This year’s Turner Prize (2015) nominees include Assemble (formed circa 2010), a collective comprised of fourteen members working across the fields of art, architecture and design. Together they create social interventions, construction projects which address living conditions and the use of public space. Assemble are generally recognised as architects rather than artists, and their nomination was met with surprise, not least from members themselves. The group were shortlisted for their efforts in the Granby Four Streets area of Toxteth, Liverpool. In partnership with the local community, they helped Granby residents to refurbish derelict houses, renovate public spaces and create sustainable opportunities for enterprise. Currently on show at the Tramway in Glasgow is Assemble’s A Showroom for Granby Workshop (2015). Building on the work in Toxteth, Granby Workshop trains and employs people from Granby to make handmade products for homes, the profits from which support the ongoing regeneration of the area. Collaboration is at the heart of Assemble’s practice, not just between group members but with the communities who use and inhabit the spaces they create.
Assemble’s work can be read as a curatorial endeavour, a process of organising and presenting ideas in a variety of media. Their approach to curating is characterised by the group’s collaborative ethos, their multidisciplinary membership and social ethics. In sight of Assemble’s Turner Prize nomination these characteristics seem distinctly contemporary, setting the collective apart from the other nominees (all individual artists). Assemble’s practice, however, is more aligned with art history than one might expect. In the 1950s, a comparably collaborative strategy was adopted by the the Independent Group (IG), a cohort of artists, architects, theorists and designers working at the vanguard of British art. Among their ranks were artists Richard Hamilton (1922-2001), Nigel Henderson (1917-85) and Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005); architects Alison (1928-93) and Peter Smithson (1923-2003); and the writer-critic Lawrence Alloway (1926-90). For IG members, knowledge exchange was paramount and exhibition-making presented an opportunity to work across disciplines, providing a space within which resources and reference points could be pooled.
Artists affiliated with the IG produced some of the period’s most influential shows, including This is Tomorrow (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1956) and an Exhibit (ICA, London, 1957). This is Tomorrow was organised by architect, editor, writer and sculptor Theo Crosby (1925-94) with the intention of bringing together artists and architects to work on twelve unique installations. Crosby’s aim was to overcome the traditional boundaries between art and other disciplines, particularly its segregation from architecture. One of the most striking displays within the show was “Patio and Pavilion” curated by Henderson, Paolozzi and the Smithsons. “Patio and Pavilion” had a post-apocalyptic aesthetic with a makeshift wooden structure, decorated flooring obscured by sand, and strange objects littering the ground. Looming over this landscape was the head and torso of a man, made from a collage of rough textures and fragmented forms. Discussing “Patio and Pavilion” on the BBC’s Third Programme (1956), the Smithsons explained, “we worked on a kind of symbolic habitat in which are found responses […] to the basic human needs” (quoted in Walsh, 2013: 223-4.). The architects and their collaborators used the exhibition as an opportunity to reflect on mankind’s relationship to the material world. In an Exhibit, Hamilton and his colleagues explored a similar interest. Made in partnership with Alloway and artist Victor Pasmore (1908-98), an Exhibit came in the form of a kit – a set of Perspex panels which could be rearranged according to a modular system. The curators saw the work as “a game,” “an artwork” and “an environment” to be to “played,” “viewed” or “populated” (Hamilton, Alloway and Pasmore, 1957: cover page).
This approach is echoed in many of Assemble’s activities, which often focus on play (Big Slide, 2013; Baltic Street Adventure Playground, commissioned in 2014) or address basic human needs (Furnishing Lowlands, undated; the Granby Four Streets project, ongoing). Modern living conditions and play were two subjects which preoccupied Henderson in his photographic work. Living in London’s East End between 1945 and 1954, he photographed bomb-damaged buildings, derelict landscapes and boarded up windows. These photographs, depicting urban decay and austerity, bear some resemblance to the pictures of dilapidated houses in Toxteth prior to Assemble’s projects there – although Henderson, Paolozzi and the Smithsons were working in a social context within which the Welfare State was being established rather than dismantled, as is the case today. In the 1950s, the collaboration between architects and artists formed a method through which social conditions could be creatively observed and addressed. In 2015, the need for this kind of thinking is more pressing than ever.
A sense of possibility is introduced into Henderson’s scenes when they are foregrounded by his shots of children at play, boys on bikes and girls doing hopscotch in the street. Informed by Henderson’s images, the Smithsons developed architectural principals focused on the relationships between the house, the street, the community and the city, as is illustrated in CIAM Grille (1953). Working within the brutalist creed, the Smithsons favoured raw concrete and prioritised social function over beauty, evident in their designs for the Hunstanton School, Norfolk (conceived in 1949). Acknowledging this legacy, Assemble teamed up with artist Simon Terrill to create foam replicas of brutalist playgrounds, presented earlier this year in their exhibition The Brutalist Playground (Royal Institute of British Architects, London, 2015). A slideshow of black and white photographs showing mid-century brutalist housing blocks provided the candy-coloured play area with a backdrop, positioning Assemble’s work in relation to the history of Henderson’s and the Smithson’s partnership.
Like Assemble, Henderson and Paolozzi also established a workshop, Hammer Prints Ltd, which they ran from Henderson’s home in East Anglia between 1954 and 1961. Favouring screen-printing, the artists produced wallpapers, ceramics and textiles in a wide range of abstract and graphic designs. Inspired by the Bauhaus and Gestalt theory, Henderson and Paolozzi saw printmaking as a technique with which to construct immersive environments that were at once decorative and meaningful. This thinking is evident in Paolozzi’s description of the Hammer Prints design, Coalface (circa 1955). When used to decorate an interior, Paolozzi explained, Coalface would “evoke the world of geological stratifications and form a background to modern living” (quoted in Spencer, 2000: 78.). Although Granby Workshop’s aims are less symbolic and more pragmatic than Henderson’s and Paolozzi’s, their politics are comparable, using craft as a medium through which to explore social ideals.
Reflecting on his and Alison’s work with Henderson and Paolozzi, Peter Smithson described the group as “people campaigning together” (quoted in Walsh, 2001: 7). Assemble could equally fit this description. Curating fosters collaboration, it provides a physical and conceptual space for people to “campaign together” whilst retaining their professional identities. Each disciplinary angle brings with it a new set of skills and novel concerns – architects specialise in building purposeful environments, addressing issues of public space and social relations; artists’ expertise is perhaps more visual, centring on problems of symbolism and representation. What is markedly contemporary in Assemble’s approach is that they extend the invitation to collaborate outwards to their public, forming creative partnerships with local communities. They invoke the collaborative ethos of the IG and they build on it, enriching the curatorial space even further with the introduction of local knowledge.
Rosie Ram is an independent scholar specialising in British art from the postwar period to the present day. Rosie works as Archivist and Collection Manager for the Nigel Henderson Estate. She is also employed as Researcher and Editor (Modern and Contemporary) for Thomas Williams Fine Art and is Gallery Assistant at Chisenhale Gallery in the East End. Rosie’s academic background includes a postgraduate degree in Culture, Criticism and Curation (MA Distinction) from Central Saint Martins where she was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Scholarship for Academic Excellence. At undergraduate level Rosie read Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol.
Assemble, http://assemblestudio.co.uk/ (accessed 12 November 2015)
Banham, Reyner, (1955), “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Review 118, no. 708: 355–361.
Banham, Reyner, (2011), “This is Tomorrow,” October 136: 32-34.
Cotton, Michelle, Jackson, Lesley, and Spencer, Robin, (2012), Nigel Henderson & Eduardo Paolozzi: Hammer Prints Ltd. 1954 – 75. firstsite, Colchester.
Foster, Hal, Krauss, Rosalind, Bois, Yve-alain, and Buchloh, Benjamin H. D, (2004), Art Since 1900; Modernism Antimodernism Postmodernism. Thames and Hudson, London.
Hamilton, Richard, Alloway, Lawrence, and Pasmore, Victor, (1957), an Exhibit, ICA, London.
Smithson, Alison, and Smithson, Peter, (2011), “The New Brutalism.” October 136: p.37.
Spencer, Robin, (2000), Eduardo Paolozzi Writings and Interviews. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
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Walsh, Victoria, (2013), “Reordering and Redistributing the Visual: The Expanded ‘Field’ of Pattern-Making in Parallel of Life and Art and Hammer Prints,” Journal of Visual Culture 12, vol. 2: 222-244.