Assemble won the Turner Prize in December last year with Granby Four Streets, an ongoing collaboration with residents in Liverpool to transform houses which had been facing demolition and support local artistic enterprises (you can see our feature on it here). They have also created a pop-up cinema in a disused petrol station, a Brutalist Playground in Glasgow commissioned for the Commonwealth Games, an affordable workspace in Stratford (the Yardhouse) made from a low-cost timber structure and decorated in colourful concrete tiles, and Folly for a Flyover, a temporary arts venue built on a disused patch of motorway undercroft in Hackney Wick.
Made up of 15 artists, architects and designers, Strelitz described the group’s approach as very broad. “We often build our own projects and set up new organisations … we’re also interested in opening up the building process to others,” she said. In the past few years, Assemble’s work has focused on developing innovative solutions to some of the biggest problems facing cities – such as a lack of affordable workspaces for crafts people – and working with communities to transform public spaces, giving them the tools to create new hubs of local activity and community events. In Croydon, for example, the group worked with residents, community groups and businesses to revive a public square that was being used as an overspill car park, and 40,000 people turned up to take part or attend an event in Folly for a Flyover’s nine-week duration.
“We’re interested in different ways you can engage with a city … for us, the best to do this is through direct action and experimentation,” she said. Strelitz also said that cities can be “disempowering spaces”, but that the group’s projects aimed to make them more “malleable”, opening up new possibilities and futures for public spaces.
Speaking to press at the conference, Binning said the studio’s multi-disciplinary approach allowed it to take on a diverse range of work and work with clients in unusual ways.
“Nobody in the practice is formally an architect, none of us would have described ourselves as artists a year ago – and I think in lots of different projects, being able to describe the role as you see fit enables people to approach you in a very different way,” he explained. “People will talk to you differently if you say you’re an architect, they’ll have a different perception of you and what you’re going to produce and how you’re going to interpret what they say…. This ability to be pretty chameleonic whenever it suits us in different situations is very productive … and it enables us to work in a more flexible way with clients,” he added.
While many of their projects have involved working with closely with communities or regenerating tired sites, however, Binning said the group’s practice isn’t concerned explicitly with working on projects with a social agenda. The Brutalist Playground was created to provide a safe and stimulating place to play in an area with a lack of provisions for children – Strelitz said the group set out to create a constantly evolving environment where children would have the freedom to learn, play, develop new skills in an area dominated by hoardings and fences erected around building sites – and their work with Granby residents has had a transformative impact on the area. But often, Binning said creative decisions are driven by simply thinking about what would add the most value to a building or site.
“You can look at a situation like Granby and say, ‘the best idea here is to demolish everything and rebuild it’… [but] from the way we’ve been educated we can look at that and say ‘that’s not the best value here, that’s not the best option here and that’s not necessarily a social thing, it’s also a material thing and a cultural thing. It’s the idea that buildings contain a value, they’re important … I don’t think it’s explicitly about a social agenda in design, or necessarily trying to work really closely with communities, but having an idea of what we understand to be of value and how we can use our skills to provide that in any situation,” he added.
In deciding what kinds of work to take on, Binning said that members of the group are free to accept whatever projects they choose, providing they have enough time, and a strong enough interest in the project to commit to it for what will often be several months.
“Generally, an offer will come in and if two people in the studio are interested in then we’ll take it on…. I think that affords a degree of flexibility: if you want to take on something that has more of a social ambition, or a project with a more generous fee or something that might afford you a different kind of opportunity you can do that. There’s not a set mandate about the projects we do, which also allows us to do teaching … and take on other bits of work that are maybe less related to the central practice, but contribute to it in terms of broader research.”
While local authorities have faced heavy cuts in recent years, reducing the amount of money available for new buildings and regeneration projects, Binning said having limited resources has forced councils to think creatively – encouraging them both to think about new ways of providing services or spaces for residents, and to collaborate with creatives, artists or multi-disciplinary studios like Assemble to provide innovative solutions to local problems.
Often working with small budgets, Assemble have made clever use of found materials in all of their projects – the Cineroleum, for example, featured pop-up chairs made from scaffold boards and a metallic theatre curtain from material used for roofing underlay, while houses in Granby feature beautiful mantlepieces made from rubble and building waste. This desire to repurpose found objects and use low cost materials in innovative or unusual ways is driven not just by concerns over cost, however, but a desire to balance the pragmatic and the bespoke, combining affordable, practical building solutions with more playful, handmade elements, said Strelitz.
“We are often working with projects that have quite limited resources so that gives us the motivation to be quite inventive – but I think we are really interested in this interplay between the readymade, the off-the-shelf products and the elements that we can make that are more handmade,” she explained.
“I think that’s often quite an intelligent way to approach the constraints of architecture today, because we can’t really be designing buildings where every detail is designed from scratch. We need to be playing with the language of what’s available and then choosing quite carefully what were going to invest more invention and creativity in. And that’s a useful conversation because it makes us say in each situation, ‘what’s important? What needs to show value and care?”
Assemble were speaking at Design Indaba. For details, see designindaba.com