Protect London’s ‘connective tissue’ of affordable workspace, say Assemble

Friday 1 July 2016

Turner Prize winners Assemble made London’s fast dwindling supply of affordable workspace a central theme and real cause for concern as they delivered the NLA’s Annual Lecture and LFA keynote last night.

Co-founders of the multi-disciplinary collective Paloma Strelitz and James Binning said that the creative practice, based in Sugarhouse Studios on Stratford High Street, works in ‘a critical and immersive design process’ on a disparate range of projects alongside carpenters, product designers, textile designers and artists; a set up that is ‘incredibly rewarding’, said Binning. ‘But it is becoming increasingly difficult in London, where the lack of affordable workspace is a real issue and the historic model of finding an empty warehouse or light industrial building is just no longer viable.’

The creative industries are a central part of the UK’s economy and cultural identity and yet they are increasingly under threat with its ‘other connective tissue’ – industry in all its forms – given much less focus than the public debate surrounding affordable housing. A good city needs industry, said Strelitz, and can accommodate its messier sides as well as its neat, citing Cass professor Mark Brearley’s talk ‘A good city has industry’ on the subject.

The pair explored this theme through their projects and the importance of bringing what they called London’s unseen ‘back of house’ processes, showing the audience schemes such as its first, the Cineroleum. This was a temporary cinema project in an old petrol station on the Clerkenwell Road which used ‘curtains’ made of Tyvek, normally used for underlay, which dramatically revealed the city as ‘a scene of urban cinema’ to the audience once the film was over. The Theatre on the Fly for Chichester Theatre revealed the mechanics of the fly system, inviting the audience to experience the ‘spatial drama’ normally behind the curtain, said Strelitz. The Art House, said Binning, was developed as a prototype for low cost new build workspace and interim model that could be developed on sites awaiting development. ‘It’s really our version of the Amish barn’, he said, ‘a practical, generous and three aisle timber structure with spaces on either side for private studios and double height shared space in the middle that can be used by all tenants for larger scale pieces of work.’ And the 1500 handmade concrete tiles that clad the building are another example of celebrating the kind of production or ‘messy trades’ in London that often goes unseen, said Binning. It’s also something of a metaphor for Assemble’s work: ‘It combines the pragmatic with the systematic and the handmade with the playful’, said Binning. The pair also showed their work at Blackhorse Workshop – ‘a kind of public library where the main resource was tools instead of books’, and the Baltic Street Adventure Playground in a deprived area of Glasgow, where formal design took a back seat in favour of creating a playful environment.

Finally, Assemble’s work in Granby in Liverpool demonstrated how they could transform an area of dereliction through working with the remaining 50 or so residents and ‘direct DIY action extended out into the streets’, and forming a Community Land Trust and, now, a winter garden for the area. Assemble also helped create a social enterprise workshop and developed a series of products for sale, which were used in a showroom in Tramway Gallery in Glasgow for its Turner Prize entry.

So, has the collective always considered what it does as being art, asked one member of the audience? ‘No’, said Binning. ‘It wasn’t really something that occurred to us as a way of describing the work until somebody else tried to. We’ve always been interested in the idea that we can take on a number of different personalities’. But the ‘authority of an artist’ as opposed to that of an architect has been a very useful tool to ask questions and get different answers.  ‘We have always sat between worlds in that sense’, said Strelitz, and the ‘elasticity’ of how they can operate has been useful. ‘Ultimately, we’re not that interested in the titles’, she said. ‘We’re primarily interested in the work.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 

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NLA Annual Lecture 2016 – Assemble


2015 Turner Prize winners Assemble, a collective based in London who work across the fields of art, architecture and design, will give the NLA Annual Lecture in 2016.