Turner Prize: A poisoned chalice for Assemble? 09.12.15

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Architecture’s frenzied courtship with art has finally reached fruition, but John Jervis argues that this relationship may already have done more harm than good

The victory of the young architectural collective Assemble at this year’s Turner Prize, and its implications for the relationship of architecture to art, have already lead to an outpouring of critical pontifications. Here are my additions to the fray:

1. As suggested by Adrian Searle in The Guardian, Assemble are merely the latest prop to be inveigled into an art world that is desperately attempting to escape its own irrelevance. The group would be well advised to steer clear of these blandishments, borne out of the inherent contradictions between contemporary art’s overblown claims of singular creative and intellectual import, its distasteful embrace of extreme wealth and its popular invisibility.

The froth emerging from art critics is of little significance to anyone but themselves. An alignment with contemporary art is likely to prove a poisoned chalice for Assemble – it hasn’t even been of much use to other Turner Prize winners in recent years.

2. Assemble’s success has elicited a certain triumphalism among some quarters of the architectural world. After 40 years of desperate flirtation in pursuit of artistic approval – in which architecture avidly appropriated the language and institutions of academia and conceptual art – it would seem that this frenzied courtship has finally been vindicated.

Yet Assemble are engagingly modest about categorising their achievements in any one sphere, and certainly avoid the sticky varnish of academic jargon. Such language may buff the reputation of a few architects, but it communicates little, conceals more, and alienates all but a few – its unread theses gather dust in our university libraries and its impenetrable language and tenuous citations have increasingly penetrated architectural discourse. It is perhaps a moment to consider whether architecture’s relationship with art has already done more harm than good to the profession.

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Assemble's range of designed products

3. Most architects, now as in the 1950s, enter the profession with the aspiration to do good, whether in society or to society. Assemble’s Granby Workshop is an encouraging reminder that social engagement is still very much alive in architecture, just as the room available for it in our cities seems increasingly curtailed. And the current revival of collective architecture is perhaps another trend to be watched with interest. Yet Assemble’s achievements should not be hijacked or overhyped, either as weighty political gestures or as a groundbreaking innovation – a brief look at the community architecture of the 1960s and 1970s would give the lie to such claims – and Assemble do not fall prey to such temptations themselves.

Assemble are a young practice, and should be left in peace to pursue their vocation as their consciences and practicalities dictate, ignoring the bluster of art and architectural critics alike. They’re talented, engaged, intelligent and likeable – heartwarmingly so – and it’s been going pretty well for them so far without wise counsels. Fingers crossed things continue in this manner. But I will make one humble request: please no “experimental pavilions” at design fairs, architectural biennials or art galleries – that way lies the path to closeted irrelevance.

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Tim Abrahams: Is Assemble's nomination for the Turner Prize likely to bring the art and architecture worlds any closer together?

Sam Jacob: Assemble's shortlisting for the Turner Prize demonstrates an audacity that the architecture profession is conspicuously lacking

Oliver Wainwright on Assemble, Icon's 2014 Emerging Architecture Practice of the Year



John Jervis


Above: Assemble's Turner Prize installation

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The froth emerging from art critics is of little significance to anyone but themselves

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