Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Vital Interventions: Assemble wins the Turner Prize

A Showroom for Granby Workshop by Assemble, at the Turner Prize 2015 exhibition

Assemble, a collective of London-based 'sort of' architects who design and make urban interventions and community collaborations has won the 2015 Turner Prize, the UK art world's highest accolade, previously won with such iconic conceptual works as Damien Hirst's cow and calf in formaldehyde and Martin Creed's light going on and off. The work that got Assemble nominated is very different: a regeneration project in Liverpool's dilapidated Toxteth neighbourhood, which is inspiring proof of the power of a determined community and enlightened designers. But what does Assemble winning the Turner Prize mean for work of this kind in the future?

Granby rock fireplaces being made on site by Assemble and the Granby Workshop

The area of Toxteth in Liverpool has been the victim of what has been called 'managed decline' since it was the site of major riots in the 1981. Many promises of regeneration have been and gone without bringing any improvements, and more and more of the houses and commercial buildings in the area have been boarded up with no sign of renovation. An area of 200 residences is now home to only 70 people. But determined to stay in their neighbourhood, the community from the Granby Four Streets area began to fight back, by building their own street furniture, planting in the area and creating community events to breathe life back into the place. A community land trust was created, a social investor was brought on board and Assemble was contacted to help further.

One part of Assemble's plan is to turn a gutted out house into a winter garden, while 10 other houses have been bought back from the council and are being refurbished to Assemble's designs, making the most of the qualities - or opportunities - already existing in the buildings, such as creating double-height spaces instead of replacing ceilings that have fallen in. The project also reclaims features from demolished houses, by salvaging door handles, light pulls etc and casting them in new materials, or repurposing materials found in skips and bulldozed sites, all done by Assemble and residents in the Granby Workshop. It is a showroom for the Granby Workshop that Assemble is exhibiting at Glasgow's Tramway for the Turner Prize exhibition. At the workshop, nine Granby residents have been trained and employed to create fixtures and fittings for the houses being renovated. They are also available for sale, and the proceeds go back into the project.

A Showroom for Granby Workshop by Assemble, at the Turner Prize 2015 exhibition

This is just one example of Assemble's bottom-up approach to design, working closely with a community to design something appropriate and vital, employing a keen interest in making and building, and creating a space or experience that is intriguing and delightful. They approach the work of making spaces with an attitude that certainly sets them apart from much of the architecture profession, but does that make them artists by default? Some would argue that's not important, in fact, on winning the Turner Prize, Assemble member Anthony Engi-Meacock, said: 'It’s just not a conversation we have. I mean what is an artist? There is no answer to it.' And I agree that these labels of 'artist', 'designer' or any other can be a bit arbitrary, but there's a whole world of people out there who place great importance on the labels we might put on things or the boxes where certain work can fit. At a time when cities in the UK, not least London where Assemble is based, are being built in all the wrong ways, for all the wrong reasons, by all the wrong people, I worry that sticking an 'art' label on the work of Assemble misrepresents its real-life urgency and sidelines it in the hermetically-sealed gallery. Art presents, reflects and comments, but rarely intervenes in daily life, yet it is exactly Assemble-like interventions that our cities and neighbourhoods need. Assemble is a very worthy winner of any accolade that comes its way. Let's just hope that winning this one doesn't cause people to forget how crucial it is that this kind of activity happens not just in the gallery space but out in our streets too.

Some of Assemble (in yellow) with residents of Granby Four Streets

Images 1-3 via Creative Review, image 4 via Granby Four Streets CLT