Sumayya Vally’s Asiat-Darse Bridge Unviels Hidden Stories
By Professor Sumayya Vally, Principal at Counterspace.
In a thrilling competition to design Vilvoorde, Belgium’s upcoming Asiat-Darse pedestrian bridge, esteemed architect Sumayya Vally, Principal of Counterspace, has emerged as the victorious visionary. Counterspace, known for their award-winning research-based approach to design, specialises in exploring hybrid identities and territories as a means of finding expression for African and Islamic contexts. Vally’s meticulous design process draws from the aural, the performative, ritual and supernatural, and most importantly, the overlooked historical aspects, to create spaces that reflect the depth of culture and history.
Counterspace’s approach to the project led them on a research-driven exploration, unearthing the extraordinary story of Paul Panda Farnana – a significant yet overlooked figure in Vilvoorde’s history. Farnana’s legacy epitomises the intricate relationships between the city and past and future generations of migrant communities. In their comprehensive research, Counterspace not only shone a light on Farnana’s contributions but also brought attention to a crucial part of the city’s narrative that had long remained hidden.
Sumayya Vally, with a deep connection to Vilvoorde, passionately expressed her profound admiration for the city. She highlighted that Vilvoorde is renowned for its diversity, embracing a rich tapestry of cultures, identities, and narratives. Throughout their research, she immersed herself in the story of Paul Panda Farnana, an experience that deeply impacted her and served as the driving force behind their response to the city’s call for a pedestrian bridge. Given Farnana’s horticultural training at the nearby Vilvoorde Horticultural School, and his important work as an activist and advocate for enslaved black people, the project is rooted in celebrating and honouring his legacy.
Inspired by the breathtaking water architectures observed along the Congo River, where interconnected dugout canoes create communal platforms for trade and gathering, Vally envisioned the Asiat-Darse Bridge as a space for connection and congregation. The bridge will be ingeniously constructed by linking a series of boats together, mimicking the stacked canoes on the water.
Vally’s tribute to Farnana’s iconic horticultural work is evident in the bridge’s design. Each boat-like structure will serve as an isolated seed bed, cultivating specific plant species. These plants will eventually disperse their seeds on the wind, carried by those traversing the bridge. In doing so, the bridge becomes a living homage to Farnana’s achievements, serving as a nursery and facilitating the migration and growth of plants throughout the site.
To amplify the project’s impact, Counterspace proposes additional boat structures along the riverbank, each named after labourers discovered in the studio’s investigations and recorded in a register from the Congo. These smaller boats will act as pollinators, transforming an industrial zone into a vibrant garden, offering passers-by a serene space for contemplation and respite.
Sumayya Vally reflected on the project’s profound significance, emphasising that their approach to the bridge went far beyond mere architectural dimensions. To her, it symbolised more than a structure – it embodied an active monument, a sacred space for healing and remembrance. The fusion of the project’s narrative, form, and incorporation of Farnana’s research all played integral roles in bringing this visionary concept to life, and the ecological impact extended well beyond the bridge itself, enveloping the entire riverbank through the implementation of ‘pollinator’ boats.
Embedded within Counterspace’s project is an ethos that aligns with their practice – the understanding that every project, regardless of scale, presents an opportunity to write our histories in our own image. The Asiat-Darse Bridge, as a connector, weaves together narratives of past and future migrations. Vally hopes this project will honour Farnana’s story and serve as a poignant reminder to architects to attentively listen to the context in which they work, uncovering architectural treasures in the most unexpected and overlooked places.
The realisation of this ambitious project has been made possible through the collaboration of Counterspace and AKT II, who provided invaluable engineering expertise. Kieron Taylor, Technical Director at AKT II, expressed enthusiasm for the Asiat-Darse Bridge project, emphasising that the bridge represents more than a mere means of crossing – it encapsulates a profound journey and reflection of two distinct points in time. The Asiat-Darse Bridge project is a collaborative effort between the city of Vilvoorde and Horst Arts & Music. Funding has been generously provided by Platform Kunst in Opdracht, the Flemish Department for Culture, Youth, and Media, as well as ANB, the Flemish Agency for Nature and Forest, in partnership with DVW, the Flemish Agency for Waterways. The project also benefits from the artistic advisory of esteemed curator Heidi Ballet, making for a support system which assures the carrying of the endeavour to fruition.
With the anticipated completion date being in December 2025, construction for this awe-inspiring undertaking is set to commence in April 2024. As the Asiat-Darse Bridge takes shape, it promises to transport residents and visitors alike on a remarkable journey through art, history, and connectivity. It stands as a symbol of synthesis, celebrating the rich tapestry of culture that intertwines Vilvoorde and extends far beyond its boundaries.