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Assemble caught in a tug-of-love between two disciplines

Ellis Woodman
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The practice’s Turner Prize win raises questions about the appropriate boundaries between art and architecture, says Ellis Woodman

The fact that a group of architects were awarded the country’s premier art prize on Monday night is being widely reported as a blow to long-established disciplinary definitions. Of course, the description of Assemble as architects is not altogether straightforward as the practice still lacks ARB registration. A number of its founding directors have yet to complete Part 2, let alone Part 3; others never studied architecture at all. But nor have they ever presented themselves as artists. By allowing the quality of their work to speak for itself, they have found themselves caught in a tug-of-love between two disciplines each eager to claim them as its own.

It is a curious situation that would surely have raised a smile on the lips of Richard Norman Shaw, the co-editor of an 1892 collection of essays entitled Architecture: A Profession or an Art? Including contributions from many of the leading architects of the period, the book offered a protest against the RIBA’s proposal to introduce a professional register to which access would be granted only on the passing of an exam. Shaw’s faction maintained that as an art, architecture was unexaminable and that professional regulation was inherently the enemy of creative development.

The real value of an integrated arts education is not that it blurs boundaries between disciplines but  that it teaches what is particular to each

This resistance to professionalisation went hand in hand with an opposition to standalone architecture schools. Shaw and his supporters maintained that architecture should be taught alongside the other visual arts, in the kind of environment then offered by the Royal Academy schools.

The currently threatened Sir John Cass Faculty of Art Architecture and Design is one of the few UK schools that still offers that kind of integrated teaching programme. Last year, I experienced it at first hand when teaching a dissertation studio attended by students of architecture, illustration, textiles, fine art and jewellery. That diversity of background enabled students to benefit from a wide body of knowledge outside their own discipline – an experience that seemed particularly valuable for the architecture students.

Although increasingly taught in a disciplinary silo, architecture has long-maintained a magpie-like interest in other art-forms, a plundering that has not always been well received by those – particularly fine artists – whose work architects have sought to co-opt. I can think of few more searing instances of architecture criticism than the writing of Donald Judd on Hans Hollein or Richard Serra on Peter Eisenman. Architecture and sculpture are not the same and only by understanding such distinctions does it becomes possible to maintain a conversation about how representatives of those disciplines might work together. The value of an integrated arts education is therefore not that it blurs boundaries between disciplines but that it teaches what is particular to each.

I believe the members of Assemble understand those distinctions well and, whatever the Turner Prize jury or the ARB have to say about the matter, they surely deserve to be seen as architects. I don’t want to begrudge them their celebration by the art world, but I do hope that their recent anointment as artists doesn’t steer them from their course. One of the particularly exciting aspects of the collective form of authorship that they have been developing over the past five years, is that it leaves space for the contributions of others. Maintaining that generosity will be a central challenge as the work grows in scale and complexity, and the involvement of artists from a wide range of other disciplines could prove of enormous help in allowing them to meet that goal. Frank Lloyd Wright may have described architecture as the mother of the arts but for some years the discipline has been neglecting its maternal duties. It now falls to Assemble to offer an example of good parenthood.


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