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The profession still fails to communicate how architects shape the world

Rory Olcayto
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Will this month be remembered as the time the art world swallowed ‘architecture’ in one clean gulp? asks Rory Olcayto

Last week Assemble, a London-based collective with many architecturally-trained members, was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. Its plan to revive a run-down Liverpool neighbourhood by working closely with residents was considered by Tate Britain to be a ‘new development in contemporary art’. If you’re wondering why it took the UK’s pre-eminent art prize to notice Assemble first, you’re not alone.

It may seem odd that Assemble are up for the Turner Prize, but a closer look is revealing. Assemble calls itself ‘a collective based in London working across the fields of art, architecture and design’. Note: art before architecture.  What Assemble does – DIY design in collaboration with communities – is not unique. It has become an established model, usually for comfortably-off architecture graduates with no immediate need to earn money, for the past 10, perhaps even 20 years. There are other organisations which do similar work, such as We Made That, Practice Architecture and Pidgin Perfect (and loads more besides). Assemble, with an Observer profile and a job rebuilding Goldsmiths in the bag, is simply the most glamorous – and safest – pick of the bunch.

What is troubling is that it has taken the Tate to spotlight this new type of practice, one that engages with a major contemporary theme that architects should have a major stake in: how we make cities and homes and communities now that the state has ceded that role. Sadly, our profession has been too slow to acknowledge the inroads Assemble and others have made in developing alternative forms of practice.

Another sucker punch came in the form of last week’s Channel 4 documentary on Living Architecture’s House for Essex, a holiday rental home for Alain De Botton’s company, designed by FAT’s Charles Holland and artist Grayson Perry. The film focused on Perry and his vision of the house, but sidelined Holland, who was presented as a lackey in a bit-part role. It was a downbeat conclusion to FAT’s incredible story, given that its own body of work is one of only a few in British architecture that could fairly have been nominated for the art world’s biggest prize.

Furthermore, the documentary was misleading. Not only was the function of the House for Essex poorly explained – viewers would have understood it to be a shrine to ‘Essex girls’, rather than an expensive holiday home for metropolitan aesthetes – the creative role of the architect was ignored.  The contractor was given more airtime than FAT. So was a tile company. Holland’s skill in giving shape to Perry’s ideas and steering it away from the Hobbit-like vision the artist first conjured, while simultaneously creating a building appropriate to FAT’s portfolio was left unexplored.

Somehow, in that same 20-year period that has seen young architecture graduates drift away from established forms of practice to set up their own, the profession has failed to communicate to the public the diverse skills that architects bring to shaping the world we live in. Something has to change. Gulp.


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