For its Brutalist Playground at the RIBA, the Turner prize-nominated architecture collective has worked with artist Simon Terrill to recreate some of the surreal structures created for play at brutalist social housing schemes. They told Laura Snoad us about the thinking behind the project
Expanding into RIBA’s Architecture Gallery, huge foam forms – one resembling a giant flying saucer, another a boxy fort and the final a geometric Giant’s Causeway – navigate the somewhat awkward space, slotting into alcoves and beneath skylights.
The installation by the Turner Prize-nominated architecture collective Assemble and artist Simon Terrill transports some of the surreal structures created by the architects of London’s brutalist social housing schemes into the gallery space, recreating them at 1:1 scale, but replacing bush hammered concrete for different weights of psychedelically coloured foam – the sort usually used to pad out contemporary furniture.
Brutalist Playground is the culmination of a research project that saw both parties dig into RIBA’s archives to investigate past examples of design for play. In brutalism, they found dramatic sculptural forms that provided space for children’s own imaginative powers rather than a narrow definition of play engineered by objects with a specific purpose.
ICON: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the structures that Brutalist Playground references?
JOE HALLIGAN, ASSEMBLE: The flying saucer is from Churchill Gardens in Pimlico. If you see photographs of it, it’s unbelievable. It's hard to comprehend that people would make it and get away with it. The original structure was much taller than this, and you could walk underneath it.
SIMON TERRILL: It was demolished some time in the 1970s. The only structure of the three that still exists, although fenced off and partially closed is at Balfron tower in Poplar. The smaller shapes are from the Brunel Estate.
ICON: Were they originally intended for play or were they sculptural features?
ST: The material doesn't exist to answer that question and that was essential to why we wanted to do this project – we wanted to see whether they worked as playgrounds. The photographs suggest that they were genuinely used but, and this is just speculation, it may be that after the architects had finished their tower block they had space for a gesture where they could do what they wanted. It certainly feels like that with [Ernő] Goldfinger’s structure at the Balfron tower.
ICON: How did you develop the concept?
HALLIGAN: Simon came to us with the title. The images that he found in the archive were great and we decided that, in order to tell people about these playgrounds, we just needed to show them. It's this idea of the Cast Courts at the V&A, where there’s a Victorian fetish for going into the knave of church in Florence and taking a plaster cast of it and bringing it back to put it in a room. The idea is to do similar for something that has been forgotten, or isn't that well documented, using the original drawings to recreate them in the space.
ST: There’s an oddness of doing this kind of show in this particular gallery considering it’s a museum space. We're not approaching this as archivists or academics, it's activating the archive.
ICON: What were the architectural challenges of the project?
HALLIGAN: Recreating something 1:1 is very powerful, particularly when you change the context, but doing it in this gallery was difficult. For a start, the door's very small. We worked with engineers at Structure Workshop. The saucer is made from a steel drum with edged with spokes that sits on a huge load spreader. The floor in this gallery can only take around 4 kilonewtons per square metre so we had to be careful not to crack the floor. RIBA re-opened a quarry to do this floor, so you really can’t touch it.
ICON: Why do you think brutalism is currently undergoing a revival in popularity?
ST: There’s something in the clarity of the intention of brutalism. There was a belief that we could remake the world and throw out the past. The scale of thinking is really inspiring – that's completely written out of the script now. But also I like the idea of the brutalist sublime, the relationship with landscape and nature. A lot of the literature on the Balfron tower describes it as approaching a cliff face.
HALLIGAN: These structures are so surreal – there's an optimism in them. The architects have just discovered concrete and they’re thinking, "wow, what can we do with it?” That's the feeling that you get. Also, it’s really different to how play has been thought of in the past ten or 20 years, where play equals slide, swing, see-saw, etc.
JANE HALL, ASSEMBLE: Also those things tend to move. There's this idea now that play equipment has to do something, to perform, whereas these are more sculptural and are completely stationary. What’s amazing when kids come in is watching their movement. In some ways, the project only really starts now, because seeing how children play on it is something to observe in itself. In fact, there’s some pictures next door of debates in the AJ about play equipment and, why not?
ICON: A lot of designers are interested in play at the moment. Why do you think that is?
HALL: It gets a bit political. There’s this thing about cuts and playgrounds loosing lots of funding, especially adventure playgrounds. We've been working on one in Glasgow, and the funding streams are just terrible, yet they're the cheapest and most beneficial things to be building for children – I think designers recognise that.
HALLIGAN: The ‘beneficial’ idea is important. If you're going to spend a lot of time on something and not get paid very much then you better make sure that what you're focusing your energy on is good. Doing anything with kids feels worthwhile.
ICON: Assemble was nominated for the Turner Prize partway through the project, and of course, this is architecture in a gallery context. Has that changed how you view the exhibition?
ST: What was a real pleasure for all of us was those expectations of how do we collaborate. [Assemble] are trained as architects and I'm supposedly the artist, and there are different languages. That immediately fell away completely. The borders don't really exist, but it kept cropping up in the conversation, as in if I make a hexagon is it a sculpture? Does it have some aura of an art object? And if Assemble makes it, is it considered a model that will eventually be thrown out?
HALLIGAN: When Simon first approached us, I thought that he wanted us to do the exhibition design, that’s how it usually works with artists and architects. But when we found that Simon wanted to do something completely collaboratively, whereby art, exhibition design, everything is one thing, we were very happy sitting there in this realm of exhibition design/art, and had never really thought about it.
HALL: It tapped into our earlier projects, in that what I really like about the playground was the design and build aspect. A lot of projects become too big or too long time-wise for us to really have a hand in making them, whereas a lot of our early projects we were physically there building it. I think that idea is something that should be implicit in architecture but isn't – something that we enjoy doing, but that only seems to really exist in art practice. We consider that it should be architecture practice, but others think of it as art. The actual process of how this has been made is very much how we've always worked. It's just in a gallery.
HALLIGAN: This whole thing – “art” or “not art” – is so funny. This project that we've been working on in Liverpool [The Granby Four Streets, proposals to develop a cluster of empty terraces into a community hub] is cited as one of the projects that won us the nomination. When people come along, will they be like, “Which one's ‘the art’? So it's number 19, is it this bit? This mantlepiece?” There’s this circus that exists around it, someone says it’s “art” so suddenly it's got a label. It's so weird. Nothing's changed, it's the same.
ICON: Do you think going forward the nomination will affect the type of commissions you work on?
HALL: We don't pursue work particularly. We run on the basis that as a group of individuals we take on projects that interest us and that will continue, the individual interests of Assemble will stay the same. Maybe the exciting thing is the opportunity to collaborate with other people. At least being recognised in a different field puts you on other people's radars that wouldn't know about you otherwise. I don't think it will change what we pursue ourselves but it might change who pursues us.
The Brutalist Playground is at the RIBA in London until 16 August 2015. Assemble won the 2014 Icon Award for Emerging Architecture Practice of the year – read Oliver Wainwright's profile of the collective from earlier this year
Our current issue, Leisure, (pictured below) celebrates the arrival of summer, with FAT and Grayson Perry’s House for Essex, Ooze Architects’ King’s Cross swimming pond, the surprising modernist history of Center Parcs and Bruno Drummond’s Cedric Price-inspired photo essay
Images: RIBA Library, Getty Images, Assemble, Simon Terrill