When the shortlist for this year's Turner Prize was announced earlier this month, the nominees for Britain's premier art award, previously given to the likes of Damien Hirst and film director Steve McQueen, included Assemble, a collective from London celebrated for their improvised, pop-up architecture. The first design studio or group to be collectively nominated for the prize, Assemble seemed, on the face of it, to be an intriguing choice. No one in the group is a licensed architect, their premier project is the rehabilitation of a housing estate in Liverpool, and they're young enough that when their DIY style and philosophy was compared to that of the post-punk era, member Alice Edgerley politely said she wasn't familiar with those bands. But dig into their methodology and results, and you'll see a forward-thinking, human-centered design process that stands out in their profession. From their first project, the Cineroleum, which transformed an abandoned gas station into a glamorous pop-up cinema (sheathed in reused construction material and built with scaffolding), they've had a knack for scrappy reuse, community-minded design and creating "temporary" structures that make a bigger impact than many big-budget projects from established architects. We spoke with Edgerley to learn more about the thought process behind Assemble's work.
Don't Wait to Get Started
"We were hungry to learn about lots of different parts of a project when we began Cineroleum and wanted to do things for ourselves. We had no clients. We did this on evenings and weekends. We found a petrol station, got an artists grant and each chipped in 100 pounds. Labor was free, and the budget constraints influenced the materials that we could use. We used things that people considered valueless, like roofing materials, and gave them value. It wasn't meant to be a pop-up, we were just keen on having a go at it ourselves. I think we're not so keen on how pop-ups are now framed. It's become appropriated as a branding exercise. When we were working on our projects, it was generally the limits of the brief that made them pop-ups. These things had been done before—look at Frank's Cafe by Practice Architecture or the work of Exist in Suffington. Some of us had even worked on those projects. In a way, it was all about doing it for ourselves."
Involve the Community
"For Cineroleum, we were all volunteers and had a very big, open construction process. The elements of the build were designed so they could be easily made by anybody who came on site, with little or no skills. We had straightforward jigs, and people on hand to teach someone how to make a chair or a curtain. Everyone could contribute to the final project, which gave it a lot of character. We involve the public as much as possible in all our projects, from construction to conception to management. We were given a project to create a new public square in New Addington, Croydon. Usually, the process starts with building the square, and then you throw events to promote it. We did it the other way around. We held the festival first, to actively consult with residents and show them mockups, then learned from their critiques to build our final model."
"One of the main things we focus on is trying to be resourceful, whether that's through material reuse or sustainable design. It goes back to putting value on what people consider valueless. That includes thinking about the site, the material and even the group of people who will use it. When we worked on a playground in Glasgow, it was very important to involve the kids in the area, who had kind of been neglected and didn't have a place to play. We did a project in London, Cafe Oto, that was built entirely out of demolition waste and rubble. All the walls were made with rubble bags, basically like sandbags filled with construction materials. We've also built furniture out of demolition waste; we grind it up and recast it in concrete. London was originally built from clay bricks because the city sat on clay fields. Now, the city sits on concrete and building materials, so that material is kind of like out modern-day brick stock."
"None of us are actually licensed architects. Lots of people who have been here from the very beginning studied subjects like English, philosophy and politics in school, and they're brought crucial and different skills to projects. It's a really good way to ground the discussion, so we're not caught in architecture-speak. With their artistic backgrounds, it's much easier for us to program events and involve the community. Those are real crucial part of the development."
·Previous Assemble coverage [Curbed]