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Assemble turns RIBA gallery into 'Brutalist playground'

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The RIBA’s architecture gallery has been transformed into a foam playground by Turner-Prize shortlisted Assemble and artist Simon Terrill

The space features elements from the 1960s playgrounds at the Balfron Tower, Churchill Gardens and the Brunel Estate recreated at 1:1 from coloured foam.

The exhibition is the first time the RIBA has held an interactive installation in its Carmody Groarke-designed gallery at Portland Place and is also the first time the galleries skylights have been opened up during a show allowing natural light to flood into the space.

The installation, designed in collaboration with artist and Balfron Tower resident Simon Terrill, explores the concrete playgrounds that formed the UK’s Brutalist housing estates.

The estates’ playgrounds, many of which are now demolished, were often made from cast concrete forms and reflected the preoccupations and social theories of society at that time.

Joe Halligan of Assemble said he hoped the installation, which runs until 16 August, would ‘make the RIBA more accessible and get people excited about architecture’.

Assemble Brutalist playground

Q&A with Assemble’s Joe Halligan

Assemble's Joe Halligan

How did the collaboration with artist Simon Terrill come about?
Simon held an exhibition at our Sugar House Studios and he had one to do at the RIBA. He wanted to work with us and to do something more interactive. When we were approached by Simon we initially thought it would be an exhibition design for displaying his photos. Then we met him and he said: ‘No – we’ll make the art, the exhibition and everything.’ So then the conversation got going. Simon doesn’t really know the RIBA in the same way that we do. To him it’s just another gallery. So when he said: ‘Let’s turn it into a playground’, we were like: ‘No way’.
[But we realised] this would be fun and refreshing for the RIBA. The [institute] can be a bit stuffy so this would be a really good thing to try and do. They have been really supportive. Architects and artists are often seen as different things – architects do the exhibition design and artists do the work. But this collaboration with Simon has really blurred those boundaries.

Did any of Assemble ever play on the playgrounds at the estates?
No – they’ve always been fenced off or have been removed completely. Simon lives on the Balfron Estate so his flat looks down on its playground. We inherited the ‘Brutalist Playground’ title from Simon. He thought the playground peculiar and had a desire to see how good it really was.

How has the installation been received by children?
Children from two to eight years old came into the exhibition yesterday. They really enjoyed it. We thought the playgrounds were interesting but it’s difficult to know if they were actually any good or not. Some don’t exist any more. It’s hard to tell whether [they are] just an architectural fetish or something. But kids of all ages seem to enjoy what we have done here.

How was the foam replica of Churchill Gardens’ saucer built?
We worked really hard with engineers Structure Workshop. It is metal fabricated. It had to come through the door from the Jarvis Hall which is 1.7m. It is steel welded to a similar structure as a bicycle wheel. The structure comes together at a central drum which sits on a huge load spreader because the floor could only take 4kN/m2 – that’s less than half what you would normally expect in a gallery.

Were there limitations in working with the RIBA’s gallery space?
This building is not built for this kind of exhibition. We toured our Lina Bo Bardi exhibition around lots of galleries but this has been the most difficult. It has a limestone floor which you can’t fix into. It is a beautiful space and for doing an exhibition like Mackintosh, but if you try to do something like this it is awkward.

The installation said visitors would be invited to ‘play in a Brutalist way’, how do you do this?
Brutalism is a style but it is also like a kind of thinking or something. It’s about exposing or treating materials in a certain way.

I hope what we have done is changed the art gallery into a playground

What do you think the architects of the original playgrounds would think of what you have done?
I hope we haven’t changed them too much. We wanted to make it accessible. What they did at the playgrounds was an extension of their architecture. We wanted people who have kids and want to come to something at the RIBA in the school holidays to have that chance. You get things like this in the Tate – where you can bring your kids and interact with the art but you don’t really get it in the RIBA. I hope that it has made this more accessible so people can get more excited about architecture.

Is the loss of these playgrounds tied in with the ‘social cleansing’ of the estates?
Yes. So much of it is to do with maintenance and care. They are political issues rather than architectural issues. It feels like Modernism works when the client is rich. If you go up to Hampstead the Modernism up there is beautiful, really good stuff which is well maintained. But as soon as it is used for social housing it is different.

Owen Hatherley wrote that your Toxteth scheme signalled a move towards architecture of serious political importance (AJ 05.07.15), would you agree with this?
It is hard to know whether it signalled a big change for us. Assemble is big and what it is varies differently to each one of us. We’ve been working on social schemes for a long time – schemes in Croydon and Glasgow. At Toxteth we are very lucky to be working with a community land trust. The people there are just amazing. They’d just been living among rubble for 20 years.

Do architects need to change the way they work on projects which could involve ‘social cleansing’?Should they refuse to work on these jobs?
It’s up to the architect. It depends on what you think architecture is about. Is it about making stuff that looks nice – which is what some people do very well? This is important but it’s not everything. You notice that nobody else in the team is really looking after design. The architect’s role is really important for looking after how something looks because no one else gives a shit. That is an architect’s default position. But I’d like to think it is also about more than that. You shouldn’t be naïve when thinking about which projects to do or not do. You should be aware of the wider effects of your scheme.
We have the problem where when we started we did a few pop-ups, then pop-ups became the thing to do to sell stuff and everybody wanted us to do them. Pop-ups can be a great thing – they can be a testbed for ideas but you need to be aware of the wider impact of your work.

Now you’re well-known do you have more choice to choose the jobs you do?
We’ve never done anything we didn’t want to do. We worked hard. We started doing it in our spare time so most of our income came from somewhere else. This is still the case – most people in the office have another job teaching. This is a luxury in that we have an income stream coming from somewhere else – it means that you only work on a project if you really want to work on it. Our projects are not normally driven by the money.

We’re super-interested in doing a bigger building

Would the practice be interested in larger schemes?
We’re super-interested in doing a bigger building – particularly housing. We want to do a housing scheme in London which is self-build. There is potential for shell housing where people can buy the shell and fit it out themselves. It makes for more interesting housing.

Did getting shortlisted for the Turner Prize change people’s perception the practice?
We were working on the Brutalist Playground before we knew we had been shortlisted. It is strange because six months ago we were more wary. I was like ‘Simon, I don’t think architects can really make the art’. But yes, now after the shortlisting, I think perceptions about us have changed. It is a very strange thing to happen.

What has stopped architects from being shortlisted before?
We are not architects although most of us are architecturally trained. We constantly find ourselves apologising for not being architects. There has been a funny shift. After getting the Turner Prize nomination the profession wanted to adopt us and accept us but we’re just doing the same stuff we have always done.

Will it change your approach to projects?
It might change the projects that come in but it won’t change us. We work on a buddy system so if a project comes in and two people say they want to work on it then it will more than likely go ahead within the office.

People have said before that the practice can only afford to do the type of work it does because you are all well off and have trust funds behind you, how do you respond to that?
It’s just not true. I don’t know where they have got that from. I find it mean. Maybe it is because we haven’t played by the rules. We haven’t finished our architectural education. I think other people should just do it. We did it young. We took risks. People in the practice were living as Guardians paying very little rent but if you’re 35 and have children then it’s more difficult. You can’t really live like that. Maybe that is it. Architecture forces you to start a practice in a period of your life when it’s just not that practical – we did it before this.
At Assemble everyone is self-employed and not salaried by the practice. You only earn money from the project which you are working on and of all the fee that comes in half goes to the business and the other half goes to the two buddies who are running the job.

Do you see young graduates wanting to work for you and being a tight-knit collaborative group how do you go about recruiting? Would it change the dynamic of the practice?
We haven’t had to recruit anyone yet. After the first two projects [Folly for a Flyover and the Cineroleum] we became defined by who turned up. If you turned up enough you became part of Assemble. We’d love to help young graduates but we can’t offer any security to anyone because we can’t even offer it to ourselves. No one is salaried, no one has a pension. We wouldn’t have interns though. It is bad for the profession. If you have to run a job where you get interns in to do it you shouldn’t be doing it.

Assemble Brutalist playground

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