Big Assemble

It is a sunny morning in Toxteth, Liverpool, and Fran Edgerley is wrestling with a metal fence. Beyond the fence are two red-brick Victorian terrace houses that, like many homes in the area, are empty and shuttered. Edgerley slips through the fence, removing a wooden bar from across the door and then the door itself. (She is not a person easily put off by fences or other hurdles.) Inside is a ruin of crumbling brick walls, absent floors, pigeon droppings and damp. “This will be the winter garden,” she says cheerfully.

Edgerley is a member of Assemble, an 18-person collective of Oxbridge-educated multi-disciplinarians aged between 27 and 30, which last year won the Turner Prize for its continuing regeneration of Granby Four Streets in Toxteth. Historically the heart of Liverpool’s immigrant community, Granby was once considered for “managed decline” (in the parlance of Thatcherite planning) following race riots in 1981. “It is difficult to imagine the psychological impact of living on a street full of people, families and life and then slowly the area is designated as one [that’s] going to be demolished entirely,” says Edgerley.

Architecture is often seen as an old man’s game. A common perception is that the skills needed are so specialist, the knowledge required so intricate and the pace of design and construction so measured, that it takes decades to get any good. For years the Pritzker judges validated this notion by rewarding mainly the established architects — Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry and IM Pei, for example — none of whom built much until they were beyond middle age. Norman Foster, another Pritzker-winner, remains prolific at 80.

Yet architecture has not always been an old man’s game, or not exclusively. Indeed, some of the most daring architecture has been created by the young. In 1769, James Wyatt designed the neoclassical, now-demolished Pantheon on Oxford Street, perhaps his greatest work, aged 23. In 1896, Charles Rennie Mackintosh started work on the Glasgow School of Art — described as the “first genuine monument” of European modernism — when he was 28. And the Engineering Building at Leicester University — one of the forerunners of postmodernism noted for its complex geometric glass — was co-designed in 1959 by 33-year-old James Stirling.

Zaha Hadid forged her strange style of architectural painting when she was a student at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London in the early 1970s. Her abstract drawings, developed as she studied suprematism under Koolhaas, are reminiscent of cubist painting. They depict multiple perspectives in two dimensions — forms that appeared impossible to build until computer-aided design became more widely used in the early 1990s.

There was a gap of two decades from the time Hadid presented her Hungerford Bridge graduation project and her first major commissions; she designed the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati in 1997. Yet the gallery’s exterior, resembling ill-stacked Tetris blocks, retains her early feel for line and form just as the “urban carpet” pathway that leads visitors from the entrance — becoming in turn a wall, ramp and walkway — displays her calligraphic feel for movement.

Yet not all new architects are willing to wait two decades for their first major commission. Assemble often initiates its own projects, working with institutions or — in the case of Granby — with local residents and Steinbeck Studio, a social investor. In the early 1990s, when Sam Jacob of FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste) graduated, Britain was emerging from recession. “It felt like there was no culture of young architecture practices in the UK,” Jacob says. “The big guys were still around, the Fosters and the Rogers, but pretty much that was it.”

Jacob, with FAT co-founders Sean Griffiths and Charles Holland, did not set out to establish a traditional architecture office. They began, instead, with art projects, installations and subtle “interventions in the urban space”. Jacob describes FAT then as a loose collective that was “provocative against what we thought were banal ideas of how architecture was done”.

At first there was little opportunity to build these provocations (if enthusiasm is seldom lacking among young architects, funding often is). Eventually, though, the ideas turned into real commissions. One of FAT’s earliest projects was the office of Dutch advertising agency KesselsKramer in a 19th-century church in Amsterdam featuring a wooden fort, artificial grass, picnic benches and a watch tower. It was imaginative and cartoonish, a reaction against the modernist maxim that function comes before form. The gleeful abandonment of “good taste” would become a FAT hallmark, realised most fully, perhaps, in one of its last projects, A House For Essex (2013), designed with Grayson Perry in the year that FAT disbanded. “Architecture is a cultural act as much as a structural act, the statement it makes is something that should be questioned,” Jacob says.

It often falls to the next generation to ask such questions, but the line they take is shaped by time and place. Le Corbusier, for example, was 27 when he designed Dom-Ino House (1914), a steel and concrete housing prototype of horizontal slabs and pillars that could be manufactured en-masse. Would he have conceived of such a structure had Europe not been grappling with a housing shortage? Likely not.

Though Dom-Ino was never built, the design became the foundation of Le Corbusier’s architecture for the subsequent decade. In New Architects 3, the Architecture Foundation’s third survey of the UK’s “new” (and mostly young) practices, Norman Foster writes: “I can now see many of our subsequent projects, built decades later, are rooted in the idealism and principles that were founded in those early years.”

Much of the work in the book is by the generation that came of age during the 2008 financial crisis and their work appears to resist the idea of architecture as monument-maker or function of property and finance.

Frustrated by a lack of “hands-on” building in his architecture degree, James Mitchell of Orkidstudio went to Uganda to help build a community kitchen. Still under 30, he has since designed schools, health clinics and community centres in Zambia, Cambodia and Sierra Leone. These new architects show an openness to new technique and responsiveness to setting, as well as a predilection for projects that blur disciplinary boundaries — diversification makes sense when commissions are hard to come by.

In the UK, Assemble may be the most celebrated practice of this new generation. Its proposal for Granby is multi-pronged. On Cairns Street, it is renovating 10 houses, turning decent but derelict Victorian stock into bright affordable homes. It has also installed a workshop in what was once a corner shop, making small tables, lamps and bookends from “Granby rock”, a composite of concrete, pigment and rubble. On Ducie Street, where the row of houses is little more than a street-long hollowed shell, Assemble plans to create a range of different units — studio flats, family homes — that “tessellate” behind the original façade and are accessible through shared front doors.

As a collective, its methodology counters the image of the cloistered, egocentric starchitect. Of all the Assemble members just one is qualified. The group does not see inexperience as a failing — it assigns projects to members based on their appetite for trying new things. “That’s the purpose of the work, to learn,” Edgerley says. “It’s more of an educational endeavour than a business one — although that is something we are trying to change.”


Link to the FT