Assemble 05.03.15

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It became famous for pop-ups, but with new projects such as the barn-like Yardhouse studio and a recent commission for a £2-million art gallery in a converted bathhouse, the east London collective is hitting the big time

A sparkly sequin sign twinkles in the breeze on the corner of an old warehouse in Stratford, clinging to one of the few East End fragments that remain amid the post-Olympic landscape of luxury apartment towers and manicured green mounds. It directs you into a tarmacked yard where, instead of the usual back-of-house jumble, stands an enormous facade of candy-coloured shingles, like the portal to a fairytale ice-cream factory.

This unexpected find is the work of an equally unlikely practice. Assemble has coalesced over the last four years in an almost accidental way, becoming one of the most sought-after young design firms operating in London in the process. Its portfolio now includes everything from furniture and exhibition design to theatres and public spaces, with projects for housing and a £2m art gallery currently underway. It is a situation that none of the 16-strong collective, all still in their mid-20s, would have imagined when they came together in an abandoned petrol station on the Clerkenwell Road in 2010.

As recent graduates – from the various realms of architecture, philosophy, literature and art – they seized the opportunity to build something on this long-vacant site, transforming the filling station into a beguiling temporary cinema. The Cineroleum project repurposed cheap materials with an unusual level of artistry. Great swaths of Tyvek were hung as sumptuous swagged curtains; tables and stools were inlaid with intricate Formica marquetry; while each screening ended with a theatrical reveal, whisking up the swags to expose the audience sitting right beside a busy main road.

 

Words

Oliver Wainwright

 

Photograph

Harry Borden

 

Above: Assemble assemble outside their Yardhouse studio in Stratford, east London

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In Toxteth, the practice is reimagining the terrace typology, working with a local community land trust to breathe life back into the empty brick shells of the derelict home

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Folly for a Flyover, Hackney Wick, London, 2011

This demonstration of wit and charm, infused with an evident joy in the process of making, also characterised the Folly for a Flyover, another temporary cinema and performance venue built the following year. Conceived as a tiny house trapped beneath a pair of roaring roads, it was assembled from wooden bricks that had been sawn from reclaimed railway sleepers and threaded onto long ropes. Once again, it involved insane levels of manual labour, only made possible by an eager army of volunteers, drawn to help by the festival-like atmosphere created during the collective endeavour of construction – like an urban re-enactment of an Amish barn-raising.

The pop-ups have since grown up. Working out of Sugarhouse Studios in Stratford, in a building initially donated by the London Legacy Development Corporation (the organisation charged with co-ordinating the aftermath of the Olympics), Assemble has built up a compelling body of work that somehow retains the spontaneous energy of these initial temporary interventions.

Each project shows the same enthusiasm for experimenting with new materials and techniques, using the big workshops at the practice's Stratford base to make samples and build prototypes – the recently completed sugar-coated Yardhouse contains studios for a dozen other young artists and designers, providing a fertile pool for collaborations on its doorstep.

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Competition-winning design for Goldsmiths Art Gallery, London

For an exhibition at the British Council, Assemble developed a form of "papercrete" to make chunky display cases, while the space itself was enveloped by a snaking corrugated screen – perforated off-site with the help of a shotgun. For Dalston's Cafe Oto project space, the practice built a temple-like building from sandbags, clad with a smeary mixture of mud and rocks from the site. It christened this knobbly finish "rubble-dash" – it can even return to the ground when the building's life is over.

This attention to decorative craft and distinctive material ingenuity is paired with a commitment, in the practice's words, to "a belief in the importance of addressing the typical disconnection between the public and the process by which spaces are made". It might sound like a well-worn architects' cliche, but the claim stands up to scrutiny.

In Croydon's run-down New Addington, Assemble worked closely with local residents and traders over a period of months to trial ideas for the town centre, which resulted in a new public square. The scheme bypasses the blunt hand of local authority planning to bring a surreal landscape of gigantic boulders, skate ramps and a herringbone timber stage.

   

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The Cineroleum, Clerkenwell, London, 2010

In Glasgow's deprived Dalmarnock, an area ripped apart by the clumsy big-box infrastructure of last year's Commonwealth Games, the practice has been working with youth groups to build a curious adventure playground from reclaimed bricks, tyres, drain pipes and logs. It is a wild, creative alternative to the sterile corporate leisure-scape offered by the "legacy" of the event itself.

In what promises to be one of Assemble's most significant projects yet, it has recently begun work on a radical plan for a terrace of vacant houses in Liverpool's once-condemned Toxteth. Here the practice is reimagining the terrace typology, working with a local community land trust to breathe life back into the empty brick shells of the derelict homes. And earlier this year it beat off competition from a number of established firms to win a project for a new art gallery for Goldsmiths, University of London, its biggest project yet.

Assemble's model of practice is also fluid enough to allow most members to teach at the same time – running units at Central Saint Martins and the universities of East London, Westminster and Nottingham between them. And they've done all this without even being qualified architects. So does RIBA Part 3 beckon? "It's on the 'to do' list every week," says Maria Lisogorskaya, one of the founding members. "Maybe one day, but we're not in any hurry."

   

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The Playing Field theatre in Southampton, 2014

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