It has been quite the rise to prominence — and influence — for Assemble, the London collective whose work hovers somewhere between art and architecture, between built space and cultural critique. Best known for designing projects like pop-up cinemas and other temporary spaces in close collaboration with the local communities that will use them, Assemble creates low-budget ad hoc designs that also happen to be sharply photogenic. In that combination it has something in common with artist Theaster Gates in Chicago, architect Alejandro Aravena’s Chilean firm Elemental, and the Rural Studio, which is operated by Auburn University in Alabama. Yet in a number of respects Assemble is sui generis, suggesting a new and ever-shifting model for socially engaged art practice.
Founded in 2009 in London by friends, many of whom had studied architecture together at Cambridge University, Assemble was named this year’s winner of the Turner Prize, among the most hotly anticipated awards in the European art world. That news set off dozens of think pieces in the British and international press, many of them parsing not just the group’s work but also whether it deserves to be called an art collective, an architecture think tank or something else entirely. Two of Assemble’s members, Louis Schulz, 27, and Maria Lisogorskaya, 29, sat down for a brief conversation during a visit to Southern California in April.
You’re on your way to Coachella.
LS: We’ve been asked by Coachella to work with them on something. Probably for next year. This year we’re just going to see what it’s all about.
ML: Site visit.
LS: Yeah, site visit. A research trip. They’re quite interested in seeing if something can be done that is good not just for the festival but for the local area — Indio and the surroundings as well.
What are your impressions of Los Angeles so far?
LS: It’s so flat and so low-rise — you just turn on your sat-nav and it gets you on the freeway and you drive on the freeway for ages.
ML: It does have similarities to London, even though London has a greenbelt and the way you get around is quite different. But this idea of little villages on a massive scale, it’s quite similar.
LS: The houses are amazing too. We were walking around Venice this morning. Every style — but in a pastiche, toy version.
Assemble’s only about 6 or 7 years old. How did it come to be?
ML: It was 18 of us who studied together, maybe 19. There was kind of a feeling in the air [at the time] of being able to do stuff yourself.
LS: It wasn’t really getting together to become a practice. It was more just like conversations in the pub that turned into actual things we did.
Was there also a frustration about what you were doing or might be doing in a more established architecture office?
ML: Definitely, yeah. At university you’re taught quite holistically about design: You have a site, you come up with a brief, then you design everything. And then you get to work and you’re just doing tiny details.
Of all your projects, though others have drawn more attention, the one that seems to have the most obvious connection to Los Angeles is Folly for a Flyover, in east London.
ML: It came after Cineroleum [a 2010 project to build a cinema on what had been a gas station in Clerkenwell], which got us some publicity and was quite successful. We were approached by the Barbican Arts Center, who wanted us to build a satellite project for their animation exhibit that summer, 2011.
LS: It was a freeway undercroft, where the road kind of passed over a canal. And there was this paved area. Nothing had ever really happened there. Mainly, people would go there and shoot up. And so we built an event space [with] wooden bricks. It had this sort of pitched roof that stuck up between two lanes of the highway.
ML: The idea was this would be a temporary project that would then lead to more public-realm investment, which would be permanent. The [conceit] was that there had been an old industrial building there, a Victorian brick building, before the motorway — just giving it a crazy narrative, a different history. After the summer the bricks were reused and terrazzo tiles were placed permanently to make this platform for people to hang out. We were working with different organizations in the neighborhood and also a public body, now called the London Legacy Development Corporation, which owns a lot of the Olympic periphery, the fringe. And with lots of community groups, some of the residents and some of the artists [in the area].
Was there a political aspect to it as well, that money was coming into London and certain kinds of high-end architectural projects were happening and other kinds of bottom-up design were unexplored?
ML: Not to begin with.
LS: Generally, the whole political aspect to our work is something people have read into it more than we’ve intended it.
ML: I don’t know, obviously each thing we make is political, but we don’t have a holistic idea. Each project has its own goals and we develop them with the politics in the background.
Does that lack of holistic philosophy leave you open to being misinterpreted?
LS: No, I wouldn’t say we’ve been misunderstood. I think it’s completely legitimate to interpret something in a way that we didn’t explicitly set out to. We’re quite a big group, so not having a manifesto is quite helpful in terms of giving individuals freedom to do different things on different projects.
Is that something you talked about wanting to avoid, a manifesto or statement of principles?
LS: Just the idea of discussing something like a manifesto or agreeing to it — it sounds like a nightmare.
ML: We just had a discussion, actually, that a strength is that we don’t have a singular view.
LS: The danger of course is if you say that too explicitly, it’s almost like, “Our manifesto is that we have no manifesto!”
LS: If you’re asking, like, has a massive company come and said, “We’ll give you millions of pounds to design something,” no.
At least from afar, there’s a sense that there are affinities between the work you’re doing and other socially engaged work that is getting attention at the moment, whether that’s Theaster Gates in Chicago or Alejandro Aravena’s Elemental in Chile. And in fact Aravena has invited you to participate in this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Do you see those connections as meaningful?
ML: It’s great it’s getting so much attention, that kind of work. We’ve definitely looked at Elemental’s work as a reference.
What will you contribute to the Biennale?
ML: It’s quite a small exhibit in the Arsenale, exploring one of our projects, which set up an adventure playground in Glasgow. It’s about play and childhood, and about opportunities for development through play.
LS: Generally speaking, playgrounds are actually not very good for playing in, to put it simply. Kids much prefer just playing with rubbish and, you know, plants and trees.
ML: We’ll also be documenting other playgrounds across the world.
The kind of work that Elemental is doing, that you are doing, it has been seen as being in stark opposition to the work of certain well-known architects — especially figures like the late Zaha Hadid.
ML: It is a little bit tribal in London sometimes. There are different architecture schools and practices that are put in different camps.
LS: But I don’t necessarily see them as being in opposition to each other. Because what would Assemble’s answer be to the aquatics center at the Olympics? You can’t make, like, a DIY aquatics venue for the Olympics. Zaha Hadid’s probably a much better choice.
ML: But I don’t think we want to limit our architecture, either. We’re growing and learning and — we didn’t set out to become a DIY collective. It’s just how we learned.
LS: At first glance Zaha’s stuff is a lot more formal than ours. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to make formal stuff ever.