"Useful Art" is prized once again: how an idealistic group of Cambridge friends are changing the world by design

26th April 2016 in Alumni, Art & Exhibitions, People

John Eifion Jones speaks to Joe Halligan (06), Churchill alumnus and member of the Turner Prize winning collective, Assemble.

Remember Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed? Both were profitable winners of the high-profile Turner Prize, as a puzzled world cried “is it Art?" This time round it’s very different. Britain’s noisiest art prize has been awarded to Assemble, a collective comprised mainly of young Cambridge graduates. They won for Granby Four Streets, a project in Liverpool revitalising the remnants of a once-elegant area demolished in the wholesale redevelopment characteristic of postwar planning.

Assemble were called in by local residents, who had resisted further demolition after the 1981 Toxteth riots, to boost their renovation efforts with a plan to refurbish terraced houses and public spaces and also to create employment. One ruin is in the process of being turned into a luxuriant garden, but most have been restored as homes by Assemble, working with locals who help to design and make tiles, fabrics and other interior fittings. Recycled materials were used inventively. Faux marble fireplaces were fashioned from a rubble and concrete mix then polished until it looks like precious stone, and lightpulls and doorknobs were made from sawdust.

Winter Garden Concept View Model for House Refurbishment for Liverpool - Assemble
Winter Garden Concept View Model for House Refurbishment for Liverpool - Photo: Assemble

It is social enterprise and also smack-up-to-the-minute contemporary design. Members of the public can also buy into the Granby look online.

Assemble’s work was championed by a Turner prize judge, Alastair Hudson, Director of Middlesbrough Institution of Modern Art and an advocate of “useful art” that plays a role in society rather than just hanging on a gallery wall. There are strong echoes here of William Morris, with his Oxford education, a passion for making things, and his idealistic thinking about society.

Turner Prize Products - Assemble

Turner Prize Products - Photo: Assemble

In a sense this still begs the question “is it art” because Assemble trained as architects, not artists. Eleven of the group of 14 read Architecture at Cambridge a decade ago and the collective grew from that friendship. “They make you think at Cambridge. It’s people driving each other,” says Joe Halligan, one of Assemble's members and a Churchill alumnus. “It’s a most intense learning experience, learning about architecture from scratch.”

The surroundings played a formative part too. “The modern architecture of Churchill has a sense of permanence about it, because of the quality and the thought that went into it...It looks like it’s been built to be there for 500 years,” says Halligan. “With most modern developments, they’re leveraged financially, built as quickly and cheaply as possible. there's no long-term interest...so of course it’s crap.” Unusually among Cambridge colleges, Churchill has a Curator of Works of Art, Barry Phipps. Conversations with him inspired the young student from Birmingham. They still keep in touch.

“Conversation is probably the main design tool at Assemble,” he said. But Assemble began, not at Cambridge but at a disused petrol station in London’s Clerkenwell Road when this group of friends decided to roll up their sleeves and start their own building project. They were on their year out in industry “where you can get siloed” in one small aspect of architecture. “It’s not as whole an experience as you get at university. It was 2009 the recession was hitting hard and there was lots of empty space in the City of London and developers were willing to lease plots of land cheaply for three or four years,” said Halligan. " Pop-ups were just beginning.”

Thus was The Cineroleum born. A pop-up cinema constructed on a wooden frame draped with leftover roofing felt. “We persuaded the roofing-felt manufacturers it was a chance to get their product seen for once, because normally it’s always hidden,” he said. The seats were built from used scaffold boards. They looked rather stylish polished up, but it seemed a risky business involving local people to cut them up...

Cineroleum - Morley Von Sternberg
Cineroleum - Photo: Morley Von Sternberg

But one of Assemble’s principles is to show how a temporary project can change people’s perception of space, says Halligan. The group seeks to address the disconnection between the public and the process by which places are made. They put ideas into action again in the toughest of surroundings, a cafe and a cinema built from wooden blocks in a draughty underpass beneath two flyovers in Hackney. “It was about creating a myth for a site which lacks character, so we built this fantasy house of wooden bricks,” said Halligan. They got local people to help and presto, they end up drinking coffee under a motorway bridge and the Cambridge architects are suddenly in business and call themselves Assemble.

Folly for a Flyover - Assemble
Folly for a Flyover — Photo: Assemble

“We’re an architecture project that calls itself art. It’s much easier to get money for art,” says Halligan disarmingly. Other council projects followed, livening up a dull public space in Croydon, In Dalston, the OTO project rehearsal studios make a striking statement. This Classical wooden hall atop a sturdy rubble plinth is a cross between a modern Alpine climbing hut and a Greek temple.

Assemble are based in the grittiest patch of east London, a wasteland whipped by the March wind and rendered almost unnavigable on foot by concrete flyovers and speeding traffic. But here they have turned an industrial shed into a cosy architects’ studio. The atmosphere is quiet and studious. Architecture models, samples of brick, plaster models bits and paper cutouts line the shelves. And in further echoes of William Morris, people are making things. There’s a woodworking shop where two young furniture makers are building cabinets to the background of loud rock music. The metal workshop next door is where Assemble bashed out their rather grand chandeliers, and there’s a pottery studio with a kiln. But the sculptors get rather a raw deal in the coldest room in London, still lined with old bathroom tiles. No wonder they were out when we called.

Sugarhouse Studios - Assembly
Sugarhouse Studios - Photo: Assembly

It was warmer next door where Assemble have built a shed partitioned into workspaces rented out to craftsmen, much as William Morris did in late Victorian London. A photograph of the Assemble team constructing the wooden skeleton, has conscious echoes of the Amish, the ascetic American sect who place such emphasis on co-operative help and functional design. Inside there’s another woodworking shop, and skiens of colourful silk hang where someone is sewing modern cushions. Elegant grey cardboard models of buildings in a French town, are the work of an advertising props man.

But “is it Art?" One thing that can be said is that it’s a long way from the brash, lucrative hype of Britart and the high priesthood that interpreted it. Goodness, Assemble don’t even bother much with social media.

But anyone studying their work or taking the bleak walk to their studios in London's Docklands will ask more interesting questions: How do we plan our streets and houses for the future? How do we avoid the slums of tomorrow? Is rubble the building material for the 21st century? Where else could we open Granby Street workshops? Why not in Britain’s benighted prisons? How can this idealistic vision inspire big building companies? And tomorrow's town planners?

For all these reasons, Assemble are surely deserving of the Turner prize.

— John Eifion Jones is on the editorial staff of The Daily Telegraph

Assemble wins Turner Prize


Meet Joe Halligan at our upcoming V&A event

Alumni are invited to join the Master, Turner Prize winning Assemble member Joe Halligan (U06) and Engineering Fellow, Professor Malcolm Bolton (U64) for a breakfast reception and private viewing of the V&A's exhibition: 'Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design'.

Image top: Joseph Halligan in Liverpool outside Granby Workshop -  Photo: J+ÿRN TOMTER

Share