Architecture is as much about economics and policy as it is about actual buildings; so say Paloma Strelitz and James Binning at Design Indaba 2016. They are the founders of Assemble, a London-based collective behind socially driven projects that traverse and blur the boundaries between art, architecture, and design. Strelitz and Binning believe that architecture is equal parts social, collective, and material, and all three are required in order for it to work effectively.
“We feel that the city can be a very disempowering place, and as a practice, we’re interested in addressing this connection between the public and the way that our built environments are made,” says Strelitz. This focus on engaging with urban areas through “direct action and experimentation” is at the heart of all Assemble projects, from a series of novel urban pop-ups in London, to a regeneration project which earned the collective a Turner Prize win last year.
Reimagining the past
The ‘Folly for a Flyover’ project is a prime example of transforming a space by changing how people perceive it. This space in Hackney Wick received a high volume of footfall, but nobody paid it any attention. Binning, Strelitz and co. recognised the dramatic potential of such a space, and decided to build a public house with a fictitious backstory, centred on a stubborn landlord who refused to vacate his premises, and so the motorway was built around him.
Reinventing the flyover as the site of a local fairy tale turned it into something of a destination, with the quirky new pub acting as venue to theatre and art events. Giving marginalised spaces an “imagined past” can help lead them into a different future, says Binning, by reviving them in the public consciousness and turning them back into locations that people are engaged in and care about.
Redesigning a community
In addition to pop-ups like the Flyover and the ‘Cineroleum’ (a petrol station which they converted into a working cinema), Assemble have found that changing how people feel towards a place is integral when trying to achieve genuine, lasting change in an area. While working on public realm improvement in New Addington, Croydon, the first challenge Assemble had to overcome was proving that design was not a luxury.
Assemble learned that there was a wealth of activity going on in the surrounding community, but none of it was visible, so they decided to turn the harsh, municipal area into a focal point. They constructed temporary stages which would enable elderly residences to have their tea dances outside, changed surface edges so kids could skate on them, and cultivated the idea that this was a place where the entire community could gather for big events, such as the annual Christmas pageant.
Resurrecting whole streets
One of the most ambitious revivals Assemble has worked on is the on-going regeneration of a cluster of neglected streets in Toxteth, Liverpool. The area had suffered from a shrinking population, lack of jobs, and redevelopment initiatives which would wipe out buildings that residents perceived as symbols of a more prosperous past.
Binning recalls how, despite the bleak outlook, there was a lot of freedom to take the reins “in the void left by the authorities.” Assemble teamed up with Granby Four Streets CLT and Steinbeck Studios on a new arrangement whereby the council gave them the land, and it was held in trust to prevent properties from becoming investment vehicles which would price locals out of the market.
Their joint incremental plan built on the existing work of local residents, and the narrative of the area was incorporated into design, with demolition rubble polished and installed in homes as jewel-like door handles and other furniture pieces. The Granby Four Streets project was nominated for the 2015 Turner Prize, and ultimately won.
“It was unclear to a lot of people, and perhaps initially a bit unclear to us as well, how this constituted an art project,” says Binning. “But it really gave an impetus and a focus for us to bring forward some of those things which maybe, in the distant future, were projects, and initiate some of that in the social infrastructure.”
Enter the Granby Workshop, a social enterprise which hires and trains locals with an interest in making, and functions as a source of revenue. Workers use simple techniques such as marbling on waste materials (a nifty macrocosm of the entire endeavour, surely), and people can walk away feeling that they own a unique piece of art.
Elsewhere in Toxteth, a row of ten derelict terraced houses have been repurposed as a greenhouse and community garden, where residents can grow produce to sell on the new market which in turn attracts customers from outside of the small cluster of streets. “This ambition of rebuilding the social infrastructure of the area alongside the delivery of the houses has been part of the project from the very beginning,” says Binning.
“Our projects really are very small-scale and local, but we feel that they begin to address some of the bigger questions, perhaps, about what it means to inhabit a city,” says Strelitz, “and also begin to give people the tools through which they can transform them and create their own spatial futures.”