How Assemble built their way to the Turner Prize shortlist

The Greenhouse view of Assemble's Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool

The Greenhouse view of Assemble's Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool

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THE design collective behind a children’s project in Glasgow are stunned to find themselves on the Turner Prize shortlist. Susan Mansfield looks at the history and ethos of the unique group

Being shortlisted for the Turner Prize normally comes as a surprise, but never more so than to Assemble, a London-based collective of 18 young architects, artists and designers. Working predominantly in communities rather than galleries, in the structure of a loosely configured design studio, they didn’t even consider themselves Turner Prize material.

Some of the 18-strong Assembly collective

Some of the 18-strong Assembly collective

“It was a complete surprise,” says Assemble’s Amica Dall. “Our first reaction was ‘There must be a Turner Prize for architecture – that’s strange, we’ve never heard of that’ and then we gradually realised. It took us a little while to work out whether it was a good thing or not, whether or not to accept it. We work not only in collaboration with each other but in very equal collaboration with lots of different communities and individuals; none of our work is really our own. But when we understood a bit more about what the judges were interested in, we felt more comfortable.”

The four nominations for this year’s prize, whose work was unveiled to the public at Glasgow’s Tramway this week, make up what some are describing as a serious, socially engaged Turner shortlist. Ironically, for the first time in years, there is no Glasgow-based artist on the list (last year’s winner was Glasgow-based Duncan Campbell). Assemble have made work in Glasgow, however, creating a children’s playground in Dalmarnock, and Janice Kerbel’s musical work, Doug, was commissioned and made in the city.

Assemble’s nomination came because of their work in Granby Four Streets, Toxteth, Liverpool, where they joined a long-term community campaign to regenerate ten condemned terraced houses as affordable homes. With a grassroots approach and a lot of creative thinking, it’s a fusion of art project, community initiative and architecture know-how.

Assemble’s practice is rarely gallery-based, though this summer they did transform the exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects into a brutalist playground made of foam, then brought in children to play in it. They plan to use their space in the Turner Prize exhibition to extend the Liverpool project by launching Granby Workshop, a local social enterprise making a range of artisan homeware products.

Assemble was formed five years ago “by accident” – a group of friends, mainly working towards qualifying as architects, decided to start a hands-on DIY project in their spare time. Their low-budget, temporary transformation of a disused petrol station in London into a pop-up cinema was so successful that they decided to mount a similar “hobby project” the following summer.

Cineroleum was followed by Folly for a Flyover – a project to turn a disused motorway undercroft in London’s Hackney Wick into a new temporary public space – and, after winning a small grant, the group was forced to develop a more formal structure, but the organisation remains freestyle. Out of 18 members, 14 are currently “active”, two-thirds of whom have architecture backgrounds. They share most tasks.

After this success, they won their first public commission, to create a new public square in New Addlington, “a suburb of a suburb of South London”, and the first members quit their jobs to work full-time on Assemble. In 2013, they secured the lead public art commission for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games to create an adventure playground in Dalmarnock’s Baltic Street. The area is statistically one of the poorest in Europe and is currently subject to a large-scale regeneration project.

“When you think about massive-scale regeneration, whether you think it’s good, bad, useful, terrible, you can’t deny that it might mean something in 20 years, but that’s no use to a child,” says Dall. “We felt that children were the most affected by what was happening and we wanted to work with them, but if you’re predominantly working with children you have to do things at their pace, to work in a way that’s really meaningful to them.”

They started, as they typically do, at grassroots, working with and playing with children on the vacant site at Baltic Street, and evolved both a methodology for working and a structure for the project and its organisation. The playground is now operational, offering not only play facilities but hot food, warm and dry clothes and the support of trained play workers. A local board manages the project, but the children are the lead decision-makers.

Dall believes Assemble’s involvement will “stretch quite far into the future” – she is making a film about the project for the Chicago Architecture Biennale. She says: “One of the things that’s really key is creating a space where the children and the staff together can gradually develop a sense of their own capacity to affect change in the world. That kind of change is really slow, but also we can’t force it, it’s a real balance between giving enough to things get in motion and not being the ones doing the thing.”

Assemble’s practice has been described as a radically different way of doing architecture, a DIY, direct-action sensibility which challenges the post-recession drive to regenerate and gentrify. Dall is less emphatic, saying: “I think it comes out of the desire to do things ourselves that we think need doing and are worth doing. It’s not a criticism of anyone else. Architecture needs to be done as well – people need to build stations and hospitals and good housing. Assemble has always been what it’s needed to be to support the work; the work has always been more important than the practice. It will survive as long as it’s able to support people who are doing what they believe in.”

THE OTHER CONTENDERS

Janice Kerbel

45, right, was born in Canada and trained in Vancouver before going to London to take an MA at Goldsmiths and settling in the UK. She creates work in a range of media including audio, print, radio plays and performance. She has been nominated for Doug, commissioned by the Common Guild in Glasgow, a live performance of a musical composition for unaccompanied voice which was first performed at the Mitchell Library in May 2014. The cycle of nine songs for six voices follows the eponymous protagonist through a series of imagined disasters.

Bonnie Camplin

44, trained in film and photography at Central St Martins in London and lectures at the city’s Goldsmiths College. Her work has included eight years as a producer, director, dancer and performer of experimental club nights in Soho. She has been nominated for The Military Industrial Complex, a study room that explores what “consensus reality” is, using materials and theories from fields as diverse as physics and philosophy, witchcraft and warfare.

Nicole Wermers

43, was born in Germany and trained in Hamburg and London, where she now lives. She creates sculptures, collages and installations which explore the modernist constructions underpinning contemporary life and consumer culture. She has been nominated for for Infrastruktur, which features her versions of Marcel Breuer chairs draped with fur coats.

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