Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

I’m Having An Assemble Moment

6th February 2016

History turns on moments.  Sometimes they are seismic and driven by individuals, Picasso and Braque, the Beatles, Miles Davis.  Other moments are driven by a movement like the founding of the NHS;  they are in the ether, and cometh the hour their time is right.  When Assemble won the Turner prize just before Christmas it was one of those moments.  They are not a one-off, they haven’t appeared in a vacuum.  Others have been practising in the same or similar vein for some time.  But they were noticed and nominated for their work by a director of an art museum interested in participation and co-creation.  Architects in Glasgow like Pidgin Perfect and Ice Cream are working in the same vein, and from an older generation Canny Ash has been doing community projects along similar lines for years.  And many of us have been working across a range of media, from graphics to film, where the built environment is just one part.  For years I have, like Assemble, been telling clients the answer may not, often is not, a building, and certainly not a new building. It’s great that they have moved this thinking into the mainstream.

The Assemble moment is also important because the artists are clearly pissed off, especially as Assemble makes no claim to their work being art.  The irony is that they have undermined the whole basis of the high-end, Duchamp-indebted, manufactured, cast and polished aluminium, million-dollar, ‘ready-mades’ world of a Jeff Koon balloon dog, with simple doorknobs that are true ‘readymades’ – made by a Liverpool community threatened with eviction working in collaboration with free-lance designers who aren’t in it for the money.

The doorknob moment is the counterpoint to an art and architecture market that has run out of things to say.

You can see what I mean in three museums built in the Great Boom:  Imperial War Museum (IWM) North by Libeskind, the Riverside by Zaha Hadid and the IWM London by Foster.  They are the polar opposites of Assemble.  In each the architecture has become the story.  In the first you are under a snowdrift, and it is hard (except when the picture show is on) to really get the story.  In the second you feel you are inside a pistachio-coloured meringue that overpowers the objects and the people stories.  And in the third you are inside an egg box where it is unclear what any of the objects are actually saying.  No wonder that many museum designers have struggled with iconic buildings and their response often tends to over-designed, over-elaborate plinths and cases.  It feels like the Bake Off or Masterchef.  The objects seem to be secondary to how they are decorated or plated up.

Now consider the three best museum spaces I know of that all bear more than a passing resemblance to Assembly’s new building spirit, hand-made from simple materials, nailed and screwed together.  The oldest (constructed in 1839) is the covered shipyard no 3 at Chatham.  One hundred years later Portsmouth Dockyard built the Boathouse No 4.  The original hangars at Duxford were built 100 years ago by German prisoners of war.  All of them are stunning spaces, simply made, versatile, forgiving and supportive. They are the future.

Assemble marks the moment when the zeitgeist shifted, or at least divided us into two camps.  One is metropolitan, tending towards a Glyndebourne world of semi-privatised museum spaces, with Friends and Members Views and corporate dinners.  The other is a world of self-help, sharing, bartering, crowdsourcing, volunteering, participating, co-creating.  In the hands of an Assemble and firms like them it is exciting for the users and partners and for those who want to see museums at the heart of a more balanced society.  It is also a shared space where making and creating lead to self-discovery and even to the next generation of angry young men and women producing great art.