Winners of the prestigious Turner Prize, Assemble are a London-based architectural collective distinguished by their design-build approach, sense of humour, and communitarian focus. Their 18 member team of architects, artists, and designers work collaboratively, producing innovative, and often temporary, work in the public realm.
Sasha Amaya interviewed Assemble's Giles Smith shortly before their Turner Prize win.
Sasha Amaya: What makes a project exciting for Assemble?
Giles Smith: This is a difficult question to answer, in as much as Assemble is a collective of individuals, rather than a single entity. So a project that might be exciting for one member of Assemble might not be exciting for another member. Our general rule is that if two people within Assemble have the desire to do a project, then we’ll do it.
SA: There is a lot of design-build work going on at Assemble. How do you conceive of the relationship between art, design, and craftsmanship?
GS: Our practice was founded on a collective urge to build, and the physical making of architecture has been a thread that has run through many of our projects. However the motivations for building have varied from project to project: it might be for reasons of economy, or it might be because we want to use the process of building in order to inform the result
SA: Many of your projects — the Cineroleum, Triangle Chairs, School of Narrative Dance — are impermanent outdoor installations. What are some of the limitations and challenges of temporary structures? What draws you to creating impermanent work?
GS: The three projects you mention all exhibit different kinds of impermanence. The Cineroleum was temporary for quite practical reasons. We funded, designed, built, and ran the project, so it inevitably had a limited lifespan partly because of a lack of means on our part, and partly because we couldn’t sustain running a cinema every night on top of our other jobs. The Triangle Chairs were ‘permanent’ furniture installed temporarily in a particular context. The School of Narrative Dance was a setting for a performance art installation and so, in the nature of artworks exhibited in a gallery, had a limited life at the MAXXI. Our work is active and direct, and we’ve found that often in order to achieve long-term change one needs to create a short-term, or ‘temporary’, test or prototype. Increasingly in our work we are now doing both: the initial temporary act, and the long-term architecture it allows.
SA: What pushes a public design project (such as seating, a mounted image, or a plaza) into a public art project? Where does your work fit?
GS: I think that this is a question for a commissioner, curator, or client. We’re fairly unconcerned with whether a public project receives funding because it is an ‘art’ project or because it is a ‘design’ project. So long as it can effect change to the public life of the city, what does it matter?
SA: Assemble has worked on presenting and producing film and video. How do you think your land-based installations differ from your on-screen digital work, such as Lina Bo Bardi: Together? Why is the cinematic medium important to you?
GS: The films in the exhibition, Lina Bo Bardi: Together, were made by Tapio Snellman. We worked with him to find a suitable means of exhibiting them. We have, however, just produced a film that premiered at the Chicago Architecture Biennial on the Baltic Street Adventure Playground. In that instance it felt important to make a film about that project, because we had found it very difficult to represent it through more traditional architectural media (drawings, photographs, etc.). The film was able to describe the delicate and particular act of play — to capture these small moments of truly free play, that are allowed to happen because of the conditions established in the project.
SA: Many of your projects--for example, Baltic Street Adventure Playground, Spirit of Play, or Big Slide--are very playful. How do you conceive of play? Why is it important, and what does play mean in a design context?
GS: A city that is a good and supportive environment for play is a good place for everyone to inhabit. So our projects often take on a playful tone, and try and support forms of play because we think that that will help people enjoy our projects, engage with them, and engage with the places we situate them. We are interested in the way that places that are on the edge of chaos make good places for play, and how moments of disruption, the breaking of a fire hydrant, or a carnival, encourage new forms of behaviour that challenge the contemporary city’s monoculture of control and regulation. Play can be a powerful means of asking people to look again at the city and encouraging them to take it back.
SA: Granby Four Streets has received an incredible amount of attention. Tell us a bit about your motivation for the project and what you enjoyed most about it. Outdoor and public space was so important in this piece; how did you explore using botanicals to further the goals of this project?
GS: We were invited up originally to Granby to look at the refurbishment of a particular street, and we’ve been kept there by the extraordinary character and fortitude of the residents of the area. Working with them has been an absolute delight. Cairns Street, where we have been working with the Community Land Trust to refurbish a set of terraced houses, was landscaped by the residents. It was their hard work, vision, and planting that has transformed the public space of the street. We are currently working with them on delivering a communal winter garden within the shells of a pair of the more derelict houses. More of which soon!
SA: How do you feel about presenting Granby Four Streets in a visual art context in its nomination for the Turner Prize? How did that change the way you conceived of the project and what others appreciated about it?
GS: We were quite uncomfortable about presenting Cairns Street and our residential work with the CLT for the Turner Prize because they are people’s homes. It doesn’t feel like the attention on them would have been very productive, which is why our entry into the exhibition focused on Granby Workshop, which as a very young business felt like it would benefit from the attention.
Post-win question: You recently won the Turner Prize. Congratulations! What kind of an impact might this have on Assemble and the work you do? How did it change the way you conceived of the Granby Four Streets project (if at all)?
Thanks for the congratulations. We hope that if the Prize has an impact, that it helps the causes of our collaborators and friends, and that it also helps other people who are trying to work in a similar manner. I don’t think that winning the award has changed our perception of the Granby Four Streets projects, except perhaps that we are even more grateful to our friends in Liverpool who’ve done such a lot of work with us to make the projects there a reality. And we hope that winning can help bring their work to an even wider audience
SA: How do you envision the future of a site when you begin to work on it? What role do you think architects and artists have in promoting and creating ideas about future ways to live?
GS: When beginning work on a site, we work with the stakeholders and local policymakers to develop an accurate picture of how the site could develop, in order to inform what our proposals for its future might be. Architects have a fundamental responsibility to society to provide it with the tools so that it can shape its environment in order to create better cities. Which is about working with people. As David Harvey says, ‘the right to the city… is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.’
SA: What sorts of problems has London’s specific context pushed you to consider as designers and artists?
GS: The specific context of London has framed many of our projects, particularly the early ones. Even in the five years that Assemble has been practising we have seen an enormous surge in property values and in the use of London property as a global commodity. This, I think, has led to our projects, which exist on the fine margins of social enterprise, to increasingly only be possible in other cities around the country: Liverpool, Glasgow, etc.
SA: Many of you studied together at Cambridge. Do you think the time that you shared there has come to inform Assemble’s ethos?
GS: We generally share a similar ethos, which could be seen to be common with that of the Cambridge of Peter Carl / Dalibor Vesely: one that is focused on the social and political aspects of architecture, of its relationship to the idea of the ‘city’, and of the importance of its tangible materiality. But each of us also has our own interests, cultivated through a range of different academic institutions beyond Cambridge.
SA: Tell us about the process of creating work at Assemble. How do you divide and manage the work? How do you understand collaboration?
GS: Assemble is a collective practice. All responsibility, success, and failure is evenly shared! We have worked hard to develop methods and protocols that facilitate collaboration and the sharing of work. It is these methodologies that separate us from other design practices I have been a part of. Collaboration with other partners is a critical part of our process: we’re very aware of the limitations of our own abilities, and so the best way to counteract that is to seek out others with the skills and expertise to assist you. Collaborating with the public is not really about design. In general, design is not a task that benefits from being crowdsourced. Public collaboration is more about allowing people to engage with the process, to make key decisions, and, critically, to take ownership of the results.
SA: What design concepts or guidelines do you like to keep in mind when working on a project? What do you find most gratifying about designing and constructing?
GS: Our projects and the methodologies we employ to develop them are really diverse. Each is a totally unique situation and requires the development of a deep understanding over a decent amount of time so that you can begin to develop concepts or guidelines that are totally reflective of and responsive toward the specific context of that project.
The most gratifying part of designing and constructing is seeing people enjoy using the place that you’ve brought into existence. It’s really humbling.
SA: How do you incorporate environmental concerns into your projects?
GS: Lots of our projects have explored the possibilities of ‘reuse’ — both spatial reuse, taking advantage of existing infrastructure to create new spatial possibilities, and material reuse, using waste or discarded materials and giving them a new lease of life as aggregate, or fill. A good example of this latter attitude is our project for OTO, which involved making a performance space out of construction rubble. In a contemporary reinvention of the principle of using excavated London clay to make the bricks of London buildings, we used the excavated waste of a Crossrail site in Dalston in order to make massive masonry walls that took their inspiration from rammed earth construction.
SA: What are some examples of literature, politics, philosophy, and art that have influenced Assemble’s work?
GS: We’ve been inspired by a totally diverse range of things from Colin Ward to Heather and Ivan Morrison with all kinds of political and pop-cultural touchstones in between. In fact, generally we take a lot of inspiration from pop culture, the everyday, and material precedents as much as from more theoretical sources.
SA: What makes a good party?
GS: Friends, and lots of them.
SA: What’s next for Assemble?
GS: Increasingly, the challenge for us is finding ways to continue our particular, comprehensive attitude to projects, involving ourselves as much as possible in every facet, from business development to building furniture, as our projects grow in scale and complexity. And, obviously, how can we keep having fun while doing it?!
To see more of Assemble's work, click here.