Getting to know Assemble

COLLECTIVE: ASSEMBLE SUGARHOUSE STUDIOS, Bermondsey, South London

Assemble are a collective of artists & architects who have created works of all uses, trying to provide spaces and utilities for local communities to participate with. This was my initial impression upon hearing about the team, which prompted a handful of visits to their Sugarhouse Studio in Bermondsey. Knowing London Craft Week was coming, our team traveled over to their base of operations to interview Audrey, the newest addition to the collective. This would be the second time I’d visited the establishment. Their tall ceilings with boxes full of equipment and miniature creations cascade down storage scaffolding as you come through the main entrance. Prefab studios are built on top of an old swimming pool (as the studio was once an old primary school), segmenting different members of the team to their individual studio spaces, whether it be ceramics, woodworks, metalworks and so on. Each space was filled with laborious yet simple creations - clearly the result of passion and honed skillsets. Upon meeting Audrey, we were taken outside to their open ceiling communal area, where a BBQ was being built for the upcoming weekend activities. 

“We’re really interested in creating workspaces, especially in a place like London where it can be very difficult to find affordable workspaces, and also creating affordable and functional housing.”

Audrey confirmed our beliefs about Assemble. It’s less in-house gallery work, more practical & social intent based. An early major project, Cineroleum, is an example of an abandoned site receiving renovation, and the Playing Field, a 450-seat theatre built in a Southhampton square, is a feat in gathering the local community to enjoy accessible theatre. Audrey mentioned the ongoing Baltic Street Adventure Playground as a project intended for children’s practical education & fun, “Adventure play involves enabling children to be responsible for their environment, and to play in that area where they have responsibility. The children have a sense of autonomy, as there would be weekly meetings where children can talk to adults about what they want. it’s about enabling the kids to have a space.” Attention to the community of children is hugely important, and Assemble have been playing a part in reinforcing this wellbeing. A final example of wellbeing would be the Granby Four Streets project in Toxteth, Liverpool. A thriving diverse community, having their homes demolished during decades of ‘regeneration’, took up arms and began repairs, starting a new community-land ownership as the CLT, with Steinbeck Studios & Assemble joining the mission circa 2011. The homes were then officially regenerated, as a project “of repair and adaptation, responding to the specific condition of each house” (brief from Assemble logbook). It’s clear that Assemble run a selfless practice, where individual members have their interests aligned with enabling communities to thrive. 

Our chat with Audrey shone light on how Assemble function. With this in mind, we were excited for the oncoming LCW event. We arrived on the Saturday 12th to attend the claymation workshop, and we couldn’t have felt more welcome. The class was informal and sweet, full of keen conversation with our instructors on the topic of personal freelance jobs, works as an ensemble, and how they feel about all of that - pretty positive!. We were chaperoned across various miniatures of past and future projects, engaged in discussion about the creative process. On the topic of whether virtual / augmented reality was the next step towards miniature designs, we agreed on how, despite the usefulness of digital, nothing beats a tangible model to put things into perspective - these guys clearly have a lot of love for their hands-on design exploits. On top of all that, their BBQ was ready for use. It may have been raining, but that didn’t stop us from standing by the fiery coals, chomping away at skewers, and mingling with the chefs & fellow LCW visitors. Despite us as distraction, the team were relaxed, as if each passing day had its weird & interesting quirks to it. This helped us feel welcome, especially as I was asked to assist with the preparation of the food, as if I too were a part of the team. 

There was the kicker - the sense of community. A top down structure simply wouldn’t do for Assemble, they appreciate all as capable helpers. The BBQ as one example, their portfolio of projects another. The emphasis on community and cooperation with folks outside the establishment acts as their maxim that’s allowed so much work as a slightly smaller, individual firm of architects. Success may not always be apparent, every firm puts out more than what gets completed - Durham Wharf and the Bell Square Pavilion are examples of slower works, having started in 2013/14 with a deadline that’s less clear than others - yet any creative should know that not all they wish to do can be done. Assemble are probably going to do their best anyway. To that, I say good luck!

Charles Davison