How can architecture create and utilize public spaces? four by three talks to the architectural collective Assemble about their Turner Prize winning project 'Granby Four Streets', the aspirations of utopianism and the social nature of their practice.
Since a group of Cambridge architecture graduates came together with a desire to learn how to build, Assemble have developed a truly unique practice. Beginning in 2010 with the conversion of an abandoned petrol station into a temporary cinema, Assemble have subsequently continued to re-invest public spaces and neglected materials with social potential. They have created playgrounds, theatres, homes, workshops and pavilions, often taking the form of ephemeral structures that re-imagine unused space as environments of leisure. Through close collaboration with the communities in which they build at all levels of their practice, they have also collapsed the division between the one who designs and the one who lives, expanding the notion of what architecture and architect means in a way reminiscent of social art practices such as Joseph Beuys' 'social sculpture'.
In 2015 Assemble won the Turner Prize for their most ambitious project to date: ‘Granby Four Streets’ in Liverpool. Working with the local community land trust and Steinbeck Studios, Assemble have re-furbished ten houses as well as created a workshop which produces and sells objects that have been used in their designs. Using materials on site and cheaply available, the result is a welcome contrasting image of how the creation of housing might work against the top-down interventions often employed. We spoke with Alice Edgerley from the collective about their practice, Granby Four Streets, the social aspirations of modernism, and the importance of collaboration with the communities for whom you are building.
Assemble first gained recognition five years ago for its first project - the Cineroleum. Could you begin by saying a bit about what motivated you to start working together and what it was that first prompted you to start creating interventions of that kind into public space?
Alice Edgerley: A number of us had graduated from studying architecture at university and we all shared a real enthusiasm for learning how to build. A few of us had helped out on some self-build projects over the past year, such as Franks Café in Peckham, and we wanted to try and do our own project. So we started looking for a site and we came across a number of derelict petrol stations and thought that they were potentially quite interesting opportunities. We wanted to make something that was not a pavilion, but where people nonetheless had a reason to go. So we came up with the idea of a cinema, turning these back into public spaces.
We were all volunteers and had no budget, clients or brief and so we developed it all ourselves. We got a small arts fund from Ideas Tap and that funded the bulk of the project. We also wanted the project to be as open as possible and to get as many people involved in building it, regardless of their training. And so that also led to the design decisions, for instance the chairs were designed so they could be built by someone with less know-how. We made the whole thing in about three weeks and then it was open for just over a month, during which time we screened 15 films. We programmed this and ran it, which for us was just a part of the development of the project.
Much of your (particularly earlier) work has been engaged in public spaces of leisure, entertainment and ‘culture’ such as playgrounds, public squares and art studios. What is it that interests you in these kinds of spaces and also the kinds of practices associated with them?
AE: I think that it's probably fair to say that a lot of our work is very social and that we are keen to make our work as public as possible. There are a number of reasons for that: bringing people together and creating places of enjoyment for them, to name just a couple. Including the end user in the development of a project is also important for us, and so we try to open up all the development of a project as much as possible, although it of course varies case by case.
Works such as Folly for a Flyover and Theatre on The Fly are ephemeral structures with temporary events programs. Although on the one hand being concrete uses of space, they also seem to hover between that and being experiments, propositions or models. How did you think of these ephemeral works?
AE: Well, they allow us to quickly and directly come up with an alternative or possible approach to the space, and the good thing about them being temporary is that you can take more risks with them. I guess in a way that became clearer with Folly for a Flyover, which becomes an example or suggestion of how a space might be used. The council wanted to do a temporary project at this site, which is in Hackney Wick, to test the viability of it as a public space. The idea was that if it was successful enough it would secure the capital investment needed to turn it permanently into a public space with power and electricity and all that stuff. The really great thing about that project is that it did secure that. So now there’s a permanent stage with power and water on the site.
In general, your practice has engaged locals, residents and other people not as consumers or guinea pigs for an overarching plan, but as themselves actively participating in the conception, production and continuation of the work. Why is that model rather than another one important for you? What do you see Assemble’s role to be in that regard?
AE: It feels pretty unique when you’re on a site or place where everyone can have shared ownership over a project. I think we try to allow or encourage that to happen as much as we can, if it's possible for a project. Often things aren’t really developed with the people who live nearby or the people who you hope will be using these spaces, and that can prevent them from lasting or being successful. Building a space is only one part of a project, whether it flies or not is very much to do with how it’s managed and who can use it.
The other big concern for us though is how we use materials and re-thinking whether something is valuable or not. That can be applied to many different contexts, whether that’s a site or a material. And so often we use a lot of off the shelf or readily available products, appropriate them and use them in a different way. For instance, there’s a project we built in Café Oto in Dalston which is made entirely out of demolition rubble, where the material was basically all sourced from the site and was free and readily available. That questioning of our perceptions of stuff and sites, and also seeing the potential in something that might have been overlooked, is really important to our practice.
Related to this, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on utopianism in architecture. On the one hand, your work couldn’t be further removed from the aspiration to completely re-invent our built environment and forms of life. However, you’ve also referenced ‘utopian’ projects – such as Brutalist Architecture – in previous projects. Where does the utopianism of modernist architecture go wrong, in your view, and what if anything do you want to preserve from it?
AE: A lot of the aspirations of modernist architecture were very egalitarian, creating a lot of public space and giving people ownership to form their own environments. I think that within those projects are a lot of things that we’d aspire to. A lot of the failings of those projects seem to be about how they were managed, although there’s a lot of amazing projects now where management by the residents really works. For example, in Berlin there’s a place called R50. It’s cooperative housing where a group of people, more like a permanent family, have built their own apartment block. In one sense it's like a modernist building: there’s a big shared space down stairs, it's fairly utilitarian and it’s a simple structure. But also they all chair the ownership of the building and can determine how it's used and maintained. How those modernist projects were managed and maintained determined whether they were successful or not. This was their main downfall in my view, not their social aspirations.
You won the Turner Prize last year for your project ‘Granby Four Streets’. Could you say a bit about how this project came about? And what interested you in taking on this project? It feels like a very different undertaking for you, perhaps for its permanence and also for the extent to which it is creating a more comprehensive ‘living space’.
AE: The project started a couple years ago when we were approached by Steinbeck Studios who were looking at the houses there. Granby is quite a desolate area, there are lots of abandoned properties and pinned up houses, and as an area it's pretty neglected by the council. Usually the approach in this kind of area has been to knock the terraced houses down and rebuild from scratch. However, for us it was important to preserve that local history and also a lot of the materials: they’re these beautiful old brick buildings and a lot of the brickwork was still in very good condition. So the approach we took was just to refurbish them.
We then met the community land trust who are a local group of residents. They came together several years ago to take back their streets to manage the development of the properties themselves. They started off by going out and painting all the houses and setting up a local market. With them we basically put together a proposal trying to secure ownership for ten houses on Cairn Street, which is one of the roads in the Granby triangle, and to refurbish them. They now have ten of those properties and we’ve been working with them since. At this point five houses are complete and people have moved in. Also, some are being sold affordably and others are being rented as social housing.
Because the budget was really low we had a real challenge to make it affordable, which was also our aspiration for the finished houses. We brought them back into a basic finish and tried to bring some of the same opportunism and spontaneity that had been used on the streets by the CLT. So we started developing a number of furniture products and objects that could basically furnish these buildings. As they had to be done affordably we started, for instance, making these concrete mantel pieces from some of the demolition rubble and bits of old brick. A lot of products were developed, and when that was happening we were just taking over one of the backyards and doing it there.
At that point we were nominated for the Turner Prize. It was a real surprise and strange to have the art world’s eye looking at Granby. It was then that we thought it would be a good idea to set up Granby Workshop as a way of using this to develop the project. The workshop developed those items we were making for the houses but also employed people from Granby to make them. So we took over an empty shop unit on Granby High Street, had a little outdoor concrete workshop, the equipment for doing fabric printing and for making wooden furniture – a whole range of stuff.
We then wanted to use the exhibition at the Turner Prize as a way to launch that enterprise. So for the exhibition we chose to create a showroom in what looks like a carcass of one of the terraced houses. The function was to display all the work that will be available to buy at Granby workshop, people can also take catalogues and there’s also a website. There’s also been a number of orders so at the moment we’re sort of developing the business side of it which will re-open this year and hopefully to have a really long-term presence.
Has inclusion or recognition of the work you do as an ‘art practice’ changed how you’ve thought about your practice in any way? Does the label mean anything to you or is it irrelevant?
AE: For everyone involved there’s been a number of questions as to how we can use this platform and the attention in a way that is beneficial to developing the project, not least in securing long-term investment in the area to provide support, such as employment to local people. This has been quite a big conversation with the community. When the workshop was open it was positive, and I think we’re really hoping that now there will be fundraising projects. It would be terrible if it didn’t survive, not that it's been bad so far.
There are several live projects you’re working on at the moment. Are there any new projects that working on Granby Four Streets has led you wanting to pursue as a collective?
AE: We’d just like to continue working on more projects in Granby because we’ve made friends with people there now and we seem to be generating more of a shared set of aspirations. But we also have a very big project in London this year where we’re having to move out of our premises and change our studios. At the moment we’re very lucky with what we have here: we rent the space out to about 36 other practitioners from carpenters to stone masons to textiles, and it would be brilliant to just take everyone with us. Hopefully we’ll just move somewhere bigger and better. Whether it's possible or not - especially in London - is yet to be seen.
Assemble is an architecture collective based in London. They won the Turner Prize in 2015 for their work ‘Granby Four Streets’ in Liverpool.