Assemble's maker space production line edges into the mainstream

Assemble's Turner Award for their Granby Four Streets Workshop project in Liverpool may be only one sign of the collective's immersion in maker space workshops and maker culture, though reflecting how this culture is hardly marginal any longer

The walls are white, the space enveloping. Thin Victorian era pillars rise at marked intervals melding with the ironwork rafters, through which a grey November day casts a dull muted light on the proceedings below. At ground level, these temporary white walls choreograph the visitor’s footsteps into a circulatory maze, leading you through into the 2015 Turner Prize finalist’s exhibition at Glasgow’s Tramway Arts Centre. Turn a corner and you meet one of the four finalist’s pieces, Janice Kerbel’s series of music score stands; or the studiously casual fur coats hanging from a group of chairs, Nicole Werners conceptual conceits. Round a further corner and the white walled corridors open up to reveal a mocked-up building within the all-pervasive white cube white. That’s outside. Inside, it’s a different story: textile fabrics, hang from the ply walls; upcycled offcut chairs and stools, their legs improvised from char blackened balustrades, are ranged across the floor. Beside them, a collection of appealing tiles, textiles, and re-used table-tops, are on display, all from the buildings overspill of materials, recovered and renewed for a different life. Closer in spirit to William Morris  than Damien Hirst, Assemble’s stealth re-versioning of their live housing project in Liverpool’s Toxteth district, folds in their own turning of one thing into another; their Turner Award piece into a physical Maker’s Workspace showroom.

Three weeks on, and it is early December, a Monday, late evening. I don’t have a television, nor am I twenty-first century enough to be receiving tweets on a non-existent twitter account, so I check in on the Guardian site. There, on the right side, is the brief boxed headline, Urban Regenerators Assemble, Become First ‘Non-artists to Win Turner Prize . Excitement, plus surprise - I hadn’t expected Assemble to win - streams through me. Never mind that by mid-day Tuesday, the news has dropped off the Guardian’s front page; this is a massive vote of confidence for both the new generation’s politically engaged architecture, and its cousin phenomena, making culture. Not only this, but there are subtle ironies floating about; a showroom for maker culture is being transmitted through the most spectacular medium, evening TV. A virtual news story, which has already brought reams of publicity for the project – even now going viral over the ghostly transmission lines of the virtual world wide web.

Hundred’s of thousand’s, if not millions, watched the Turner Award final on Channel 4, and will have been introduced to a brief one-minute outline of the Granby Four Streets - four desolation rows in Liverpool 8, their residents knocked from pillar to post during two decades of clearance regeneration, before forming a Community Land Trust; and, as luck would have it, then falling in with an offshore development group, Steinbeck Studios. Steinbeck, from the Channel Islands, actually engaged with the CLT and community, and brought in the super-young, bright eyed, Assemble, who over the last four years, have together with the community, created a different regeneration narrative which, with this latest dramatic chapter, looks as if it will have a happy ending. Unless you’re a Glaswegian, or from the Central Belt, its unlikely that you will have actually visited the not dissimilarly spirited, post-bulldozer, semi flattened Pollokshields neck of industrial Clydeside; the 1997 recreation of the one time Tramshed into cultural centre by Zoo Architects. By chance or design, here is another layer to the mock up currently sited in its main shed space, paying a kind of homage to the Liverpool Victorian terrace forms that are the real focus and point of the whole project; a physical simulacrum of a regeneration project inside a physically regenerated building - and broadcast over prime time TV. The Escher-like twists and turns aren’t mentioned by the mainstream press - a scratching of heads question mark perhaps, rather than full frontal outrage at whether Assemble’s creation is art or not.

In the days after the award was announced, the mainstream press’s brief focus was on the ‘Granby St Liverpool housing terrace’ aspect of the project 'Assemble win Turner Prize with run down-housing estate’, or the Is this Art question; ‘Turner Award once again courting controversy’. But neither the broadsheets nor any of the architectural magazines that I scoured, appeared to notice that Granby Four Streets, is as much about ‘maker spaces’ as ‘art’ and ‘architecture’; nor how embedded both the project, and Assemble are in maker spaces and what’s increasingly routinely called Maker Culture.

What the broadsheets drew attention to, is just how young Assemble are: all fifteen of them in their mid to late twenty-something, the youngest winners of the Turner Prize in its own short history. The group itself speaks of being ‘not just architects’, but ‘designers, historians, philosophers, and urbanists’. Beyond these academic titles however, the maker connection remains invisible. This extends to the partners in the project as well as the different local organisations involved - from the Community Land Trust, and the makers and crafts people who, when Assemble were getting involved in Granby Street, spurred on the original idea. The Assemble Collective’s youth is such, that their five years since beginning to work under the name Assemble, comes after only a short period of graduating from Cambridge Architecture School; and that, just at the time the economy had come crashing through the floor around 2008/9. Assemble emerged out of the ‘pop-up’, ‘making culture’ that was in full swing across the capital; particularly in East London, where they made their initial temporary base on Stratford Road, a stone’s throw from the London Olympics site. Their political sensibilities seem formed and informed from that period; disillusionment that significant chunks of a whole generation of architects felt for the conventional paths in to the profession, and embedded in the practical idealism of their projects. And today, the assorted members of Assemble, talk with continued conviction about the cynicism of developers and the construction industry, a pliant architectural sector, while looking for other models in which they can commit more faith and hope.

Maker space’s are one of these models, and has been close to the heart of the Assemble project since the group first became involved with Walthamstow’s Blackhorse Workshop.  One piece in North East London’s slow motion gentrification and larger regeneration puzzle, Blackhorse Workshop is an old warehouse, kitted out and reversioned for a broad cross section of varieties of making; including furniture design, metal work, repairfacilities, sculpture, textiles and wood work. Supported by Waltham Forest Council and Greater London funding, it opened in 2014, one of the first publically funded spaces - after the two of Assemble’s core members, Maria Lisorgorskaya, and Mat Leung, took on running the refit. Working on a membership basis, with machinery and supporting technicians, the workshop runs courses for beginners and more experienced practitioners, in ‘woodwork basics’, metal work and guitar workshops. Dedicated spaces - with 24/7 access to their spaces and workshop tools and technicians, is given over to thirty designers. Like many of the other Maker Spaces, a café and small showroom was part of Leung and Lisogorskaya design.

Blackhorse Workshop opened at roughly the same time as Assemble’s own Yardhouse Makerspace was completed in 2014. A tiling experiment in colour shading, the entrance wall has been calling card evidence of the collective’s obvious delight in materials, and materiality. The 250 sq m simple, dismountable barn structure, made from a glulam timber frame provides sixteen spaces inside its double-height volume. Quickly taken up, the places received funding from the London Legacy Development Commission. Assemble themselves work across the yard in the four bay Sugarhouse Studio. Originally a signmaker’s workshop the space has been carved up between Assemble, and Workshop East; furniture designers and stone sculptors, who arrived after finishing at Stratford’s Building Crafts College a short distance down the road. An additional meeting and storage room underlines the research and practical materials work that Assemble and their extended family of colleagues are immersed in. What is also clear, is that Sugarhouse Studio, unlike Blackhorse Workshop is a closed rather than an open source; the makers, designers, artists, arriving  to take up spaces after an interview process. The facilities and kit are not used for courses, or for members wanting to use a bench for a few hours. There are however, regular open days and parties, where those working and using Sugarhill Studios and the Yardhouse, can both promote their wares, and socialise with whoever turns up.

In conversation with the Institute of Making’s Liz Corbin, Corbin described Lisogorskaya and Leung’s focus on maker spaces, as taking on a similar spin-off role to that of Alistair Parvin’s Wikihouse within 00 Architecture’s larger umbrella network studio. Talking with Leung during the course of a visit to Sugarhouse however, Leung underplayed his and Lisogorskaya’s specialist focus, stating the whole team in a is more fluid approach. That said, both have committed time to related research, Lisogorskaya, studying Maker Spaces in the States and China. Both, too, are now on the board of Blackhorse Workshop’s trustees.

Sugarhouse Studio’s and the Yardhouse were always to be a temporary home, and this year is going to make way for a development by IKEA’s housing arm. But this only partially explains the flexible design for disassembly. Would the Assemble crew have done it any other way if they’d been offered the site permanently? Or does Amish barn-raising come with the nomadic mindset, ready to move when and as necessary? The materials re-use potential is obvious, waiting to become part of the next iteration of the building, wherever, whenever it happens. Look at Assemble’s early pop-up Cineroleum and Folly for a Flyover cinema  venues, and the fingerprints of re-use are spread generously all over each. The same is true for many of the other smaller projects; the mix of practical architectural and a building knowledge base, has been learnt and put to work in the middle of the last decade’s ‘maker’ climate. Together, they are clues to how re-use, upcycling and making do with materials, mixed with flexible design and economy of use, is becoming second nature thinking across a broad segment of this twenty-something generation; itself led and determined by the maker wave, with architectural thinking playing second fiddle. At the same time, Assemble’s working methods are broadening as and where required; for instance the more conventional architectural approach on their largest project to date, the Goldsmiths College Art Gallery; a not so disguised cultural project requiring modest though clear attention ensuring signatures. In the context of the re-enlivening of Granby Street Community Land Trust housing, however, the energies flowing in from maker culture are vibrantly obvious.

Many things are being said and written about Granby Street, beginning with the heart of the city’s melting pot history, militantly radical politics, black culture, and the 1981 riots. The descriptions include how the road is the one-time spine of Toxteth, the sea-faring heart of Liverpool told through the stories of many, mainly unheard voices; of the many waves of regeneration up to the noughties Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder Scheme. Many, many developments often seemed carelessly irrelevant and almost seemingly a war by other means on its local communities, up to and including the bulldozers, and decimation through Thatcher, Blair and on. This has, and is being written about, from blogs to broadsheets.

Yet, the art installation inside the mock-up is all about making, the workshop, the training facilities and Makers Workshop, that is the immediate next step and focus for the Granby Four Streets grassroots initiative and its future. A legacy from the early days of guerrilla gardening, summer cleaning parties and street-side flowers. While wholly acknowledging that Assemble are consumed by ‘making’, Lewis Jones, who alongside Fran Edgerley, has been the collective’s Granby project people, underlines differences between the Workshop and a maker space. And it’s this energy or energies that all those involved are aiming to harness in the workshop. “We’re particularly focused on young people,” he emphasises. Jones and Edgerley – and a mix of twelve young local craftspeople and apprentices, a number of artists including Will Shannon and Lydia Hardwick, are finding new uses for the materials torn down from the buildings. Rather than being trucked away for low-grade road aggregate,
skip-loads of housing rubble and other outcasts, are being refashioned into new added value Granby Workshop products. The Turner award adds another layer of value to these artefacts, along with the collective Assemble. Unspoken, at a mainstream and architectural level, is how the London architects have been integrating with what is already present and happening in Liverpool. It’s overwhelmingly clear that a wider community, artists, activists and community organisers have been working to open doors to help Granby Four Streets on its way for many years, and the Turner Award is only the latest, if incredibly visible, milestone, of a much longer, under the radar, wider community story, that encompasses arts organisation’s like Not Just and Soup Collective, community organisations such as the Granby Somali’s Women’s Group and the Steve Biko Housing Association and individual driving spirits like Ronnie Hughes and Hazel Tilley. In other words, although Assemble may be the front name, which received the award, it was surely a collective effort, though. The Liverpool, regional and national arts infrastructure, reading the runes, also jumped in.  Liverpool’s Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) and the Crafts Council co-organised a timely exhibition, Build Your Own held in the summer, with a joint Assemble and Will Shannon commissioned piece, Homework, amidst a series of DIY maker and tech-oriented projects.

So other uses are found for humble discarded waste: marble fire mantels, made from the disposed of brick, slate and stone in three tonal varieties, black, red and a mixed palette; re-used lamps and slab table tops, tiles with semi-random designs, sawdust fired door handles, or cupboard knobs displayed en masse in the Tramway as installation pieces, terracotta lampshades and block printed textiles. Through the dedicated website, the first destination being the 160 or so refurbished homes of the four Granby Streets. The workshop is at 142 Granby Street – which had languished for a 15 years as a disused newsagents before Assemble arrived. The focus, as Jones underlines, is on encouraging local youth, teenagers and older, to take on this first round of remade materials and products, and take it further. There are some already involved, such as Sufea Mohamed Noor, with a background in textiles, Patrick Brown who has worked in set design, and print maker Jacqueline Kerr. All have been at the heart of the different Granby Workshop products just launched in January. The training programme is in preparation, kicking off properly once the workshop opens in the early spring. This includes equipment, kit, teaching and other infrastructure needed for this community maker-space workshop.

On the Granby Workshop website, there is not a little emphasis on the £25,000 Turner Award money going to help the social start up. Underlining the four month exhibition duration period of pre-ordering to build up a war chest of funds – the timeliness of the award announcement just prior to Christmas has not escaped notice; Jones stating that £30,000 of pre-orders to support the venture, not forgetting an appeal for volunteers, have come in already. The first set of products, charred legged tables and stools, or the re-aggregated mantel pieces, are not amongst the cheapest artefacts; and how many Toxteth people will have queued when Granby Workshop opens its doors to place face to face orders, is moot. But even if the ‘exclusivity’ end of the maker equation hasn’t been faced, let alone resolved, production, which is arguably more important, is the focus. And also absolutely the first priority Jones underlines, has been getting the workshop off to the best start. How the workshop will fare is an open question, but cannot be seen as anything but a bold experiment, which the Turner nomination placed fair and square in front of the country’s great television watching population.

Granby Street demonstrates how the lessons of re-use, upcycling and deconstruction are being absorbed in full by these young architects. The lessons exist in the body of Assemble and across a potentially influential threshold of the architectural generation they are part of. The Assemble Turner factor, as I heard an academic recently describe it, of absorption in materials, and the tacit world, may signal a new chapter in reframing architectural possibility within the integration of sustainability, re-use and making culture.   More broadly, the playful use of the biggest art award for social ends, as much as the serious play of participation, in this instance, with Granby’s resident’s, with the CLT, with Liverpool artists and makers, and Toxteth’s young and new generation, are visible indications of a generational shift. It’s a sign of maker culture, not entirely dissimilarly to BBC Two’’s Throw-Down ceramics series, becoming mainstream. It’s also a part of broader political-cultural changes, including those, which precipitated bringing Jeremy Corbyn to power in the Labour Party. There’s also a ‘conservative’ overlay; a partial retrieval of the past in this generation’s search for solutions, be it William Morris’s dignity of skilled work, or the rechanneling of ‘70’s community architecture.  With Granby, the Turner Award for this collective effort marks a moment of mainstream arrival, with maker spaces becoming part and parcel of Governmental employment research and developers showcase profile – witness U+I’s Brighton Preston Barracks development with the city council and university, advertising for makers and artists to sign up to the development. Granby illustrates how maker culture has been a story as much about how people live and work together, as it has been about making itself. As 2016 unfolds how to maintain these qualities will likely be a significant current in maker cultures future. Given Assemble’s broad palette of maker experience, what happens next with the collective, will be keenly watched by those holding on to their hopes for the wider maker culture.