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So, It’s been half a year since I posted anything here. I’m not going to promise things will be different from now on, because it wouldn’t be the first (or nth) time I fail to keep that promise. In any case, for those who have stopped by here faithfully these last 6 months just to find there was nothing new, let’s dust off an old piece, published some time ago in A10 magazine.
As those among you who know me already know, I’m partially skeptical about the ‘new architectural collectives’ scene that has emerged with renewed strength in the last years, fueled by the crisis. Not that I have any problem with the concept per se, mind you: I am among those who think that the profession is in desperate need of change and diversification, on the one hand. We are not in Le Corbusier’s times anymore, and -maybe sadly, maybe fortunately- few of us will have the chance to be that kind of architect. Also, I certainly find it worthy that architects climb down from their ivory towers and talk face to face -and hopefully in the same language- to real people. You know, the ones who will use the buildings we design. More on this later.
However, even if I’m happy to see this change, I feel a little less enthused when I see it becoming just a trend, and when the much needed diversification of architectural practice(s) is substituted by a sameness of hipster poses. I’m all in for an putting an end to the ‘starchitect wannabe’ era. Let’s just not substitute it for a New Establishment of allegedly ‘committed’ architects… whose ultimate goal is, again, become famous in the architectural scene, just by using different means.
Amongst the maremagnum of ‘cool’ collectives, there are of course those who are genuinely interested in giving response to the architectural needs of today, and truly believe in collaborating with the public -or, what’s even better, in accepting members who are not architects themselves. Withing this last group, British collective Assemble has become a referent in its own right, even winning the Turner Prize in the process. The fact that some have declared the death of the famous award because of this only underscores that they’re doing the right thing.
The Power of Many
Assemble are probably one of the most prolific and influential collective architecture practices nowadays in UK. Working on very different scale projects from public realm improvement strategies to building renovations or exhibition designs, their 18 members have a shared interest to create projects of real social value. They don’t usually self-start their own projects instead of waiting for commissions to come to them. The collective jointly work with communities, institutions and other clients to make projects happen, what in many cases means to build them in case it is necessary by themselves, learning as they go. From their working space SugarhHouse in London they are shaking up the architecture panorama in UK.
How did it all start?
It was in 2009 when the majority of people that later became Assemble were doing Part I architecture jobs working on small part of big projects, we all had some kind of collective desire to understand projects in a more holistic way and have hands on role and experiment and try things. There was a collective dissatisfaction. (…)
What is the leitmotiv for all your projects?
First that we all really want to do them. Secondly, Assemble is a broad church and people act here in many different ways and for many different reasons. We don’t try to push a manifesto but to give people as much freedom, resources and critical support to do the work that they want to do in the best way that they can and in the ways that this is necessarily possible within a traditional practice. It’s very important in Assemble that works as a horizontal structure where everyone’s got their responsibility for what they do and think. (…)
Do you think there is any shared philosophy in the collective practices?
From our experience talking to other practices or groups that are in a similar position and make similar things, we see that there’s a shared ambition and dissatisfaction that can probably be related with a lack of opportunities. When you talk to people they seem fairly to turn on innovation, they have a shared interest in making things differently, mixing life and work in a different way and have the control of your own and your projects. (…)
The project that encouraged your nomination is a project in collaboration with the residents of a rundown council housing estate. Can you explain this project into further detail?
The Granby Four Streets in Liverpool is a refurbishing project of a row of derelict terrace houses. These spaces have been abandoned for a number of years but used to be the nicest waterfront houses in the area. The council wanted to demolish them and build new ones from scratch, so we proposed to keep them and do them up. There we did design work but we mainly set up the conditions which enable design work to be done. We didn’t create a design brief with just drawings but designed a delivery method, closely working with the project manager, being on site every week and taking on an active role in the project. This also carried on hand-producing a lot of things working on very detailed scale. Our role there was not a traditional design role, it was a more expanded role, and we guess this is what is more interesting about this project and we guess this is also what the Turner Prize were interested in.
How do you see the architectural training scene?
It is worth to say that in Assemble we are not all architects and none of us is officially qualified as an architect and some of the people in the practice are teaching one to two days a week. We are very active and engaged with schools, many of us are currently teaching. The way we see the current training in UK is really good in preparing students for traditional practice. But in some way the training may be also limiting because this is a difficult job. The thing is that right now architecture schools have a much wider infrastructure and there are lots of people there doing a great job and finding pretty active back tools but only a few people are investing in what it means to teach, less concerned about re-examining this and make things better.
Excerpts* from: Gonzalo Herrero Delicado: The Power of Many– An Interview with Assemble. A10 Magazine #66. Dec 2015
(*) If you are interested in reading more, you’ll have to buy the magazine. They have bills to pay, too.