Turner Prize win must not restrict Assemble’s work to the zone of ‘art’

In order to help me make sense of Assemble’s Turner Prize victory, I revisited the lecture given by 2003 Turner Prize-winner Grayson Perry in Liverpool in 2013. Grayson Perry offers advice on how to determine the boundaries of contemporary artwork. They include: Is the work in a museum? A professional artist made it. The “themepark plus suduko test”: does it make us think and shock?

The boundaries between art and architecture have become less clear over the years. Still, many will be surprised that a group of young architects have won Britain’s most prestigious award in contemporary art for a project rehabilitating houses in Liverpool.

The judges viewed Assemble as a creative collective and their work in the context of collaborative art practice. Grayson may not have met his criteria for contemporary art, but he does reassure that art is “a baggy idea.”

Assemble collaborated with residents to develop the area using existing buildings in the series of projects that caught the attention of the Turner Prize in Granby in South Liverpool. Granby 4 Streets is their client.

Assemble was a key player in the successful urban regeneration of an area that had been neglected for over a decade. Before, many initiatives had been proposed to revitalize or replace these streets, but none of them came to fruition. This is an important project that deserves to be recognized by a national award.

Creative Communities

The work done in this area is definitely art. Liverpool, in addition to Granby’s success, is notable for its Community Land Trusts. These organizations are run by everyday people who want to manage and develop assets that matter to their communities. 2Up2Down was, for instance, a project that was defined as the art and a part of the Liverpool Biennale. Jeanne van Heeswijk collaborated with residents of Anfield in order to reimagine the area. This project has evolved over several years into a successful co-operative baking, HomeBaked, as well as a CLT that is currently developing affordable housing.

People from all over the country spoke at a CLT event in 2014 about the importance of community-based work to move from “protest” to “action.” The first “action” of residents in Granby was guerrilla gardens and painting abandoned homes. A market and CLT were later established. The CLT, in collaboration with Steinbeck Studio and social investor, commissioned Assemble to create a local vision together.

Assemble is still working with the locals and helping them to renovate their homes. It is refreshing whether or not it’s considered art. Architecture does not always respect participatory design. The Assemble method does not neglect architectural quality. The collective prioritizes a real sensibility that allows excellent design and aspiration while remaining open to collaboration with the communities concerned.

Assemble has also established a social enterprise, Granby Workshop. The workshop creates handcrafted items from demolition materials. Profits are used to support a local initiative that engages young people in creative, practical projects. Using their skills as designers, they tackle issues that are not necessarily considered in the architecture realm.

Assemble may have initially felt a little uncomfortable about the Turner Award. Still, their nature as a design and art collective suggests that they weren’t bothered by the boundary between art and architecture. Rory Hyde described them as a new breed of architects who “operate beyond their abilities as design professionals… forging new eras of civic responsibility and entrepreneurialism”.

Architects must be good communicators and listeners to achieve such an approach. It is important to have a sense of sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of different locations and to be creative and confident to try out new ideas. This is an artistic sensibility.


In my third-year design studio, we explored collaborative working. Other studios focus on making using new or traditional technologies. Andrew Crompton, head of Liverpool School of Architecture, and I are both members of the advisory board for Ducie Street in Granby, the last row of derelict terraces. It is exciting to be part of a new era. Working with Steinbeck Studio and Assemble on a completely different approach to development. Liverpool has proven to be an ideal test bed for these projects.

As happy as I am to see Assemble in the spotlight and their sensitive approach to place and people, there’s still a little concern about the blurring boundaries. I can’t stop thinking that the “art” label may designate Assemble as an outsider and unique project that cannot be duplicated.

Grayson explains how he felt after someone challenged his claim that his TV shows were not art but television: “I just wanted to hit her with my BAFTA.” Assemble’s work in Granby is art practice, but it’s also a successful way to provide affordable housing and urban renewal in an area where other projects have failed. It is, therefore, successful not only in terms of art but also as an architecture and urban regeneration project. The Turner Prize cannot ignore this success.

Assemble describes itself by saying that it “want to address the disconnection typical between the public and how places are created.” This is an important point that strikes at the core of the discontent with our urban environments. It is also a goal that must influence the art world.

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