Rather than destroying structures to make room for new ones, London-based architecture collective Assemble prefers to give them new purpose and create projects using materials found on-site. There was some irony, then, in my introduction to their exhibition at the Architekturzentrum Wien (AzW), “How We Build.” In the museum’s courtyard, broken glass and metal framing were strewn around a toppled crane truck—the aftermath of an ill-fated attempt to move a bus-stop artwork by Smiljan Radic (part of a permanent exhibition at the museum) so that a brick pavilion Assemble had developed with students from Vienna University of Technology could be constructed there. Luckily, the exhibition itself provided more characteristic examples of how these architects build, with presentations of ten projects the collective has realized or conceived since its founding, in 2010.
The exhibition, which brought together scale models, copies of certain architectural elements (fragments of walls and the like), photo and video documentation, and explanatory texts, started with a presentation of Assemble’s work space in London, Sugarhouse Studios (2010). Photos placed on benches showed how the eighteen-member collective of designers, architects, and theorists approach their projects: they work in shared spaces and focus on material experimentation. Nearby was a display about Yardhouse (2014), a two-story barnlike modular building with a facade of handmade pastel-colored shingles that Assemble erected in the backyard of Sugarhouse Studios. In a city like London, affordable work space is hard to come by, and so Assemble designed this inexpensively made building to provide communal space and individual studios that could be rented cheaply to other creatives.
Assemble seems to be made up of idealists who want to effect real social change. Most of their projects emerge through deep community engagement and are designed to provide economical solutions to issues affecting those who will be living in or using them. For the 2015 Turner Prize-winning Granby Four Streets project, for instance, Assemble collaborated with residents of a neglected area of Liverpool to refurbish vacant homes. In 2013, for an experimental music venue in London, Assemble devised a rehearsal and performance space called OTOProjects that they built with musicians and other volunteers using dirt, rubble, and gravel from the site. Rice bags they filled with these materials served as building blocks for the structure’s walls.
Even when Assemble is not working in close collaboration with community members, their projects are still aimed at changing the perception of forgotten or derelict locations. Take the Cineroleum (2012), a temporary outdoor cinema that the group made on one of London’s busiest streets, Clerkenwell Road, by enclosing a disused gas station in ruched silver curtains and installing wooden flip-up seats. After each screening, the curtains were lifted, reminding the audience that they were sitting on the side of a busy road. The project attests to how profound even small interventions in a building or a city’s landscape can be. Indeed, one takeaway from the show was that social change does not always require a revolution; it can follow from doing little things that build into something big.