Tate Britain's Turner Prize is among the most publicized awards in the art world, long associated with the kind of sensational, headline-making artwork-from Tracey Emin's soiled bedsheets and used condoms to Chris Ofili's elephant-dung-studded paintings-that characterized the YBA era. But the announcement in May of this year's nominees marked a significant shift: For the first time in the Turner's thirty-one-year history, an architect is being considered.
Or rather, an architectural collective. It is both startling and sobering to see Assemble, the group in question, nominated for this rarefied art prize. Comprising fourteen core members, most in their late twenties and early thirties, Assemble has little connection to the art world. Several of its constituents trained as architects at the University of Cambridge, while others studied a diverse range of subjects including anthropology, philosophy, physiology, and history. Hungry for practical experiences outside scholastic enterprise and corporate production, they organized in 2010 through various social networks, at first convening only in informal meetings-at times involving upward of twenty people-in cafés, pubs, and bedrooms, not settling into a designated studio space until 2011. Their communal spirit befits the nature of their work, which strives for public participation and social engagement. The projects that have emerged from this loosely organized, ad hoc working process include public amenities and gathering spaces such as the Cineroleum, a derelict gas station on Clerkenwell Road in Central London cleverly repurposed into a makeshift movie theater, and Folly for a Flyover, a vibrant arts venue constructed in 2011 in a neglected underpass in East London; other schemes include open-access workshops, designs for the revitalization of public squares, and strategic analyses for urban-planning initiatives.
In addition to the Cineroleum and Folly for a Flyover, the Turner jury has identified two ongoing projects that contend with particularly charged social situations. The first is the Baltic Street Adventure Playground, a play space designed for a community of working-class children in the East Glasgow suburb of Dalmarnock, which was funded as a public art commission for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The second is the Granby Four Streets renovation in Liverpool, part of an initiative to provide community-owned affordable housing for locals. In its frank engagement with the often-unacknowledged social problems that are so pervasive in contemporary cities, Assemble is no typical design studio, and the nomination of this alternative architectural practice for a prestigious art prize says much about the relationship between the two fields today.
Assemble's public bent is clearly indebted to the legacy of social practice, community participation, and institutional critique in art since the late 1960s. Take, for instance, the corporate infiltrations of the Artist Placement Group in the UK (1966-89); Food, the culinary curatorial initiative Gordon Matta-Clark founded in New York in 1971; and the global flood of projects touting social engagement in the early aughts, for example Rirkrit Tiravanija's Land Foundation in Thailand, with its forays into everything from housing design to rice cultivation. Though architecture played a key role in all of these practices, none of them were presented as architectural explorations as such. Rather, these works employed architecture as a cipher for "the real," paradoxically both signifying their engagement with the social realm by intervening in an architectural context and maintaining a degree of aesthetic autonomy as artworks by limiting architecture's role to that of a backdrop-effectively holding themselves in suspension against architecture in a manner that recalls Michael Fried's delineation of the "authentic" artwork from the temporal realities of "theater."
Ironically, what began as an appropriation or subversion of architecture by relational practices may have whetted the art world's appetite for architecture itself. In an age of craving for authenticity and an increasing backlash against the excesses of the art market, architecture-long the whipping boy of the visual arts-is suddenly endowed with a newfound prestige, even offering a kind of brand equity for a prize like the Turner. Indeed, one juror pointed to this year's nominations as evidence that the prize "has become more serious," while another has voiced the idea that art should move "away from art as entertainment" and begin "addressing real situations and actually trying to take part in the world." Assemble is by no means the first architectural practice to address such social issues, and it is related, too, to a lineage of participatory architecture practices running from the Design Methods movement of the '60s to Yona Friedman's 1956 treatise on social mobility to D. K. Ruth and Samuel Mockbee's ongoing Rural Studio at Auburn University in Alabama. Each radically challenged architecture's top-down authorial approach, endorsing, instead, a sensitivity to scale, spatial legibility, collaboration, and accessibility. More recently, emerging practices such as exyzt, atelier d'architecture autogérée, and Practice Architecture have been described as part of a social turn in contemporary architecture. But while this purported turn has generally proved long on theorization and short on practical results, it would appear the collective has relinquished its copies of Jacques Rancière in exchange for a set of Allen keys. In lieu of operative manifestos, the collective has offered us a range of utilitarian things.
But not all architectural pragmatism is created equal. Unlike the recent trend toward so-called professional practice, Assemble's approach chides the weighty, bureaucratic protocols of the profession. The collective's projects, often self-initiated and geared toward urban renewal and public programs, are frequently produced in partnership with civic organizations and arts councils. That its work is decidedly handmade is another distinctive feature; often built by volunteers, the quality of the work comes from its inefficiencies. And though modernist functionalism valorized the efficiency of technological systems, Assemble targets the waste products of these systems as its materials de rigueur. Like dumpster divers, they use the leftover, the discarded, the donated, and the repurposed, sometimes even scavenging from the construction sites of larger architecture firms (with permission, of course).
These defining features are clearest in the Granby Four Streets renovation. The area known as Granby Four Streets, in inner-city Toxteth, a notoriously neglected zone and in 1981 the site of riots, is Liverpool's most racially and ethnically diverse enclave and the oldest black community in Britain. A radical gardening project and cleanup venture, initiated by locals five years ago after some twenty years of campaigning by residents, has recently been expanded into a more widespread renewal effort through Assemble's modest renovations. After numerous disputes with the city council over the "managed decline" of New Labour's failed Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders initiative, residents formed the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust in an attempt to prevent the evacuation and demolition of existing buildings and reinstate legal ownership of these properties to the community. Assemble was approached by an investor to translate the trust's vision into a convincing proposal: Among the solutions the collective suggested were the rebuilding of crumbling housing stock-using affordable materials and uncomplicated construction techniques-and the erecting of public and commercial spaces. Using one of the deserted homes as their humble headquarters, the architects lived on-site for a time, and continue to produce much of the work with volunteers. Materials and forms of labor are thoughtfully considered to reflect the history of Granby and its residents; houses feature fireplaces cast from demolition waste, and fixtures made on the premises. To sustain this venture, a small-scale pilot project called the Granby Workshop sells design fixtures, manufactured by the group with local volunteers.
Assemble's materialist approach is thus an accumulation of small and provisional acts-yet purposive ones, decisions made out of economy and necessity. The collective's pragmatism, though, is not a refusal to make architecture-a denial of its agency-any more than it reflects a desire to give form to sociological abstractions or express aestheticized utopian dreams. Instead, Assemble avoids the dichotomy between aesthetics and ethics that has haunted much socially engaged art by considering the ways in which the reconfiguration of found materials can, in turn, generate new alignments of existing social structures. These acts of economy, sometimes subtle and sometimes slow, are in a sense a celebration of the bathetic. Assemble recognizes that sociality should not be a grand ambition; it is the very stuff of architecture.