimpse into the future of the architectural profession. Hannalie Malan caught up with the masterminds behind Counterspace to find out more about their visions for the future.


HM: What is Counterspace and why did you feel it was necessary to start the company?

CS: Counterspace is a Johannesburg-based collaborative studio of young architects, established in 2014 by Sumayya Vally, Sarah de Villiers, Amina Kaskar and Michael Flanagan. Counterspace was brought about with the aim to seek research-based projects, which have thus far taken the form of curation, exhibition design, bienniale and competition work, urban insurgency, and public events. As Masters’ students we shared a studio together, and we found ourselves on many expeditions through abandoned buildings, mine dumps, spaces under highways, and other interesting ”other-spaces” in the city. We felt very strongly that we wanted to continue working in these spaces, and there is currently very little happening in them – most of the architecture practices Johannesburg embody the requests and aims of the commercial entities they serve. As a group, we felt excited at the prospect of forming something which could access this type of work gap in Johannesburg.

We transcribe our own project briefs from ideas that are scripted from what we see in the city and the moments in history that underpins the contemporary urban narratives. We then build up the pieces to create our own logics and spatial ‘fairytales’. Our experimental ‘laboratory’ tries to conduct active change within desperate spaces, but still celebrating the sense of magic and otherness in the spirit of the city. It is from this imagination that we draw our architecture. The playfulness in our practices and the opportunity to bend the rules is underlined by the satirical commentary and sophistication in the way serious social issues are tackled.

“We once did a workshop with the architects from Lot-Ek and Studio X-Joburg – a speed dating event in which each participant had to share their obsessions in less than 1 minute.”


HM: How would you describe the ‘mission’ of Counterspace?

CS: There is nothing hugely imaginative going on in architectural practice, despite the city providing such interesting conditions. These spaces are also the reality of most of our city – and as a practice we feel that it is our responsibility to engage with the realities of the city in some way or another. Given our perspective on the current state of architectural and urban work available in the city; we are trying to navigate through building a set of steps or structure for us to be viewed as a valuable part in the dialogue of spatial practice in the city, through multiple mediums of representation and research.

As a studio we enjoy work that makes one view the city differently, or work which exposes the things we find interesting about working in Johannesburg. We look at the clever quirkiness in which projects were disseminated in the 60’s and 70’s – in ways which would seem quite futuristic or absurd. We have so much more media at our disposal now, in this time, that we can really employ so many means to make ideas happen. Through practice we have learnt that these absurdities are common-place and not so untoward in alternative architectural practice. We have an optimism to ‘change the world’ even if it is just by changing or challenging the way architecture is seen or how we engage with architecture in a ‘real’ space. We resonate with firms such as Raumlabor, Smout Allen and Think Tank where there is a strong belief that complexity is real and necessary and our societies today need a more substantial approach towards spatial making

HM: Elaborate on some of the projects that you have recently worked on?

CS: We just completed the Cape Town leg of an exhibition entitled; ‘Additions and Alterations’ comprising of works by Local Studio in Johannesburg; which we had also put up for exhibition in Johannesburg in November 2015. We were involved with preparing activity axonometrics to exemplify the fantastic post-build use of some of Local Studio’s key projects; showing that architecture is sometimes more about the aftermath of design, rather than its conceptual intentions. We wanted to glorify the architecture itself in its use, because for us, that is a testament to the success and deep investment Local Studio has with their buildings. The team also prepared a publication to accompany the exhibition, as well as film content; and curated photographs by Dave Southwood.

We have also been involved in a research project of resident informal recyclers in the Jeppestown/Maboneng area; as well as a “public dining room” and part spatial regeneration project to assist with uplifting the quality of public space at the close-by Mai Mai market.

“These projects are particularly important learning curves for us in developing precedent and conversation with the city on how to engage these spaces more imaginatively.” 


HM: I understand you also recently exhibited at the Chicago Architectural Biennale, please elaborate on this experience and on your exhibition?

Date: 3 October 2015 – 3 January 2016.

Venue: Chicago Cultural Centre / Millennium Park/ Stony Island Arts Bank

CS: The bienniale was an important platform for which Counterspace had the opportunity to be a part of a complex dialogue between architectural thought from a variety of global practices. Our project not only revealed a landscape that may seem foreign to international audiences but the exhibition questioned the focus and ideals of practice in the reality of such a complex city.

Our entry, entitled ‘Lost and Found: Phantoms of Spaces and Times’ was exhibited at the Chicago Cultural Centre from October 2015- January 2016.


The project was concerned with the stories, myths, facts and fictions which surround the mine dump landscape in Johannesburg and surrounds. The dumps are disappearing man-made landscapes; which in turn occasionally (when visited) display traces of past lives; almost as secrets from another world. The result is a landscape laid bare; a city’s belly upheaved and turned inside out; bleeding all sorts of unexpected strange colours of toxic residue; and peppered with bits  and pieces of the past. The natural sedimentation of time is mixed and brought to one single surface; aligning to the superficial nature of the beginnings and continuings of Johannesburg.

Our exhibition; composed of a series of around 80 petri dishes arranged according to chemical pigment colour of found (or lost) artefacts in the structure of the periodic table (indicating metallic compounds found); in an attempt to provide a moment of ordered, forensic study of these intriguing, mysterious bits of story; and drawings and mappings of our own, inspired by different geological positions around Joburg’s mining belt. Excerpts of factual texts accompany the fragments, allows the viewer to collage the stories in their mind, resonant with the way that we compiled the research.


“Much of the information is missing – much like the stories we tell, where traces are often hard to find. Archaeologists based their findings on fragments of the houses they found nearby. There is no historical documentation about these spaces. New architecture in these spaces will always have to engage with the aggressive and sinister phantoms of the past activities on the land.”

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HM: You are all architects; how often do you collaborate with other professions? Or is the main focus of the projects more on architecture?

CS: Our projects rely on the knowledge of the various experts, and most importantly the people that occupy the spaces we work in on a day to day basis. We strongly believe that there is a strength brought to either discipline through collaboration. We also do not restrict the definition of architecture, and the scope of architects, to just designing buildings or structures. So we see our collaborations as very fluid, and very integral to our process and our work. We use a lot of different platforms and different media. There is no hierarchy between “art” and “building” and “research” – all of it is architecture – all of it is essential to us.

We have put a lot of importance on the method of practice making scope for including collaborators from multiple disciplines. Although we are architects, we have identified that there is a space for dialogue between members from different artistic and professionals, to exchange knowledge and points of view from such; to formulate more organic, whole-rounded methods for understanding and problem-solving a situation.

We have collaborated intensively with incredible photographers, including Dave Southwood and Jason Larkin; as well as local photographers, such as at Auret Project, which has assisted us in making the understanding of the use of space more accessible to people who wouldn’t normally understand a technical drawing or architectural recount. We also collaborate with established practices such as, 1to1, Urban Works and Local Studio – we can learn a lot from their ways of working.

HM: How do you see the role of architects in our future societies?

CS: We see a large move into the fringes of architectural practice; into versions of art, engineering, social media and graphic design which attempts to deal with spatial problems in new, faster, less monetary-reliant (such as a building), to test out new riskier ideas. There are endless areas of yet untested ground of space-making which is smaller, more mobile and adaptable; which deserves study and then reformulation of existing spatial constructs.

kaskar1We need to understand architecture or cities less as places to order; but more as having creative evolutionary processes by itself; which can be learnt from; and challenged.

HM: What are your plans for the future? Any exciting projects on the horizon?

CS: We are looking to extend our scope to Durban, with the prospect of some exhibition work on a few public spaces there; as well as dealing with ideas and solutions around new forms of educational spaces – with a rural Kwazulu-Natal – based NGO which does fantastic work for girl learners; and even micro-design; we’re working with branding a jewellery line made by refugee women – we’re going to be involved with the jewellery and hopefully their micro-retail studios. We also hope to extend our practice into academic conversations in large metropolitan centres around the country; with the opportunity to study interesting emerging economy spaces.  

Read more:

  • We are big fans of Thomas Chapman and his firm Local Studio. Read our interview with him here
  • Want to engage with architects in Cape Town? Contact us and we might be able to help
  • Want to know more about Counterspace and their work? Check our their website here
  • Go and check out some of the other exhibitions from the Chicago Architectural Biennale here