The London architecture collective Assemble takes a stand against top-down redevelopment by reclaiming abandoned neighborhoods together with the people who live in them. Now, they have won the Turner prize.

The prestigious Turner art prize has had its controversies, from Tracey Emin’s unmade bed to Martin Creed’s bold installation, “The lights going on and off.” The current laureates Assemble, however, create eminently practical work: structures to live, work, eat, and play in, co-designed with residents. Could this be a new model for urban redevelopment?

“There is a strong idea in our society that creativity is for the ‘gifted few’, and everyone else inevitably just has to live with and in the culture that these ‘gifted few’ make,” said Anthony Engi Meacock, one of Assemble’s 15-strong collective of artists, architects, and philosophers. “We don’t believe that, and our being here is a hopeful sign that there is a wider shift.”

This shift, which the Turner prize promotes, is central to the question of urban redevelopment. As Anthony’s colleague Fran Edgerley says, it’s a move away from “cynical top-down redevelopment” to a bottom-up, hands-on approach that works with – and so empowers – an area’s residents. The idea is very much of the moment – over in France, Collectif Etc are putting the same principle into practice.

Assemble’s first foray into low-cost, DIY architecture was The Cineroleum in London. Using recycled materials and the help of volunteers and passers-by, the group turned a disused gas station in trendy Farringdon into a pop-up cinema. The idea was to bring cinema right into the city, in contrast to out-of-town multiplexes. At the end of each performance, the curtain separating the auditorium from the pavement dropped, opening up the view to the “theatre of the street.”

assemble cineroleum
Assemble’s first foray into low-cost, DIY architecture was The Cineroleum in London.

Helping a community reclaim its streets

Alas, The Cineroleum fell victim to the voracious appetite for London real estate. Assemble’s Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool, however, is here to stay. Once a thriving district that became home to Britain’s oldest black community, the area had fallen on hard times by the 1970s. As the jobs went, so the shops disappeared. And towards the end, the Victorian terraces that make up the neighborhood had been earmarked for demolition. The residents, however, resisted.

“Houses were tinned up in a particular way, which said: this house, this street, this whole area, and actually all the people who live here are dispensable, written off,” says local resident Eleanor Lee. “So we started painting, planting, filling voids, and cleaning up. There is something really powerful about physically changing your environment.”

Granby Four Streets Area plan
Assemble and the residents of Granby redeveloped the area.

As residents got creative to save their community, Assemble joined forces.

“Assemble are the only ones who have ever sat down and listened to the residents – and then translated their vision into drawings and models, and later into reality,” says Erika Rushton, another local resident.

“They realized their ideas for the houses in a way that is practical, in a way that can be done on the streets, by the community, in a small space – and produce something beautiful.”

The result is a sensitive restoration of the existing buildings, making use of their idiosyncrasies: Where a ceiling had fallen in, the collective created a double-height room, and where a demolished building has left a gap, they’re creating a winter garden with a communal meeting space.

And the project doesn’t stop there. Assemble have helped to establish the Granby Workshop, a social enterprise that provides local jobs and apprenticeships. Here, community artists handcraft fittings and furnishings like tiles, quilted fabrics, lampshades, fireplaces, and doorknobs, which are then sold to support the continuing development of the once again thriving neighborhood.

Assemble granby four streets drawing
Assemble listened to the residents then translated their vision into reality.

Playgrounds and chicken joints

The architects’ collective is not just interested in grown-ups – they’re creating spaces for kids, too. In one of the most deprived areas of Glasgow, they’ve consulted with local youth workers to build Baltic Adventure Playground. It’s not just a place where kids from across the sectarian Protestant-Catholic divide can come together – it also addresses hidden barriers to play, “providing hot food, warm clothes, and outreach.”

The restaurant Chicken Town in London’s Tottenham – scene of the 2011 riots – is another innovative social enterprise: This time, Assemble provided the interior design. Housed in an old fire station, it offers a healthy, low-fat alternative to the “schoolkid crack” that’s fattening up local youth (40% of teenagers in Tottenham are obese). At night, Chicken Town serves meals and craft beers at grown-up prices – during the day, it offers a subsidized £2 “Junior Special” meal even poorer kids can afford.

It’s all very inspiring, but is Assemble’s organic approach a viable blueprint for city planning? In deprived areas, which are overlooked by property investors, there may well be time and space to rebuild neighborhoods together with the community. But in real-estate hotspots, it will take enlightened owners to apply Assemble’s democratic and collaborative approach. As a result, we could see cityscapes that put people above profits and create living art in the process.

Children on the playground
Baltic Adventure Playground provides food, clothes, and outreach.
baltic adventure playground
Folly assemble
Blackhorse Workshop
OTO construction
Theater on the fly
Theater on the fly from the inside