Assemble’s Folly for a Flyover (2011) in east London
Assemble’s Folly for a Flyover (2011) in east London

The nomination of architectural collective Assemble for the Turner Prize in May marked a moment of real significance. Young, widely admired and increasingly influential, Assemble do things differently. They don’t wait for commissions to come to them, they initiate their own projects and work with communities and institutions to create designs of real social value. Then, most of the time, they build the projects themselves, learning as they go.

This is very far from the traditional image of the architect as the immaculate intellectual working in a minimalist studio. But at a time when the authority and influence of architects are being eroded and austerity has devastated local-authority and government building programmes, are such collectives the future of progressive architecture?

Assemble emerged as a loose collection of architecture students five years ago and is part of a wider realisation that architects have become tools in a neoliberal system, tinkering with the concrete expression of capital.

They shot to attention in 2010 when they produced architectural theatre with an imaginative temporary conversion of a petrol station in Clerkenwell, central London, into a pop-up cinema. Ingeniously if coarsely constructed, it was a moment of operatic urbanism, enveloping the space beneath the old canopy in a ruched veil of silvery insulating material. When films ended, the curtains were raised and the city was revealed as the building dematerialised. Then came Folly for a Flyover, a postmodern gag involving the construction of a brick façade beneath a flyover in Hackney, east London, turning the leftovers of modernist planning into animated public space. And Theatre on the Fly was a huge temporary timber barn erected for the Chichester Festival.

These were eye-catching projects but Assemble’s most recent designs indicate a more socially engaged direction. An adventure playground in Glasgow was followed by designs for the Granby Four Streets in Toxteth, Liverpool, developed in collaboration with a community that has long resisted the wholesale demolition of its blighted surroundings. It was this proposal that brought them to the attention of the Turner Prize judges — an intelligent regeneration of Victorian terraces that had fallen into disrepair through neglect. It was an exemplar of the way architects can use their skills to radically redistribute power and enable citizens to take back control of their neighbourhoods.

Even Assemble’s own base, the Yardhouse and Sugar House Studios on the edge of the still-desolate Olympic site in east London could be a model for the future. Set in a doomed industrial landscape (the site belongs to Ikea, which is waiting to build houses on it), Assemble have built semi-temporary workshops, hiring out affordable space to other creative businesses. Cheaply constructed but carefully realised, it is a kind of ad hoc infill industrial estate with the feel of a piece of city, something developers have often failed to achieve with expensive residential retail schemes.

Most recently, Assemble have managed to fill part of the Royal Institute of British Architects with children in a foam-constructed homage to the concrete playgrounds of Britain’s brutalist housing estates. A collaboration with artist Simon Terrill, the exhibition highlights a typical cocktail of Assemble concerns: public space, playfulness, the gentle subversion of an institution and a populist, self-built, ad hoc modernism.

The Brutalist Playground (2015) at the Royal Institute of British Architects
The Brutalist Playground (2015) at the Royal Institute of British Architects

Assemble did not emerge from a vacuum. They are part of a broader global trend towards self-initiated architecture, though none of the exponents are formally affiliated. In Paris, Assemble’s slightly older equivalents, EXYZT, a loose collective with utopian ideals, have been around longer. Berlin’s Raumlabor, meanwhile, is a laboratory of participative architecture making provocative interventions to highlight political and social issues.

In the US there is Rural Studio, co-founded by DK Ruth and Samuel Mockbee (and now guided by a Brit, Andrew Freear) as a way of making architecture students engage in a more hands-on process. With its modest but often very moving architecture for the disenfranchised, it has developed a reputation as a remarkable regenerator of the poverty-stricken townscapes of Alabama and an inspiration beyond.

And back in Paris is the father of them all, Patrick Bouchain, a designer with a background in performance and the circus who imparts an idea of theatre to the construction process, sucking communities, builders and residents in and embedding the buildings into their sites through engagement and participation.

The Cineroleum (2010) in Clerkenwell
The Cineroleum (2010) in Clerkenwell

In recent years the economic crisis in Spain and Greece has inspired dozens of other outfits to instigate projects in a similar vein, while in Latin America this kind of small-scale, self-built construction is often all that is available to architects working in the favelas.

This new movement has emerged from a dissatisfaction with the limitations of architecture and the shrinking influence of the profession on precisely those communities where it is most needed. There is no lack of architecture in contemporary cities but there is very little that attempts to engage with social problems and reinvigorate the public realm through discourse rather than consumption. As our public space is being privatised and turned over to global commercial interests, young architects are being drawn to projects that can enhance a sense of place, that are able to create a focus for community.

Assemble are, in many ways, not architects at all; they are still unqualified and therefore not able to refer to themselves as such (though this doesn’t seem to bother them). They are builders as much as designers and they eschew the publicity and careful control of image that has become so characteristic of the profession.

They are all about the process, the people and the place. So it is perhaps appropriate that they are being honoured not by the architectural establishment but also by that of art.

But to flip the argument round, it is equally possible that what this Turner Prize nomination illustrates has less to do with their status as radical designers and more to do with an existential crisis in art.

Inside The Cineroleum
Inside The Cineroleum

This year’s Venice Biennale, directed by Okwui Enwezor, feels like an anguished cry emerging from an art world driven by global capital that is waking up to the realisation that it is inextricably complicit in the system it disdains. Perhaps the status of art as an asset class and the lavish international circuit on which it moves are bringing about a greater appetite for activist artists such as Theaster Gates and a longing for work that provides real social engagement and worth.

That search has, for the moment, alighted on Assemble. To their credit they seem a little uncertain about whether this is an undiluted good thing. What the Turner Prize glare has done is to refocus architecture’s attention on social activism and its capacity to create a Gesamtkunstwerk that embraces community as well as craft and culture, and it has given the art world something to think seriously about. It is an intriguing moment that simultaneously illuminates the insecurities and uncertainties of both architecture and art.

‘Brutalist Playground’, Royal Institute of British Architects, to August 16, architecture.com

Photographs: Lewis Jones; Tristan Fewings; Zander Olsen

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