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Assemble and the Turner Prize: 'A rebuke to a profession that has sold its soul'


Sean Griffiths, Vicky Richardson, Will Alsop and Pippa Nissen react to the shock inclusion of art/architecture collective Assemble on this year’s Turner Prize shortlist

Earlier this week the 18-strong outfit of young designers and artists was nominated for the country’s leading art prize - worth £25,000 - for its work with local residents regenerating Liverpool’s rundown Granby Four Streets.

But what does this surprise recognition ‘for a different kind of practice’ say about the current state of the profession?

Sean Griffiths, formerly of FAT and professor of architecture at the University of Westminster


‘The nomination of Assemble for the Turner Prize is a wonderful thing and I’m more than a little jealous. For those of us who, in recent years, have sought a different way of practicing, often against the tide, it is a triumph.

‘No doubt the profession will seize on this great success and claim it as its own when in fact, it is a rebuke to a profession that has sold its soul and allowed itself to be annexed by the property industry.

‘It is a lesson to those within the profession who would undermine the UK’s highly successful UK architectural education system, of which Assemble is a product, and make it conform to its own narrow technocratic prejudices.

It is is an embarrassment to the conservative Stirling Prize

‘The nomination will be an inspiration to students, demonstrating that, for those who are ambitious enough, there are exciting “real world” possibilities for practice that lie beyond the moribund orthodoxies offered by the profession.

‘It is also an embarrassment to the conservative Stirling Prize. It is remarkable that it has taken the art world’s Turner Prize to recognise the value of a different kind of architectural practice, one that is focussed on the conceptual, political and social aspects of architecture.

‘The nomination is also timely. It reflects an increasing interest by artists in architecture and vice versa. Assemble’s practice has something in common with those of rising stars of the art world like Theaster Gates, who has brilliantly used his art practice to initiate a community led regeneration of run down areas in Chicago. It also follows on from major recent exhibitions of practitioners whose work crosses over between art and architecture.

‘Maybe the RIBA, following its well-established tradition of being behind the curve on everything, will now nominate Assemble for its Stirling Prize. I hope they win both.’

Vicky Richardson, director of architecture, design and fashion at the British Council

Vicky Richardson

‘Assemble are not alone in breaking out of a traditional professional practice – firms like Muf Architecture/Art and FAT have been doing this for a while. [However] I think they stand out because they’ve made some brilliant projects very quickly and early in their careers. They’ve also self-initiated a lot of their work, which has allowed them to set their own agenda in the way that artists conventionally have; and most of their buildings are handmade, which captures the zeitgeist.

‘Prizes and awards are supposed to generate controversy and debate. I hope this nomination opens up discussion about architecture as an art form. The trend recently has been for architecture to be positioned as a branch of the construction industry, or as a tool for planning and community relations: in the wake of the Farrell Review, ministerial responsibility for architecture has been handed from DCMS to the Ministry for Communities and Local Government. I worry that the result will be to drain architecture of its intellectual and artistic content. I don’t think architecture is the same as art, but it needs the space for freedom of expression and experimentation just as music, fine art and literature do.

The Stirling Prize shouldn’t have such a low profile

‘So is the Turner Prize more important than the Stirling Prize? In purely practical terms - such as audience numbers and prize money – it’s much more important. But it shouldn’t be the case that the UK’s biggest architecture prize has such a low profile.

‘[And in terms of the prize changing public perceptions] if other architects get inspired to change the way they work, to be more open, interesting and political, I think perceptions might change too.’

Will Alsop, Royal Academician and co-founder of ALL Design

Will Alsop

‘It doesn’t matter what I think about the work itself, this nomination is a reflection of how the barriers between different disciplines are breaking down.

‘For young architects, trying to get something built in the traditional manner is getting more and more difficult - for instance having to show three years of accounts and existing building types when bidding through the OJEU process.

‘Emerging talents have to take other forms of action, so this is welcome. It is a good message to get out there.

‘Conversely, when the Stirling Prize lost its monetary award, its lost value as a result. It might not get it back.’

Pippa Nissen co-founder of Nissen Richards

‘I love the fact that a young and fresh architecture practice is part of the Turner Prize – it feels very exciting that such a prestigious and controversial prize is including architecture at last.

‘Architectural education is really broad and includes attitudes and skills in a whole range of different disciplines – why should that grind to a halt when hit by the reality of putting a building together with all its intimidating conventions and regulations? 

‘Architecture is many things – some of which are about ideas and about challenging society. I remember my disappointment over the missing sense of adventure in conventional commissions when I began my practice. I totally salute bringing architecture back as something challenging that provokes people to re-look at their surroundings.  I enjoy the way that Assemble just gets on with it, and finds and makes their own commissions.

Architecture should not always be about technical distinction

‘I know from our own experience of trying to work between disciplines in some of our work, that it takes a huge amount of energy to cut through expectations from different people – and Assemble seem to effortlessly do this in their work, although you can also see the pure graft that they have gone through.

‘This will have exciting ramifications for us too. Architecture should not always be about technical distinction; playfulness and vision are equally exciting to me. Clients may have different expectations of architects and what we do, and perhaps allow more risk taking. Funding and commissioning bodies may also include architecture within some arts based funding. So for us it is good news. We spend much of our time thinking about how we describe ourselves to different clients; are we architects? Exhibition designers? Theatre designers? Artists?’We have different presentations to stress different parts of our work. How great for architecture to be edging closer to art and not just be the square cousin of design. Well done Assemble, I hope you win.’

Other comments

Heinz Richardson, director at Jestico + Whiles
‘This is tremendous news for architects and in particular the importance of the social agenda. Assemble are to be congratulated for raising the profile of architects’ and designers’ ability to be agents of change, artists and for highlighting the importance of public involvement. I hope they win the prize.’

Matt Yeoman, director at BuckleyGrayYeoman
‘[Assemble’s] Matt Leung is a former member of our team and we’re delighted for him. Despite architecture being often cited as “the mother of all arts”, the art world itself has never agreed. Until now.’

Martyn Evans, creative director of Cathedral Group (Holdings)
‘Architecture is an art. Like other artforms its best output challenges ideas, reflects life back to us and lifts our souls. Assemble’s work does all of those things. Are they architects? Are they artists? It doesn’t matter. It’s what they do that counts.’

Hanneke Scott-van Wel, architect and director at Stone Opera
‘We’re delighted to see Assemble being nominated for the Turner Prize. Was it not Frank Lloyd Wright who said that Architecture was the mother of all Arts? Especially in Britain it is time that the profession reconnects with its cultural importance. There is nothing new about that. We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed.’

Julian Gitsham, principal and practice Leader, HASSELL
‘It’s very interesting that a collective  studio of creative individuals with an architectural background has been shortlisted for the Turner Prize. This represents a fascinating and encouraging shift of blended thinking across the arts and cultural world. It’s something we are passionate about; this idea that architects and designers can be just as adept at creating short term installations and interventions as we are at designing buildings and places, and we tend to approach these projects as art pieces more than architectural structures.

‘In terms of whether the Turner Prize has a higher profile than the Stirliig Prize? Yes, I think it does. And I think it should have if it continues to encompass the wider cultural spectrum as it has done this year.’

Seán McAlister, co-founder, Seán & Stephen
‘The Assemble + Granby Four Streets Turner Prize shortlisting cannot be over-celebrated. Why? It’s provocative. And, unless you’ve been knocked back at the doors of one of their Sugarhouse parties, you’ll agree Assemble deserve many more trophies, stacked to the rafters! To underline the point, they would undoubtedly craft such disarmingly good rafters to necessitate further awards!

‘The provocations are evident: ‘is this art?’ ‘are they artists?’ ‘oh wait, what is the Turner prize actually about?’. I assume, like most other people here, I’m a bit in the dark as to what Granby Four Streets actually is, despite the intriguing information and images on Assemble’s website. This aside, it’s clear the Turner Prize jury has pulled a double punch, worthy of an international art Prize itself - let’s call it the Duchamp Medal, as opposed to the Urinal Award - because they have made us look twice, then three times at artists and artworks with this year’s lineup. Instead of artists seeking the centre-trained spotlight, the spotlight has sought the often dimly-lit peripheries - and it just so happens art and architecture share a periphery. It’s called Assemble.’



Readers' comments (2)

  • This is excellent news and as others have said merely reflects whats been going on for years. Boundaries are there to be moved more than broken, and within art and architecture it is those who have pioneered such change that ask the most important questions. I'd like to see many other boundaries moved such as those between architecture and; engineering, manufacturing, biotech, urban design, planning, landscape, policy making, performance and media.

    Bob Sheil (Director of The Bartlett School of Architecture)

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  • Sean&Stephen, Assemble, Studio Weave, You&Me, We Made That et al so many young innovative, cross-disciplinary, risk taking, community and social based enterprise. Such talent and such a potential for the future. And when did it emerge - we need another financial crisis to focus minds - business as usual is dangerous!

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