Now an established architecture and design firm with the 2015 Turner Prize among its credits, Assemble came together in 2010 almost by accident, when a group of friends decided to build a temporary cinema in a disused petrol station in London. One project led to another, and the result was a collective of 15 interdisciplinary designers and makers based in the London office, plus another three who work peripherally. All work is funded on a project basis, and to some extent invested in by the collective as self-initiated projects.
Mission: culture as a social practice
Such is the non-hierarchical structure of Assemble that it’s possible several stories about its evolution and mission might be told by different members of the group. As relayed by Fran Edgerley, who has been with the collective from the beginning, Assemble’s existence is “quite incidental, or organic: there wasn’t an explicit reason why we were working together, and there was never a mission statement as such. Everyone is in it for quite different reasons – different enough that people don’t feel comfortable tying ourselves to one manifesto.”
Looking at the sequence of projects Assemble has worked on, however, a certain set of values does emerge. It began with a series of actions and interventions: a desire to “do something in the city [London], and find a way of doing whatever that thing might be”. Its first project, opened in 2010, was the Cineroleum: a temporary cinema that existed for only five weeks because “that was the limit in terms of not having to apply for a premises license”. Constructed within the shell of a disused petrol station, of which there are some 4000 in the UK, it wasn’t just a cultural space but an argument for the reuse and repurposing of abandoned public space and industrial materials, and for collective endeavour, with over 100 volunteers collaborating to build it. That was followed by the Folly for a Flyover, another temporary events space built with volunteers, this time on a more ambitious scale, funded by a Public Art Award and created with support from another architectural firm, Muf.
Since then the group have designed everything from a set of triangular chairs for Clerkenwell Design Week to the row of houses in Granby for which they won the Turner Prize in 2015, via an installation of post-war brutalist structures constructed out of foam, a temporary outdoors home for the School of Narrative Dance in Rome, a set of open-access workshops incorporating a cafe and brewery in London, and more. What binds these disparate projects together, says Edgerley, is simply a desire “to do good work, which is intelligent and generous”, underpinned by a sense of “the falsity of cultures being the product of a few talented people”, and “the difference between the applications of arts and culture as an activity, and as a social practice”.
Principles of equality
Also key to Assemble are “principles of equality in relationships between people and space, which is related to how they organise between themselves”. The same thinking is applied to its internal working structure, which reflects the group’s belief in “embodying change” and “working critically in the world”, and is itself an “ongoing project”. When Assemble began, “there wasn’t a leader; there were people who were more like organisers, but because we were all learning as we went along, we’d divide up responsibilities and people would be doing lots of different work on different areas”. This remains the case, and Edgerley argues: “The non-hierarchical aspect of the way in which we work, and the social support that gives to our working practice, is really important. It becomes political without necessarily having that intent originally.”
How the group manages itself, particularly financially, is under constant review. Currently two people are assigned to each project: they are “responsible for forming the direction and managing things, and probably end up doing the largest proportion of the work on that project, but can also be in charge of distributing that work among the group or finding collaborators”. The team gathers for dinner once a week to share progress, every quarter for a higher-level review of activities, and annually they hold a “summit, where we all go away together for a few days, work through policies, and talk about ambitions for the future”.
Along with shared responsibilities comes a cooperative approach to financial structures. Initially, with all funding being project-based, the group attempted to “pay a tax to Assemble to cover overheads and space”, but this was stopped because “it was becoming more and more attractive for people to do teaching work, because they get paid as an individual and don’t pay tax”. Now it is experimenting with its own “Universal Basic Income: everyone pays everything that they do in the working week – including teaching and freelance work – into a central pot and we all earn the same wage”.
“Everyone pays everything that they do in the working week – including teaching and freelance work – into a central pot and we all earn the same wage”
This non-hierarchical structure has had another political upshot: since “decisions of taste were quite hard to resolve, because no one has authority”, the group has persuaded each other of the benefits of a design by “forming arguments around ethical standpoints, to do with what’s generous or what’s cheap or what’s not wasteful”. These ethics are characteristic of three of Assemble’s key works to date:
1: Granby Four Streets
The residents of Granby had already formed a Community Land Trust when Assemble was invited to create “a feasibility masterplan for the neighbourhood”. Although speculative, the group decided to “do it in a really good way, speaking to all the people who had inhabited that space for decades and working hard to listen to lived experience, understand different relationships, and value the residents’ stories”. This care led to an imaginative and cohesive design that the CLT used to negotiate 10 houses from the council, which Assemble was then invited to design. It felt important to the group that “the design reflected the enormous sense of care and personal investment residents had shown to the architecture in the streets, and that it shouldn’t just be a generic design”.
“the design reflected the enormous sense of care and personal investment residents had shown to the architecture in the streets, and that it shouldn’t just be a generic design”
The project was then nominated for the 2015 Turner Prize, and for Assemble, winning was “essentially a PR opportunity, a good conduit for investment to get money into this neighbourhood and create jobs – because enterprise is critical to creating new neighbourhoods, which shouldn’t be solely about housing”. This was the catalyst for Granby Workshop: an experimental manufacturing business that had a difficult first year due to its attempt to make “100 different products we had no idea really how to make”, now streamlined to focus on architectural ceramics.
2: Baltic Street Adventure Playground
Created for the Chris Hoy Velodrome Public Art Commission, in a neighbourhood “suffering from top-down infrastructure” that “demolished a lot of stuff and didn’t really replace it”, the Baltic Street Adventure Playground isn’t just a site but a Lottery-funded charity that seeks to support the whole community (including by hosting an informal food bank). Although there are fixed features in the playground, there are also materials and tools to make more: essentially, says Edgerley, Assemble “designed ourselves out of being designer, and spent time trying to create the conditions where kids could be autonomous and have control of their environment”.
3: Blackhorse Workshop
Financially this has been one of Assemble’s most successful projects, because it “has its own life, and can quite easily generate its own income through renting studio space”. Built with the intention of encouraging more people to make and mend, it offers workshop space, tools and technical support for any kind of crafting, whether at hobby or professional level.
Just as all Assemble’s major projects have been different from each other, so have the challenges been “quite unique to each situation” and “a massive learning curve”. For instance, with Granby Workshop, “we had never managed a large team making products for sale, we didn’t know about distribution, price points, marketing. So it was really hard. But it’s more sustainable now.”
That learning applies not only externally but internally: “We’re more aware of what it costs to keep ourselves running, and over-investing in stuff is not something we can afford to do so much any more.” Edgerley doesn’t simply mean financially: she admits that Assemble has been “really exhausting”.
And yet, Edgerley argues that there are many advantages to working in this way. “You get a fair amount of autonomy in terms of how you want to develop things. If you really want to learn about something you can theoretically pick things that can be pushed in particular ways. It’s essentially a form of self-directed education that we’re all trying to support one another within, while being aware that our own actions have implications for everyone else as well. There’s a sense of responsibility for one another as well as a sense of freedom individually.”
“It’s essentially a form of self-directed education that we’re all trying to support one another within, while being aware that our own actions have implications for everyone else as well.”
Inevitably, given the size of the group, Assemble’s future is the subject of “lots of conversations around what kind of work people want to be doing, and how we can make ourselves more sustainable”. Currently its focus is on “trying to find a long-term home”: ideally, somewhere big enough to develop workspaces which could be rented. The intention isn’t to be exploitative: “We have good principles about social space, and while that could provide a core income for us, it could also be brilliant for the more expansive side of the work – the stuff that doesn’t pay as well, but often produces the most interesting conditions for working.”
Over the past four years, Assemble has established four businesses – as well as the design studio, and Granby Workshop, it has a construction company, and has created a holdings company, Assemble Industries, “so that we can start doing development projects without having any risk to our organisation”. The hope is eventually to integrate all these activities.
In the meantime, it is continuing to work with the Granby CLT to develop more houses and the Winter Garden Project to house artist residencies, and building a new art gallery for Goldsmiths University, which Edgerley believes will make “quite a big change in the way people perceive what we’re capable of doing”.
Baltic Street Adventure Playground, East Dalmarnock, Glasgow, 2012, Ongoing. (Image courtesy of Assemble)