OPINION

But is it art?

Glasgow

8 December 2015

What to make of the fact that Assemble, an architects collective, has won the 2015 Turner Prize for contemporary artists?

That’s a loaded statement, pregnant with its mention of “architects” and “contemporary artists”. Little of the immediate reaction to Assemble’s victory has focused on whether they are worthy winners; the general consensus is that they are. What has garnered column inches instead is whether Assemble’s practice can really be described as art. And whether it actually matters whether what Assemble produces is art or not.

Assemble’s contribution to the Turner exhibition at the Tramway in Glasgow is a mockup of one of the terraced houses that the group have been renovating in Toxteth, Liverpool, in collaboration with local residents. Titled Granby Workshop, the mockup house is a site in which Assemble have sold ceramics, furniture, fabrics, doorhandles, and fireplace surrounds. Everything has been produced with Toxteth residents to both furnish the houses in Liverpool and also to generate income by training and employing people who live in the area.

Is this art? On the face of it, it seems obtuse to argue that it is. Kieran Long, senior curator of contemporary architecture, design and digital at the V&A, made the point well when he tweeted in response to Assemble’s victory: “thanks to a Turner jury who can recognise the power of design in a way architecture juries often can’t… Because let's face it, Assemble are architects not artists. And all the better for it.”

Yet it’s not necessarily straightforward architecture either. Community engagement, local training, creating employment opportunities: these are all things that are a part of architecture (and which represent architecture at its best), but they are hardly the sole province of the architect. These are areas that both designers and artists engage with too; these are areas that a vast number of disciplines, across both the sciences and arts, engage with.

While many members of Assemble trained as architects, none are yet qualified, and several have backgrounds in English literature, history or philosophy instead. That their status as a collective is always qualified as being an “architects collective” is perhaps less sound than its ubiquity suggests, and it is telling that Assemble themselves seem ambivalent as to how they are classified. “Assemble has gone towards a kind of art practice,” said Jane Hall, one member of the group at the launch of their Brutalist Playground installation at RIBA in June. “For The Brutalist Playground we’ve met somewhere in the middle, although I don’t really know what that is.”

This ambiguous middle ground is what makes Assemble worthwhile. They are not necessarily artists and not necessarily architects either, but their practice speaks to both fields. Their practice delves into architecture’s desire to break free from the rigidities of many developers’ dictums (as well as biting cuts to the public realm) and deliver projects that serve communities and engage with real need. Ditto, much art has long since broken out of the confinements of the white cube, as eloquently remarked in a 2012 essay by the Korean curator Sunjung Kim: “The role of the contemporary exhibition space has evolved from being a place to showcase artworks after they are produced to one that interacts or intervenes in the artist’s work. The exhibition space is no longer a place that is removed from reality, but the site of diverse activities: from performances to lectures, film screenings, weekly DJ programs, parties and even massage sessions.”

It’s a vision of art, gallery spaces and architecture beginning to percolate into everyday life that Assemble should be recognised as accomplished practitioners of. They are a refreshing model of how an artist might practice outside of the vulgarities and fripperies of the art market. They are a refreshing model of how an architect might practice outside of the constraints of client, site or budget in order to enact social change. They are neither pure architects nor pure artists. And they're much the better for it.