Assemble’s alternative, incremental, collaborative model for the production of space has rightly been recognised as something of value, says Daisy Froud
It’s great that Assemble, as a hybrid group of designers, makers and thinkers, has been nominated, and that its work with the Community Land Trust in Granby has been recognised in this way. But I no more see this as being about ‘architecture’ the professional activity being nominated for the Turner Prize than I do Assemble as being ‘architects’, even though they make beautiful places. And I mean that as a compliment.
In their own words they are ‘a collective…who work across the fields of art, architecture and design’. The group’s work in Granby in particular appears to be as much about ongoing process and culture as it is about built outputs. I understood their nomination as being very much in an artistic tradition of ‘social sculpture’ - artists as agents of change who are focused on human relationships and on new ways of being in the world together - in this instance with a particular emphasis on the built environment and the way in which we share and occupy space. In that way it has territory in common with the practice of people such as Theaster Gates in the U.S.
For me the delight of the nomination is summed up in the statement of one of the jurors: ‘In an age when anything can be art, why not have a housing estate?’. It makes me happy to see this alternative, incremental, collaborative model for the production of space recognised as something of value, at a time when the nature of urban change can often seem driven by a very narrow set of financial and technocratic value judgments.
This is an art prize, not an architecture one
But is this recognition of a new way of practicing? No, I don’t think so. This is an art prize, not an architecture one, and it is rewarding a way of thinking about the co-production of space that goes well beyond the domain of architecture as a profession. If the conversation that it provokes among architects themselves encourages more collaboration, less solutionism, more focus on process and engagement, that’s great. But it’s important to be clear anyway that that’s not a new way of practising, and I don’t think Assemble claim that it is; they always seem very modest - it’s in a tradition. Assemble happen to be a very interesting and canny and nimble, and quite high-profile, twenty-first century manifestation of that tradition. However they are one way of practising architecture among many, and it is a way of practising that for various reasons - particularly economic ones - may not be open to others.
For economic reasons Assemble’s way of practising may not be open to others
So for similar reasons - I don’t think the Turner Prize nomination means that much for architectural practice. If Assemble were architects in the traditional sense, and declared and defined themselves as an architecture practice, and the prize was going to a building, then maybe it would mean something. But this is a collective of people, many of whom have studied architecture, but also including others from other disciplines, who are being rewarded for a project that is about a place and a process. I don’t think architecture the discipline can ‘claim’ this. And I don’t think it’s very helpful for it do so. Architecture should either stop claiming so much territory, and just get on with what it is good at. Or, it should stop being so preoccupied with what it is, in an existential way, and with quality controlling who gets to say they do it, and operate in a more expansive way. But it can’t do both those things.
Architecture should stop being so preoccupied with what it is
And is this more important than the Stirling Prize? Well, it depends on the criteria. For architecture, no. This would be a whole different conversation if Assemble had been nominated for the Stirling Prize. Then it would be worth investing time in soul-searching conversations re the nature of practice, models of practice, the economic viability of practising in this way. Obviously in terms of the public paying attention, the Turner Prize probably does get more, and feels more prestigious in terms of broader cultural impact. It’s very interesting for Assemble to be recognised, so early in their careers, as valued respected artists. But in reality its audience too, in terms of those who respect and engage with the outcome, rather than have a chuckle at it, is a relatively narrow one. It’s not a prize awarded by the public, or anything like that.