We talk to RIBA & VitrA talks panellist Jayden Ali about working at the intersection of architecture, urban strategy, art and performance – and curating the British Pavilion at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Was there a pivotal experience that made you want to become an architect?
The short answer is no. It took quite a bit of trial and error – and luck – for me to realise that architecture was in fact the perfect discipline, allowing me to work in a multifaceted way on the production of objects, film, space, buildings and landscapes. I’d say I’ve ended up shaping the boundaries of what architecture could be for me.
I didn’t come from an academic family and started off studying architectural engineering at Leeds University because I wrongly assumed that would mean I could learn to design and make things. I switched course a couple of times, finally landing on my feet at the University of East London where I was taught by Christian Groothuizen and Hwei Fan Liang. My first lesson there was constructing a pinhole camera and the whole course was rooted in making – finally I’d encountered an expanded idea of what architecture could be.
I’ve always been interested in cities – what they look like, how they feel, how they operate, how people live collectively. But the idea of buildings and cities as primarily physical entities never made sense to me. I think that for many people, cities and buildings are much more expansive than that, and they’re experienced in fleeting, temporal and often conflicting ways.
What motivates you to create more equitable – or representative – space?
My personal motivation stems from working out who I am and what my relationship is to the world – which on the surface might seem like quite a selfish endeavour. But ultimately, I think it manifests in a more universal way. As a third-generation East London born immigrant who’s half Black and half Turkish Cypriot, I’ve experienced a lot of spaces that have been historically constructed in ways that are not representative or particularly supportive of people like me. From that comes a broader, more collective ambition that I’d say relates directly to the experiences of a lot of the UK population.
The scope of my practice JA Projects is quite broad – from sound to film to exhibition design, buildings and spaces – but the idea is always to open up the creative process. By building trust and relationships, we’re seeking to understand people’s needs and promote a sentiment of care that says: ‘this person, this experience is valued and included’. The way space feels, looks, and sounds is a way of supporting people to be who they are.
Sometimes we work from within centres of power, with cultural institutions like the Royal Academy or the National Portrait Gallery. At the V&A, for instance, we created the design concept for the exhibition Fashioning Masculinities, which engaged new audiences with changing ideas about gender. On another level we work with the everyday level of culture, at places like Queen’s Market in Newham where we’ve been regenerating a 100-year-old market in collaboration with residents, traders and shoppers. A lot of our work is about understanding the skills that ordinary people already have – whether that’s creating delicious food for the South Indian community in Queen’s Market or convening people. I’d say our role is to absorb all of that and honour it in ways that enable people to see a value.
© JA+Projects+2023 Queens Market
You collaborated on the British Pavilion with curators Meneesha Kellay and Sumitra Upham and designer and urbanist Joseph Henry. Can you talk about some of the ideas behind Dancing Before the Moon?
Our broad aim was to inspire debate that would challenge and influence the future of architecture. We’re all interested in how the everyday rituals of diasporic communities shape the UK’s built environment, and we’d been toying with the idea of the occupation of a site of power for a while. The neoclassical British Pavilion in Venice – a quasi-governmental symbol that’s also a historic monument to international trade – was the perfect site. We wanted to curate a sort of alternative Sir John Soane’s house, but instead of objects with a history of pillage, we we wanted to create a new, more enriching, architectural canon.
We all work in or with institutions – the GLA, the V&A, the Crafts Council – so we understand their power. We used our experience in public programming, publishing, communicating and collaborating to discuss the complexity of what architecture is – producing a space where the material and immaterial meet.
We commissioned a series of artists to create giant objects, or gifts, in dialogue with the pavilion’s white spaces. We also made the film at the centre of show, which is a celebration of the rituals of Black and Brown people in the UK inspired by James Baldwin’s writings.
You created the artwork Thunder and Şimşek for the pavilion. Can you tell us about the work?
The commission was about reflecting on what it is to be British, which was a hard brief for me. It meant I had to think about my own complicated heritage and the fact that I’ve never actually been to Trinidad or Cyprus, that I grew up in East London surrounded by a big Bangladeshi community.
But then I thought: I do know what it is to be Turkish and Black. My Turkish family was held together by food culture. My grandad would cook every Saturday on a makeshift mangal – like a lot of Cypriot people around Green Lanes. I was also thinking about my Trinidadian heritage and the fact that I was in a steel pan band for five years, even playing for Prince Charles at the Hackney Empire.
I wanted the arrival at the pavilion to channel the power and pride of occupation – capturing in a single moment ideas around alienation and empowerment. Thunder and Şimşek is a big work at the entrance, a sort of hybrid edifice consisting of two giant pans, which reference both the cooking and the music. But the pans can also be read as sea-going vessels – evoking ideas of liberty and confinement – how people of island nations first fashioned their own boats or the way many immigrant people first arrive in the UK.
Physically, the artwork is a hybrid celebration of the tectonics of the mangal and steel pans, and the two parts of the work are reliant on each other for structural support. They don’t hover over the entrance without being connected back to the pavilion itself – because without the infrastructure of Britain I don’t exist, and these two things don’t hang together.
I grew up knowing about Turkish Cypriot culture and history (that Şimşek means lightning in Turkish, for instance) but to create the artwork I had to learn about Trinidad, including the origins of polyphonic steel pans. I learnt that steel pans were an instrument of resistance, that drums were forbidden on slave ships and that French colonisers banned the playing of instruments on the island. Long after the French left, Trinidad was used as a US strategic base and when the American Navy moved in they brought with them a lot of steel oil drums, which the islanders made into instruments.
We worked with a fabricator in Greenwich and there was an amazing moment when I turned up to hear the boom of metal being beaten into shape under the giant flames of industrial blow torches – Thunder and Şimşek; the intense heat of the Turkish grill and the incredible sound of a Trinidadian steel pan band.
Visitors to the British Pavilion were handed a stick so they could play the pans themselves, with the shape of the big central note referencing the proportions of spaces in slave ships. It was a way of holding space in an immaterial way using a material device, which I think is a metaphor for being in Britain, being present and expressing yourself.
Jayden Ali - Thunder and Şimşek, British Pavilion 2023 © British Council
In November 2023, Jayden was part of the panel at the RIBA+VitrA Talk ‘Collective collaborations – new forms of practice and co-design’, where he discussed the latest approaches to co-design with RESOLVE Collective and Dr Julia King. You can view the talk here.