Interview: Assemble Architects

This article was first published online by Protein on 28 Oct 2015

The concrete no-man’s land that divides East London and the Olympic Village is not an attractive, fashionable, or even very accessible place for an architecture and design studio. But that makes it all the more fitting for the headquarters of Assemble, a young collective who have built their reputation on finding witty and resourceful answers to imperfect situations, often in landscapes just like this.

With their open, collaborative, project-by-project approach, Assemble have turned a lack of experience into their greatest asset, and given people a new degree of involvement in designing the spaces they will use. And now they are not only securing major commissions such as a new gallery for Goldsmiths University, but have also achieved suitably unusual recognition with a nomination for Britain’s top contemporary art award, the Turner Prize.

Assemble is composed of fourteen individuals, all still in their twenties, and incorporates members from very different backgrounds. It first came together in 2010 around a group of disillusioned architectural assistants who wanted to get out and build something. That turned out to be the Cineroleum, a makeshift cinema in the shell of a disused petrol station on Clerkenwell Road.

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Assemble’s Alice Edgerley and Matt Leung

Two of the founding members, Alice Edgerley and Matt Leung, explain how the collective was forged in this venture. “The project wasn’t an architecture project,” says Leung. “It was about running a bar, programming films and that kind of stuff.” In an all-hands-on-deck atmosphere, everyone merged into the fabric of the team.

Assemble’s early work continued with the theme of using inexpensive materials to conjure surprising designs in tricky urban spaces. Many were temporary, although beside their Stratford workspace they have a monument to this methodology in the form of the Yardhouse, a simple wooden-framed structure whose façade of mottled tiles has drawn the city’s selfie-brigade en masse to this unlikely grey landscape.

With their range of skills the team soon became dizzyingly versatile, and in the last five years have worked on performance venues, workshops and town squares, as well as more artistic projects such as the Brutalist Playground they installed at the Royal Institute of British Architects earlier this year.

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Assemble has no hierarchy, but the chaos of joint decision-making is compensated for by emotional support and the quality of ideas. “It’s probably one thing that’s absent from most offices, the idea that everyone has an input,” says Edgerley. “It also means no one can fire anyone, because we’re all friends.”

Naturally, as the operation has grown, it has been a challenge for the group to maintain its spontaneous energy – especially as everyone has to make a living. “The thing that we’re trying to do now is find the way that we can all work in gainful employment in the same way that we started working together when we were doing it for fun,” explains Leung. “We don’t have loads of younger people to do all the work for us.”

Assemble’s answer to this problem is what it affectionately terms the ‘buddy system’, where each project is run by at least two members, but is opened-up to the rest of the group for ideas and criticisms at weekly ‘Pan-Assemble’ meetings. Each individual works on a freelance basis, keeping half the fee for the projects they do and putting the other half back into the collective, which pays for some members to do admin roles.

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Assemble is so determined to keep its diverse structure because this has given it its edge, especially as it has moved into public-realm projects where understanding the needs of communities is essential. Non-architect members of the team undertake months-long consultations, working with local activist groups to get the public involved in testing ideas and even in construction.

“If you have people enthusiastic and involved from the beginning, and taking some ownership of it, then it means that they’re going to be happy with it,” points out Edgerley. And happy they are, not least in Toxteth, Liverpool, where Assemble’s work with the residents of Granby Four Streets housing estate brought their unexpected Turner Prize shortlisting.

The Toxteth project illustrates how far beyond the cosmetic Assemble are willing to go. They are, for instance, in the process of setting up a business manufacturing household goods, so embedding a legacy of craft and ensuring residents receive material benefits from the Turner nomination. “We’re just one part of the project,” says Edgerley. “Even though it’s an incredibly desolate area, the community spirit there is really amazing.”

This ability to nurture a sense of self-determination in communities is the key to Assemble’s success. They are not reluctant to concede power over the design process – that is their strategy. “It’s about asking for help as well,” says Leung. “In most projects it seems like the architect or designer is not in the best position to work out what all the answers are.”

James Shaw’s Organic Future

A version of this article first appeared in the Microsoft Five to Nine newspaper, curated by Protein, on 23 JUN 2015

Lately designer James Shaw has been busy considering the advantages of cooking people. He’s working on a hot tub for an artists’ retreat in Sweden, which will be cleaned by plants rather than chemicals. “Humans are full of nutrients,” he explains. “When you’re essentially cooking yourself in a big pot you’ll be oozing nutrients, which you would normally have to balance out with things like chlorine and hydrogen peroxide.” In his hot tub, however, you’ll be feeding the plants your own human stock.

The human body is only the latest subject of Shaw’s endless optimism and curiosity. His south London workshop, hidden behind scaffolding on the second floor of a huge housing estate, is churning out a growing range of bespoke products, from furniture to experimental gastronomy equipment. Everywhere he looks, Shaw sees the potential for new objects and for new ways of making. Time and again he turns to problems solved long ago, and solves them again in a new way.

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James Shaw’s Symbiotic Hot Tub in Gotland, Sweden

While some inspiration comes from the products around him, some comes from the darkest depths of the internet and the experts who lurk there. “We’ve got a million Youtube videos available which I use all the time. There’s all these people out there who have so much knowledge and they can teach you to do anything,” he explains.

Shaw is a hands-on designer. He has tried designing for factory production, but quickly became dissatisfied. “There’s this traditional way designers work which is purely formal, where you’re detached from the making of the object, from the materiality of it, just drawing stuff on a sheet of paper or a computer,” he says. “Instead of starting with a blank piece of paper I’ll start with a bit of material and some substance, and try to squish it together and see what happens.” It’s this openness to thinking outside of the box that allows Shaw to be so creative.

He has a way with working with molten substances that he squirts from an array of guns, many of which are tools he has invented himself. The Plastic Extruding Gun, for instance, allows him to work with molten plastic without the industrial equipment usually needed. He hands me a colourful, alien-looking lump of matter, which is in fact milk-bottle plastic. Shaw is drawn to this material because he feels its potential is wasted. “It has this invisibility because it’s so ubiquitous. But you can melt it down and re-use it endlessly.”

Plastic Extruding gun in action
Plastic Extruding gun in action

One such obscure lump provided the starting point for Shaw’s breakthrough project, the Well Proven Chair, a radical new furniture design, made in collaboration with designer Marjan van Aubel, which got him nominated for the Design Museum Award, and which won the Arc Chair Design Award. In this instance, the moment of discovery was a chemical reaction between waste sawdust and soya bio resin, creating a substance that rose like bread in an oven.

Shaw immediately sensed the significance of his discovery. “I really see that chair as an image of an amazing new organic future where objects are grown rather than wasted,” he says. “It’s a much more efficient way of making stuff. We are slowly starting to get to it through biological engineering. It’s going to be the future.”

Like many designers today, Shaw is preoccupied with sustainability, which is a big motive for his various products. But the question is, having discovered a self-growing material, why did he choose to make a beautiful chair out of it? The answer, as the hot tub also shows, is that Shaw sees the desirability of a product as a useful way of opening our eyes to new ideas. “We’re all really good at looking at an object and thinking, ‘what would my life be like with this thing in it?’ I think that’s a really interesting tool to play with.”

Well-proven chairs
Well-proven chairs

It’s clear that for Shaw, sharing ideas is an important part of a designer’s job. He has recently been involved in a community scheme in Manchester called “Tearing Stuff Apart,” organised by artist Àgata Alcañiz, where a team of scientists, artists and designers teach the public about the products they use every day. In one class, they explained globalisation by taking apart a cheap hairdryer and tracing the origins of its numerous parts from around the world. “It’s about people actually experiencing stuff,” says Shaw, “finding ways to make abstract ideas direct is so important.”

But Shaw is only playing his part in the greater explosion of knowledge-sharing that is changing the shape of the design industry, and many others. “We’ve got a million Youtube videos out there, I use them all the time. There’s all these people, they have so much knowledge, and they can teach you to do anything.” This is fertile ground for would-be independent designers. Shaw’s advice to them? “I think the key to any creative endeavour is just to jump in there and get started,” he says. “How you approach unknowns is a big part of it. You need to approach them with openness and confidence.”

Of course, going it alone is tough. But for someone with Shaw’s creative energy, the appeal is obvious: “It means you can design your own life essentially. You can look at the things that are important to the way you want to live, like having a nice lunch with the people you share the studio with every day.”