How They Work: Assemble

By Creative Review

The London-based collective Assemble evolved naturally in 2010, writes Ellen Mara De Wachter, formed by friends who had met while studying architecture at Cambridge University, and has subsequently grown to its current size of 20 members. Working across the fields of architecture, design and art, their projects respond to local needs and foster community activities. The group maintains a level of anonymity and doesn’t publish a list of members.

Their youthful energy – in 2016, the average age of members was 28 – comes through in ambitious and playful projects that transcend the traditional boundaries between art, design and architecture. Far from allowing their inexperience to hinder their development, they view it as an asset that has helped them circumvent established conventions and experiment with new ways of doing things. This approach has proven successful, and they have been selected for major projects such as a new art gallery for Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Assemble’s social ethos is evident in their most well-known project; the redevelopment of The Granby Four Streets in the Toxteth neighbourhood of Liverpool. The area had been subject to ‘managed decline’, the deliberate disinvestment from public services, since the 1990s. Along with residents, they worked to renovate houses and develop the area’s future potential. The project gained them widespread praise, including the Turner Prize in 2015. They used the prize money to set up Granby Workshop, a local design and production workshop that manufactures items for the home using local materials and labour.

How did the members of Assemble first meet?

Most of us studied architecture together at Cambridge University. Each year group comprises about 40 people and around 15 of Assemble come from one year-group. We started working on our first project and other people joined after getting involved and helping on that; then some members introduced others who also became involved.

Do you think the number of members is something that will ever stay fixed?

Assemble is not something that we decided should be a certain way which we then set out to achieve. It’s always been a process of evolution. Assemble is a platform for individuals to do things, so it has multiple changing identities. Assemble isn’t a thing in itself, it’s made up of people and those people might change. We have a lot of projects and sometimes we need additional help or specialisms, so we are trying to work out different ways to bring people in, and how to decide when someone who works with us formally becomes part of the collective. We are very clear that nothing should compromise the non-hierarchical nature of the group. There’s not necessarily a desire to expand but there is a desire to be able to if we needed or wanted to.

Among the 20 of you, what are the different kinds of expertise, and do they influence the division of labour in the group?

The way it works is that projects come in and people express interest in them, so you only work on what you want to work on and every member has the freedom to choose how much work they take on and the scale of it. Some people go for certain types of work more than others and pockets of knowledge are being developed. Some people are becoming experts, in the subject of play in particular.

How do you work out how members are remunerated for their work?

Every time a project is taken forward by those who have expressed an interest, they have complete autonomy to determine how the fees work, but they have to submit the fee proposal to the group at the start of the project and it has to be agreed by the group.

There are at least two people on a project – we call them ‘buddies’. We did that to make it easier for clients to interact with us, because otherwise they don’t know who they are talking to. The buddies are in charge of all administration including the fees and payments related to their project.

Does that mean that Assemble members don’t get anything if they are not involved in a project?

Yes, we are all freelance. Lots of people teach to support themselves. We are looking into ways of having a universal basic salary for Assemble. You would commit a number of days to working and be paid pro rata for those days, and then in addition to that, get money based on the work you have chosen to take on. We want to move towards something more stable but nonrestrictive, whereby we have the ability to decide what, and how much of it, we do.

What effect does working together have on your productivity?

I think we’re probably really unproductive because we talk a lot. There is so much we want to do and so much we are being offered that we have to turn projects down because we don’t have the resources or time to do them. There’s probably a better way to use our time but we haven’t worked that out yet.

I think it was Paloma who said that being in Assemble is the best conversation you could ever have, which I think is true because we know each other so well and have been talking to each other nonstop for five years. I think you become quite robust: you are challenged on everything, you have to stick up for yourself and you don’t get that sensitive about things.

You learn how to think quickly and not to get stuck on an idea: when enough people are telling you it’s a bad idea or you need to change something, you just instantly drop it.

Is there a work that helped define or develop the way you collaborate?

It’s interesting to use this word ‘collaboration’ because, in principle, we work collaboratively in the group, but – and this is linked to how Derrida talks about collaboration – I’ve always seen collaboration as something more along the lines of different people doing their own thing but supporting or influencing the others, so that each of the voices remains clear and identifiable within the end result, or the new product. This is how Assemble’s relationship to others often is, but within our group – and I don’t know if it’s a bad thing or not – there is a lot of discourse about consensus at the moment.

We work with the idea of trying to reach consensus in everything, yet consensus subsumes any voice. It leaves you at risk of seeming apolitical, of not having a position, or it weakens individual voices if you fully embrace consensus. It’s harder for a strong voice to emerge and give the group a wider position.

People always say that Assemble has an aesthetic, but actually we don’t set out on projects with a particular type of aesthetic, it’s our process of working together that gives everything a similar feel; it’s not intentional, it’s just the result of the collective process.

Is there a particular philosophy or politics that you try to embody through working together?

We probably have some ideology in common, because we work together and talk to each other every day, but individually, our politics are really wide-ranging. Assemble itself is not political, but we are aware that anything we do is a political act and we own that. That has much more to do with the work we’ve done than with any of us. We say that everything should be about the work, and not about who we are as individuals. The work should speak for itself because it is the manifestation of us as a group.

What happens when there is disagreement in the group about how to go forward with projects?

People are always quite surprised that we have been going for so long without any obvious rifts or problems. It’s partly because the whole thing has never had a manifesto, so it has evolved naturally between individuals and we have always considered everyone’s opinion equally valid; there is no party line to disagree with. It’s interesting how people outside Assemble perceive us. We often get people saying we are interested in the community and that we have a social agenda and are really political, when actually it could all change tomorrow, because Assemble is representative of the people within it.

There seems to be a looseness that’s been allowed in the links between the members, which allows for flexibility. If the links were rigid, the group might crack under pressure.

Yes, Assemble is a platform that we are all plugging into. If there were substantial conflict and we had to disband, then it would just mean we had outgrown Assemble. There’s an idea that if, for some reason, Assemble ever broke up, it would signify a failure. So many groups are considered failures because they ended, but Assemble is already a success, because it has been a great vehicle for us to do things that we would never have been able to do as individuals.

This is an extract from Co-Art: Artists on Creative Collaboration by Ellen Mara De Wachter, published by Phaidon, £24.95; phaidon.com

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