Their CV reads more like a charity organisation than an architecture company pitching for new commissions. So far they’ve turned a disused petrol station into a cinema, transformed a motorway underpass into an arts venue and created a ‘big slide’ for the public in Stratford.
And on Monday they accepted Britain’s most prestigious contemporary art prize, despite not being considered artists at all.
Assemble won the Turner Prize for their project, The Granby Four Streets, based out of Toxteth Liverpool. It involved the refurbishment of a group of run-down houses in a community that had been ignored by the government and left to quietly decline, with houses abandoned and decaying.
Turner Prize winners have always been heavily criticised, with the question ‘is it art?’ being asked. However, this particular nomination more so than others seems to have upset the status quo.
At a time when contemporary art and architecture is becoming less connected to our lives, more exclusive and less accessible, Assemble offers something genuinely relevant, beautiful and of value to society.
Assemble’s work is not confined to white-walled galleries but is visible on our streets. By awarding the Turner Prize to this unique new collective a clear statement has been made. Art is for everyone. We sat down with founding member Alice Edgerley to hear how this socially aware co-op is just getting started.
Let’s start with the Turner Prize. A huge congratulations. I think leading up to the awards a lot of people were a little perplexed as what to call you – an architecture collective or an art group?
We’ve always occupied slightly fuzzy territory between art and architecture and we often question how to describe ourselves. There are lots of things that could be considered either art or architecture and it’s been like that for centuries. I think there’s just a need for people to categorize stuff. The work we do deals with a number of different things and whether that’s art or architecture in a way doesn’t seem very important.
It’s been said that you operate like a “modernist collective from the 1930’s.”
I can see that there are similarities, with us working as a large group. But we’re in a different time.
It’s hard to know how to define us. Yesterday someone described us as a jazz group.
There’s quite a few of you right?
There’s fifteen of us.
It’s unusual to have as many people as that working together in a collective.
Yeah it is unusual. At the moment we work sort in a buddy system where are two people working together in an office and they manage the project and then we discuss it weekly as a group just to get everyone’s input.
It seems like a very democratic way of doing things, the fact that you don’t have one leader. Are you all founders?
Would you consider yourself the main spokesperson?
Not really. We’re quite keen not to have one spokesperson. Basically everyone in Assemble can talk about it and everyone will have a slightly different approach on things but it will also be similar in a lot of ways. But usually people who have been more involved in some projects than others will talk more about them.
A lot of your work involves renewing areas that need attention. I know you often build things with the public in mind but even so do you think your work could be misconstrued as just another form of gentrification?
I think that raises a really interesting question about development. A number of our projects are looking at places that have been deemed valueless and we want to show the value in them, whatever that may be. We’ve done that with several sites, for example, both the Folly for a Flyover and the Cineroleum were very much about that. Those areas were sites awaiting development, just sitting, waiting for something to happen there.
In terms of gentrification, it’s complicated. A lot of building developments happen without the public being involved at all.
Decisions that have a pretty big effect on people’s homes and their surroundings are made without anyone being consulted. We’re very keen to involve the public or the end user of the space as much in the development process as possible. I guess our work could be described as gentrification in that it is upgrading an area but I think it completely depends how it’s managed and how it’s delivered.
That brings up an important point about the social impact of architecture. The work that you did with the Granby Four Streets in Liverpool was really wonderful in demonstrating how much we actually care about our surroundings and perhaps about how little the government cares.
Does your work have anything to say about the unaffordable housing crisis that a whole generation is experiencing now?
I think it’s terrible what’s happening in London. But the community we’re working with in Liverpool is pretty inspiring. They were just a group of residents who lived in Granby and witnessed the decline of the area. And they’ve also seen how a lot of regeneration plans have completely failed. It was the Pathfinder scheme, set up by labour in the late nineties that effectively intended to manage a controlled demise of the area.
In the end, these few remaining residents who were surrounded by boarded up houses said, we’re not going to let this happen, we’re going to do something. And they went outside and started planting trees and painting the houses. They set up a market and they really turned the place around.
We did a feasibility study for them concerning the refurbishment of ten houses on Cairns street and now they have ownership over those properties which means that they can develop them in the way that they want. The approach so far from the government has been to demolish houses and build new ones from scratch when actually, these are beautiful old brick terraces and they’ve got a lot of history.
So now some of them are going to be socially rented and some will be sold as affordable housing. The ambition was for them to be genuinely affordable and so that was a real challenge for the project, to refurbish them with such a low budget. It’s been amazing working with this group of people. They have a deep understanding about how to provide opportunities and how the properties will be managed and sold, and it’s completely different to Boris Johnson and his Mount Pleasant idea of affordable homes, something that just isn’t at all affordable.
It all sounds very idealistic. Do you think this potential for upholding high principles and morals is architecture’s raison d’etre?
I know it sounds cheesy but I think a building isn’t just bricks and mortar. It’s all the other stuff. Everything that happens inside, how it’s managed, how public it is. Those things are just as important as what it looks like or how it’s made and I think that was what we stumbled across when we did our first project.
We started off by wanting to build our own projects more as a way of just learning how to build something, learning how to use a drill and stuff like that. But when we found the site we realised we had to write our own brief, and then there was the whole management side, and press releases and all kinds of things like that.
Through that experience we realised that all of these decisions create the character of a space. We had such a tiny budget and we depended on volunteers to help build it, so we wanted to make it as public as possible. We wanted it to be a place where anyone could go, not just a piece of architecture. So we made a cinema and sold tickets at decent prices.
You’ve touched a little bit on the philosophy around the work that you do and the set of principles you have as a group. I know there are other architecture practises that share similar values like Raumlabor in Germany, and FAT and Muff. Is there a feeling within that community that you’re all supporting each other and working together to make meaningful architecture?
It’s always great to see work that others are doing. I guess when you’re applying for a competition though you might wonder what their plan is. Our projects come about in a number of different ways. Some are self-initiated. For example, Granby Workshop, although it was as a result of being nominated for the Turner Prize, the project itself was self-initiated. But we’re also on a procurement panel where we’re invited to apply for a number of different projects. Some projects are commissioned. And others are won through competitions. That’s how the Goldsmiths Art Gallery one came about. I guess we don’t have a problem with getting work that way because it’s how things work in the architecture world and you need to take part in it in order to land different projects. I’ve never really thought about it as competitive.
"To be honest we’re never consciously telling the establishment to piss off, but we feel in this society it's much better to have more affordable housing."
You’ve stated that you want to address the typical disconnection between the public and the process by which places are made. It seems clear that you think the government is limited in the way that they see the potential of public spaces. Do you think of your work as a middle finger to the establishment? What do you think is being done badly in the approach to urban areas?
To be honest we’re never consciously telling the establishment to piss off, but obviously its way better to have more affordable housing. There was a group called Design for London who actually funded a number of our first projects. They were fantastic. They managed and initiated a lot of really great pieces of work across London and gave support to small practises. They managed the Outer London Fund which was set up as a result of the riots in 2011. They gave us our first permanent pieces of work in Croydon just after we’d completed the Folly for a Flyover, so trusting us with a project of that scale was pretty risky. Unfortunately Design for London no longer exists but they were doing really good things and they would be considered the establishment. So it’s complex.
How does it feel to have won the Turner Prize? Do you think it will change the group and the work that you do?
It’s great. We might have more opportunities come our way now. A lot of the way we’ve developed has just been through trial and error. So a similar thing might happen where we’ll come up against something and have to work as a group to figure out which path we want to take and just go from there.
To start with we thought it would be really strange if we won the Turner Prize, but because our Granby Workshop project, it’s been a great validation and support of that. We really didn’t think we would win, but here we are.