Report From the Trenches: Assemble’s collective design

When asked about the pros and cons of working as proper registered architects versus the fluid, multidisciplinary collective they’ve become, Assemble’s Lewis Jones answered, “Well, we just kind of wanted to get on with it.” This drew quite a few laughs from the packed auditorium, but it also encapsulates the role of openness and chance–as well as a certain urgency–in Assemble’s work. Since 2010 the 18 member London based collective has worked across the fields of art, architecture, and design, with a focus on “the typical disconnection between the public and the process by which places are made.” Their projects–ranging from full scale design-build to furniture and temporary installations to self-sustaining organizations–are as much about creating a collective experience through a nimble design process as they are about the products of that process. They are committed to making as not only a means, but also an end in itself. And, in a surprise coup, they won the 2015 Turner Prize.

Dean Mohsen Mostafavi’s introductory remarks focussed on the meaning of alternative practice, and Lewis Jones and Giles Smith’s lecture, supported by the Rouse Visiting Artist Program, offered a range of possibilities. “Our work is an ongoing conversation,” said Jones. Indeed, that conversation lies at the core of Assemble’s practice. The projects that Jones and Smith presented are in constant dialogue with their contexts, the people who make and use them, and many possible futures.

The Cineroleum, for example, repurposed a derelict gas station into a movie theater. The self-initiated project, Assemble’s first, had no client, brief, or budget. It happened merely “out of the urgency to build something,” Smith recalled. The project modeled the collective practice that Assemble has since riffed on, depending on volunteer labor and ad hoc production lines on site. It also became a testing ground for materials, another theme that runs through Assemble’s work. Scaffolding board was repurposed as the main construction unit, and roofing insulation transformed into a bright metallic curtain. Although it has transformed the old structure, the Cineroleum thrives on the tension between the site’s past and present: at the end of each viewing, the curtain lifts and viewers break out of a fantasy of isolation, reminded that they are immersed in a bustling urban space.

Jones and Smith presented a range of projects at various scales which developed the notion of making and material as a way to bring people together. Folly for a Flyover used countless bricks and even more volunteer hands to transform a highway underpass into a whimsical collective space for performance, workshops, and other activities. The Baltic Street Adventure Playground responds to the lack of social infrastructure in a Glasgow neighborhood, reimagining a series of construction sites as playgrounds where children learn decision making and cooperation skills. Yardhouse and Blackhorse Workshop provides beautiful collective workspaces that also build the local DIY economy. “They nurture an existing culture, rather than introduce a new one,” said Smith.

The concept of building upon and supporting existing economic and social networks is central to Assemble’s identity and also ensures that the projects remain vibrant and self-sustaining long after the designers have left. This is perhaps most tangible in Assemble’s work in Granby, Liverpool. Once a vibrant, diverse worker neighborhood, Granby suffered during Liverpool’s post-industrial decline and was slated for demolition. Over the last decade, Granby’s residents fought back, forming a community land trust, refurbishing some of the terraced housing stock, and restoring their streets. Assemble has since been working with the CLT to implement a gradual repair and adaptation plan for Granby that builds upon its heritage as a space of cultural and artisanal production. “What started as a project to refurbish ten houses grew into long term involvement,” said Jones, establishing a new role for the designer. The future vision for Granby is intricately related to and supported by Granby Workshop, which was established to train residents to craft products for the refurbished houses–ceramic handles, block-printed textiles, roughhewn mantlepieces–and has grown into a larger scale social enterprise. The Workshop aims to provide a stable income for Granby’s residents, referencing its past and present as a subversive, creative place.

The lecture’s Q&A session brought up the topics of gentrification, representation, and how to define a project once the process is over. Assemble demonstrated the same will to challenge traditional conceptions of design, pushing back on the notion of categories (art, architecture, etc.) and insisting that, in the end, theirs is a work in process.



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