The winner of Britain’s 2015 Turner Prize—the most prestigious art prize in the UK—is Assemble, a collective of 18 individuals who describe themselves as working “across the fields of art, architecture and design.” The scope of their work – their winning submission involved the revitalization of public housing in Liverpool – has befuddled headline writers and critics alike. “Urban regenerators Assemble become first ‘non-artists’ to win Turner prize,” reads The Guardian, “A run-down estate in Liverpool… this year’s Turner Prize winner … 16 artists win award for helping to regenerate houses …” says The Daily Mail. Artnews.com says “Architecture Collective Assemble Wins 2015 Turner Prize.” What to make of this confusion – artists? non-artists? architects? non-architects? No one seemed to even know how many members there were in the first place – 14? 16? Their video for the Tate says 15, their website says 18. Does any of this matter?
This confusion has infected the group itself: “sort-of architects” member Louis Schulz explained to the New Statesman, “sort-of not, sort-of maybe.” Member Fran Edgerley answered the BBC’s Will Gompertz with awkward silence when asked “Are you artists?” Another member, Anthony Engi-Meacock, told the Guardian “It’s just not a conversation we have. I mean what is an artist? There is no answer to it.”
This makes for good controversy, which the Turner Prize is no stranger to. Winners in previous years have exhibited work ranging from an empty room with lights randomly going on and off, to a woodshed rebuilt as a boat, then built back into a shed, after taking a sail. This kind of high concept work is provocative, and the popular British press loves to ask “but is it art?” No one seems to have asked “but is it architecture?”, probably since this work—like other winning work engaging with buildings by Rachel Whiteread and Anish Kapoor—was created by people who self-identify as artists.
Aside from conceptual work, at another edge of the art establishment, a generation of practitioners, under the banner of “social practice”, is using activism in the built environment to rebuild the role of the artist as spatial and political facilitator. No one in the art world seems to mind much, in Baltimore, at MICA, you can even get a Bachelor’s degree in it.
This is an era in which architecture has had little shortage of hand wringing about its own core principles as a discipline. Patrik Schumacher consistently generates attention by declaring that events like the Architecture Biennale in Venice, and the Chicago Architecture Biennial, contain more “political correctness” and “conceptual art” than architecture proper. For critics like Schumacher, the boundaries of the discipline of architecture are clear – architects should engage with politics, if at all, through the production of space and form.
In their Turner show contribution, Assemble worked with a community land trust in Liverpool, creating a place where community members can sell furniture and fixtures made with material reclaimed from demolished public housing. Is it architecture? No one’s saying, no one’s asking. The coyness exhibited by Assemble, in their public statements, and in their installation, isn’t constructive.
There are at least three open questions here. First, what to make of this disciplinary confusion? The mainstream of architectural practice abandoned its ambition to effect social, political and economic change in the 1960s and 70s, after the widely perceived “failure” of Post-War social programs and the High Modernism associated with them. In times of austerity, these ambitions are returning. Architects are again interested in working directly with more than space, form, and material. Practices like Assemble should take more ownership over this larger project, if headway is to be made against denunciations like Schumacher’s. The platform and prestige exists, it’s time to stop saying “umm” and “sort-of” into the microphone.
Secondly, where are the New Aesthetics? Along with the collapse of modernism, in the traditional narrative, we saw a turn away from abstraction towards more familiar historicism, vernacular, and pop imagery. These modes, in the aspirations of critics like Charles Jencks and Venturi Scott Brown, could communicate with audiences more effectively. The discarded, future forward aesthetics of modernism was picked up by practitioners like Peter Eisenman, and stripped of social agency. In the work of Assemble, we see the forms of historical vernacular again, along with a material palette that fetishizes authenticity and thriftiness. Is this what we want our future to look like? Where are the new forms, materials, and aesthetics of this new world?
Third, why take the political context for granted? As Rory Olcayto reminds us in his piece on Assemble for the Architect’s Journal, this work is an ad hoc solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Awarding an art prize for nice adaptive reuse of half-demolished public housing is like giving an award for the prettiest band-aid on a sucking chest wound. Architects should be working in this way, but they should also be active at the next level up, helping to craft the policies and politics that will help put themselves out of a job.
Questions about disciplines, aesthetics, and context cannot be met with blank stares. The Turner Prize’s history shows that artists have little angst when dealing with the “but is it art?” question, the notion that “anything” could be art is so deeply absorbed into pop culture that it can be ridiculed by the popular press. The art world has few qualms about engaging with the built environment and its politics, artists like Whiteread, Matta-Clark, and Serra have shown no shyness about positioning their work in relation to architecture. Artists can work with building, even while remaining artists. Why can’t it work both ways? If practices working in the expanded fringes of architecture could answer with “yes” when asked if what they do is architecture, and feel comfortable, as architects, producing work in the sister disciplines of art, politics, and social practice, then all these worlds would be better off, and probably, so would Liverpool.