Assemble co-founder Paloma Strelitz on forming the Turner Prize-winning collective and 'the city as a platform for ideas'
Back in 2015, London-based architecture collective Assemble caused something of a stir when it won the 2015 Turner Prize—traditionally awarded to fine art practitioners—for a community project in Liverpool.
That ongoing project, Granby Four Streets, began in 2013 with the aim of rebuilding the Granby neighbourhood, which was at risk of being made derelict by "decades of poorly-planned regeneration initiatives," as the collective puts it. "The demolition of all but four of Granby's streets of Victorian terraces during decades of regeneration initiatives saw a once-thriving community scattered and left the remaining Granby Four Streets sparsely populated and filled with tinned up houses."
Granby is exemplary of the sort of work Assemble has been making since 2010: community-focused, visible, inclusive and taking architecture as a discipline into the realm of ordinary people for both social and cultural gains. The multi-disciplinary collective comprises around 16-20 members at any one time, working across architecture, design and art and aiming to maintain a democratic and cooperative working method.
One of its co-founding members, Paloma Strelitz, is a strategist and social entrepreneur, now works independently in a cross-disciplinary creative career characterised by values of experimentation and collaboration. She recently spoke with D&AD President Naresh Ramchandani for one of the organisation's Dinner With conversations, discussing a few of Assemble's key projects, the realities of working as a collective and more.
On how Assemble started
We didn't ever set out to set up a design studio or collective or anything that would be a kind of continuous entity. We had all just finished university, we'd gone to work in separate offices, and I think we felt we just had an appetite to steer our own ship. It was only ever set up really to do a one-off project which would be a vehicle for us to learn and to enjoy and test ideas, and it was only off the success of that that we began to assemble into a more concrete entity.
On the first Assemble project, the Cineroleum… (2010)
This was transforming a disused petrol station on Clerkenwell Road. We were looking for an opportunity for a stage and also trying to create something which was convivial and theatrical and generous and unexpected within the heart of the city. We identified that there were lots of derelict petrol stations, and we thought of uniting the image of the historic picture houses with the petrol stations to create almost a new psychology of cinema.
We had a very, very limited budget, and a lot about this project was around trying to get support or getting materials and people lending their expertise. It was really in the spirit of experimentation and seeing what we could achieve.
We ran the cinema for months, and the old petrol station shop was turned into a bar. In terms of programming, the films embraced the idea of the road or the journey… things like Barbarella. It was a really joyful experience, and it was really about us learning the language of this thing that we've been taught for three years and kind of working out how we could use it and have fun with it and make sense of it.
On the future of the British high street
I think there's a really interesting opportunity for a kind of reconfiguration of the High Street. Things such as nurseries, or craft spaces, or things that normally would sit in the back could come to the forefront and be more visible.
On how Assemble chooses its projects
Some of them will always have to be public. That was a sense of wanting to create something which had an element of excitement to it, that it could be a kind of a special experience.
There have been some themes that have been very consistent throughout – one example would be ideas; there are a lot of ideas about how you get people to have agency to shape the world around them. Self-building felt really fundamental to that experience, but as we evolved, it was clear that if we were going to grow a studio, we weren't going to be able to build all our projects ourselves.
A good example of that was Blackhorse Workshop. which is this big maker space was set up in Walthamstow, and that's a converted warehouse, and in a way that as infrastructure was not self-built at all, but it enables us to help people to engage in things like learning metalwork, and so the infrastructure enables agency and learning and education.
On Folly for a Flyover… (2011)
One thing that felt quite important to me about our projects was that they're about democratising access, democratising knowledge—trying to kind of open the doors of experiences that can otherwise be kind of privileged or just hard to access. Folly for a Flyover transformed the undercroft of a motorway in Hackney Wick into this temporary performance space. The site overlooks the canal, and it was a kind of surreal setting for community activity and programmes that were running over an eight week period.
These opportunities are kind of live performances, played out with cinema, and then doing workshops which engage families… This was a really good example of showing these "specialist" domains that in many ways exist behind closed doors and bring it out into the open. It's really about how the city can be a platform for making ideas.
On Assemble's workspace, Sugarhouse Studios
We'd established a way of working and wanted to create a home for ourselves. We created a proposition for a creative studio space that also had a community cinema, and that became a way of having conversations with councils around availability that they might have. We ended up in Stratford and started Sugarhouse Studios, which was kind of always going to be part of a much bigger development site.
It was a set of warehouses and a big yard, and it took us a while also to work out what the space meant for us. At first, we thought about it just as our home, but with the public programme, much in the same way that we did with the Cineroleum. It evolved into a creative workspace which we also rented out for other people, so there are craftsmen and producers and designers and other people who bring a whole range of skills in which really have great synergies for the work that we're doing.
I think maybe being in a collective makes you more conscious of things like not waiting to receive instruction. It meant that very early on, we're thinking, "how are we going to get this done? How are we going to do this better?" Or, "what's coming next, and what mechanisms do we need to get there?" Since there are a lot of people and a lot of people with ideas and voices, we had to work out how to moderate that so that everyone has a voice and no one speaker dominates, so we had to work out how to create a culture where ideas are shared. There's always a lot of joy, and I think it'll always be a very thoughtful process around how we work.
If you start a collective from scratch, I think it's really really useful to understand what your distinct skills are and why you want to be part of this process—what your expectations are. These things are about process, and there are lots of different ways that you can build trust with people that you don't know. It can be stressful at times, but that's also very rewarding and enjoyable.