Exclusive Assemble interview: re-assembling Architecture

The Turner Prize has long links to public storms created via architecture. Notoriously Rachel Whiteread’s work House, a cast of a Victorian terraced house in London’s East End, also won the K Foundation’s £40,000 prize for the worst artist of the year. But this year there has been positive vibes surrounding the winners, architect collective Assemble for their community project Granby Four Streets, a cluster of terraced houses in Toxteth, Liverpool. Working with residents, the Community Land Trust and Steinbeck Studios, the project refurbishes housing and public space, provides training for young people in the community and is embedding a social enterprise. It’s not just the wider public whose imagination they’ve captured, writes John O’Reilly. Click to go straight to interview

I saw three of the 14-strong collective speak to students from the Spatial Practices program at Central Saint Martins (where the three of them teach). The aisles between the rows of seats were full of students, and people squeezed into the remaining gaps between chairs and the podium. Assemble bring their facility for helping people remake public space even to this simple lecture. The lecture theatre bulging with students is also a sign that Assemble are currently the poster boys and girls for a generation of young architects making, improvisation-by-improvisation, a different future for architecture.

They’re emblems of how architecture might be in a post-starchitect age where the public are discovering they can ask different questions of architects, and a younger generation of architects are asking different questions of themselves. Edwin Heathcote wrote in an article for The Financial Times entitled, 'Is Assemble the future of progressive architecture' that Assemble “don’t wait for commissions to come to them, they initiate their own projects and work with communities and institutions to create designs of real social value. Then, most of the time, they build the projects themselves, learning as they go.” 

How Assemble assemble the materials and processes, people and spaces for each project, is learned as they do it. The blueprint is created as it is materialised. Equally importantly, it is partly as Heathcote notes, that they "create designs of real social value", but perhaps more importantly their work assembles the 'social' differently each time  – it poses the question of what 'social' could be in an age where traditional architectural (and political) signs of the social are changing. 

Early project Cineroleum turned an abandoned petrol station in Clerkenwell into a cinema via the simple device of the curtain as movable wall. With 600 such stations being closed each year, the project was also intended as a kind of prototype – what public might emerge from such abandoned public spaces? What kind of 'social' might emerge from the desert island of the automobile?

(Images from Assemble)

Folly for a Flyover was an arts venue under a flyover space in Hackney, created from reclaimed materials, attracting 40,000 visitors over its nine week opening and was shortlisted for the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year 2012. Again, it's about rematerialising public space previously made invisible by design and commerce. The architectural blueprint was a narrative - the idea of a stubborn landlord who refuses to make way for the motorway, whose house emerges between the concrete motorway routing of east and west overhead. It's the public realm as a different speed, a different set of encounters, a different set of rhythms to the distribution of traffic, goods and people overhead. Assemble not only built the physical space but put together a network of institutions such as the Create Festival and Barbican Arts Centre, and local businesses to facilate events and gatherings.

(Images from Assemble)

Their own studio space Sugarhouse Studios in Stratford was built with the London Legacy Development Corporation and since its opening in 2012 is home to other local creative and makers (Assemble are also landlords), workshops, exhibitions and even a café and pizzeria.

(Images from Assemble)

The Yard House is an annexe extension to Sugarhouse Studios with 16 more studio spaces, built at a cost of £291/m², at a fraction of the cost of new builds in London. The two-storey, three-bay structure, with a timber frame, has a colourful façade of handmade concrete tiles – learning the process of making the tiles as they made them. The façade captures the signature Assemble tension - playful and designery, frisky and sober. Coloured handmade tiles? Assemble are architects of the unlikely, that's what makes them so compelling. Their work has been described as 'ad-hoc modernism', and if they were to build machines for living in, it would be a mix of Le Corbusier and Heath Robinson  – utopianism with a punchline, constructed from the most unlikely and unpromising combination of people, materials and spaces. 

(Images from Assemble)

Assemble’s space reflects a broader dynamic of the architect as a generator of networks. The network can begin with the materials being gathered or made to construct the space, or the practices required to make them, or the practices designed into the use of the spaces. So the Granby Workshop sells objects created by local people and the money is recycled back into Granby. It’s about working with whatever is at hand – people and things. In his piece for The Guardian on Assemble and The Turner Prize, Oliver Wainwright quoted Erika Rushton, chair of the community land trust who were working with the group, “Assemble are the only ones who have ever sat and listened to the residents, and then translated their vision into drawings and models, and now into reality.”

As much as anything else, Assemble's work is about the practice of assembly. It's about re-inventing the components of the built environment, giving these components a different way of engaging with the world and reshaping it.

So in Folly for a Flyover an elevated section of motorway becomes reactivated as a frame for an arts centre. In Granby Four Streets a group of houses and residents whose desires are ignored, re-assemble themselves (with Assemble) as social and cultural actors.

In an age of austerity, when long-held agreements of how the social might engage with and emerge from the built environment, are being disassembled, Assemble are using architecture and the built environment to re-imagine the materials, spaces and practices that might make a new vision of the 'social'. 

We caught up with Assemble member and CSM lecturer Maria Lisogorskaya and asked her about the history and practices of the group.

There used to be 20 in Assemble now there’s 14 people. How many were from architectural backgrounds?

Maria Lisogorskaya: About two thirds – the majority are architecturally-educated, either part one or part two – no one has done part three. Then there are quite a few Humanities subjects, so somebody studied philosophy, somebody studied English Literature, one guy studied History but it’s funny because he brings other skills like plumbing and construction, which is mainly due to his personal experience.

You are very hands on as a group in projects, you make a lot of the fittings yourselves?

Maria Lisogorskaya: Yes – especially at the beginning. Even now, it depends on the scale of the project, we don’t make everything. But yes at the beginning that was quite the point of doing it. There was the fun aspect of do-it-yourself. Some people are definitely better than others. Not everyone is really good at it.

I think it was Oliver Wainwright in The Guardian who quoted someone as saying the Cineroleum project came from a collective desire to build, so I was just curious what that desire was. What does that feel like, where does it come from? What does that do for people?

Maria Lisogorskaya: That’s a good question. I think when a lot of us started working and practicing as assistants, we were very removed from the bigger picture and from the hands-on stuff you get to do when you are at university, you’re detailing one element of something and you’re not really sure why. Then there were lots of other projects happening like Southwark Lido and some of us helped out on that. Then there was Frank’s Café, some of us got involved in that – it was hands on. It is just quite empowering as well and once you start, it’s like instant visual change and you have kind of overcome something. I think it’s also a balance thing, to balance out all the theory and abstract drawing that you have to do. Different people enjoy it for different reasons. It’s also a collective thing which is quite fun.

That tangible sense of the collective, being on site?

Maria Lisogorskaya: Yes, it’s quite social, and learning new skills is just enjoyable. Maybe it's also a reaction to the fact that it’s so different to practice. Also I found personally when I was a student and we had to do details and construction details and all that stuff at school, I found it all quite boring, it was so kind of abstract and I felt quite removed from all the conceptual stuff that we were thinking about for our designs. But now I find in practice it’s really exciting, having made stuff yourself – you can see how things go together, testing things out, hands-on. It was like – ‘ah ok I understand!’

Creating change is obviously and clearly a big part of what you do. MIT Professor and social psychologist Kurt Lewin once famously said, “If you want truly to understand something, try to change it!” and it makes sense in relation to your work in relation to the politics, the logistics and making. Part of your building process in changing environments and spaces is about learning through making with local people, materials, the planning and the politics.

Maria Lisogorskaya: Yes, definitely, because we are kind of thrown into the deep-end, because we decided to do things ourselves and I guess we have tried to re-invent the wheel, whereas in practice you are kind of learning step-by-step. There was good and bad, because the learning curve was so steep. You get to take responsibility for things, because if you don’t, no one else will. We are definitely still learning a lot.

There’s another fascinating observation about your Cineroleum work from The New York Times, “They forge a reputation using otherwise valueless materials and places,” which I think is quite interesting. Is that fair observation?

Maria Lisogorskaya: I guess, especially in the early days, because of budgets or lack of budget, we were using Tyveck which is usually a roofing material, or using demolished brick pieces in casting concrete and I also think it was part of a narrative that we like to tell basically because it is true. It’s also cheaper and creates interesting effects. It’s also about economy and the idea that there is already so much stuff out there which is mass-produced. And instead of having to create something new, is there a way of making it go further by working with something that is already there?

So whatever is to hand? And I guess looking back to earlier work, and even now in Liverpool, it was all about local and local materials?

Maria Lisogorskaya: In the houses there was some stuff, like the cast concrete, which is using local demolition. But not everything, like pieces of ply – who knows where that comes from!

But you looked to local sources?

Maria Lisogorskaya: Yes and local energy and people who were there, and working with them was kind of a collaboration as well. Local skills as well, trying to understand it, because the idea of the local is complex.

So regarding the fact no one in Assemble is a certified architect, was there any reason why, given there was such a large group of people that you didn’t want to go to an architect’s practice or did this just happen?

Maria Lisogorskaya: That’s a very good question. Everybody was working for someone at the beginning. We all had jobs, so the first project was really a part-time hobby kind of thing. So we did that and it was successful, we were riding that wave and we did the second project as well in our free time, some people took holidays to do it. It was still all voluntary, then to do that project we had to set up as a company in order to get a grant, the art grant. So that made it into a thing, then some people went back to do Part Two but some people didn’t. Then there was the opportunity, an actual commission that came our way and those people decided to do it. It just gradually grew. Those who came back from Part Two, some decided to join and come back, some didn’t.

That’s interesting, so the fact that you don’t have a license is not really an issue. You’ve done the Goldsmiths college work, how does that work and is it a concern? Where does it sit among your conversations?

Maria Lisogorskaya: So far we have been quite lucky. There was a competition that we couldn’t apply for, for example, The Preston Bus Station. That was a RIBA-run competition where you had to be an architect to enter it. But then the Goldsmiths project [an art gallery, model below] was done by our QS who are Project Managers and Engineers and — who take all the responsibilities. It depends on the client and type of brief where it states what you have to be, sometimes it doesn’t. So there are other options.

(Images from Assemble, Goldsmiths)

It’s clearly not excluding or putting a full stop on your work?

Maria Lisogorskaya: No, not at all! We were talking about what we should do about that, but it hasn’t been a priority.

Your work with materials seems to be quite open and speculative.  Having seen your workshop and all the kinds of things that you make, like the doorknobs, everything, these 'things' just felt 'invented' as it were. What’s your relationship with materials?

Maria Lisogorskaya: Thank you for that, I guess in a sense, it is not that we make new materials but we invent an approach depending on the budget situation. And I think people value that it is a really effective way of improving something, especially when you can’t do grand architectural gestures, but you can make a difference somewhere else.

Then we have kind of learnt that is a very interesting way of doing it. So for the like of the Granby workshop there’s a kind of philosophy about processes being cheap and accessible and easy for people to learn, but also bring an element of humanness to them, so you would think it was different depending on who’s doing it.

(Images from Assemble, prodcuts from the Granby workshop)

So that’s the kind of philosophy behind those and how the materials came about. For the tiles for the Yard House, again because the main shell was really cheap and standard with pre-fab cladding and stuff, we wanted to do something that was decorative and then kind of just developed and researched books. There was one book on tile-making from the 1960s and we used that as a starting point then developed it and developed it. Also I think we spur each other on, and once you’ve seen that this is cool. It has become a culture.

So there is a tangible culture in the group?

Maria Lisogorskaya: I think so, definitely now, especially with the facilities that we have. It is a kind of thing that people value and are interested in.

No matter how genuinely brilliant conventional architects are, some part of the client is buying into the status of the architect clients as well. They’re thinking I’m going to build a big building in the city and you have some grand offices and therefore a traditional architect’s space would be more organized, directive, be more familiar to a client than perhaps your space?

Maria Lisogorskaya: Yes that’s true. Whenever we get together and try to have a manifesto or what is our five-year plan it doesn’t really work and we just agree on the fact that we don’t have a plan! I don’t know whether that will change when we try to become more of a business. I don’t know. Because questions are coming up where we are saying it is stupid that we are turning down work that could be profitable and we are taking on this stuff which is really unprofitable.  We are starting to think about it so it might change.

In the world of design, especially service design, ‘co-creation’ became such a popular idea over the last decade – the idea that the designer is no longer the high priest or expert handing down tablets of stone, but works with a community, not just to create an object but to find, understand and discover a problem. Is there any of that in what you do?

Maria Lisogorskaya: I never thought about it like that, yes, I think with the Croydon project for example, it was an early Public Realm project, New Addington – that definitely felt like what we were doing a lot in the beginning – just being architects-in-residence. You are just listening and understanding what’s going on – exactly finding the problem. I think it is something we try to do a lot, is to actually try and have a statement, answering a question or summarising the problem to guide the project. I am sure everyone does that.

It comes out of discussions with communities?

Maria Lisogorskaya: Yes, both discussion and also observation. We found with New Addington just doing little tests, like temporary skate ramps and temporary markets or whatever as a way of engaging with people and testing ideas as opposed to just talking and asking ‘what do you want?’, which is often not very successful, it’s a way of trying out and seeing what happens. It’s not always possible to do that, as obviously it is time consuming, but where there is the opportunity.

(Images from Assemble, New Addington)

Obviously, in New Addington you must have worked with Finn Williams? How important are those kind of relationships with officialdom in what you do?

Maria Lisogorskaya: That’s really important, definitely. If it wasn’t for him and his boss Vincent Lacovara (leader of Croydon Council's Placemaking Team), we may not have received the commission because we were so inexperienced. Onwards from then Finn’s been really supportive, obviously very intelligent and was really able to help in the way that he can help, being part of authority. You can get people in authority who aren’t that helpful.

(Images from Assemble, New Addington)

It would be interesting to get your take on that, because on one level your account at the lecture of the situation in Granby sounded like it had at one point been a political nightmare, people over time were just trying to dump this area it and erase it, as it were, from the books.

Maria Lisogorskaya: I think we were quite lucky because a lot of the hard work had been done already by the community land trust and others. Obviously it still is not straightforward but I don’t think we faced as many difficulties as they did.

(Images from Assemble, Granby)

So you didn’t really have to deal with the politics of the situation at all? You were really engaged with making stuff happen?

Maria Lisogorskaya: Not as much, obviously there is still some politics and some of the council’s plans were still uncertain at the time. Yes, there was a lot of that and also budgetary uncertainty. Yes there was, definitely, but not to the same scale. I think it was quite welcome somehow. At the beginning it was a bit vague and complex.

Just on that project, we had people down to The Building Centre from UCL, Muki Haklay and CASA and their projects were about engaging local communities. How did the local people respond to people coming up from London? How did that work? How did you engage and gain the trust of local people to work on this?

Maria Lisogorskaya: I think because it took a long time and it has been going on for a couple of years. There were initial bits of work and study we did, got us to the next stage – so they appreciated the hard work we put in without really knowing what the outcome was going to be.  We were up there being quite friendly and I think over time they realised that we were good collaborators. At some point we also lived there and they got to see us working really hard which is what happened at New Addington – that we were out there, hands-on, building stuff. Working a lot, visible, not being architects top-down.

Yes, I was going to say – it must be a little bit unusual for architects to mix with so many different people, so many different jobs and backgrounds?

Maria Lisogorskaya: Yes, I guess so. Also because we had a lot of energy. I think that some of the earlier projects we had done we probably wouldn’t be able to do now. It’s just different when you are starting out – where you are excited about everything, whereas in Central Parade in New Addington, we kind of slept over in this octagon building which used to be a public toilet, they cut down stuff in the square, it was raining and cold. I don’t think we could do that again!

There’s very interesting quote from Edwin Heathcote in The Financial Times about your collaboration with Simon Terrell and he said, “A typical cocktail of Assemble concerns: public space, playfulness, the gentle subversion of an institution and a populist self-built ad hoc modernism,” that’s quite an interesting mash of different things!  Does that feel familiar? And if it does where do you think it comes from?

Maria Lisogorskaya: That’s a nice compliment! I guess a lot of it comes from our education. We were quite lucky in our architectural education, but also people did Philosophy and English and studying other things, and having those ambitions about publicness and a holistic approach to things and all that stuff as a student that you get to do, which then is very difficult to achieve in practise. I think that was around for a while, and also the fact that it’s not like we are the whole school – we as people get connected because of those shared interests.

For more on Assemble click here. Text and interview John O'Reilly.

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