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A Turner Prize–Winning Architecture Collective Sets Up Shop in Brooklyn

U.K. architecture collective Assemble has created an installation — dubbed “A Factory As It Might Be” — in the courtyard of A/D/O, the brand-new, forward-looking design space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The temporary factory features an industrial clay extruder, which Assemble — and their Liverpool-based social enterprise the Granby Workshop, along with fellow collaborators — used to make the factory’s cladding as well as a host of products from dinnerware to planters. The effort is the debut US project for the team, who famously became the first architects to win the Turner Prize in 2015 for their work rebuilding Liverpool, spearheaded by the founding of the Granby Workshop. Here Sight Unseen chats with Assemble founding member Lewis Jones about their experiment with A/D/O, which runs through late April and is currently open to the public.
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What is your role within the Assemble collective?

There are 16 of us in the collective and quite a few have a background in architecture. But the work we do encompasses more than just that. Personally, I studied architecture but then found that a broader understanding of architecture in terms of products and uses and organizations — rather than just buildings — became my focus. And so I’ve been working primarily on what we’ve been doing in Liverpool for the past four or five years.

Can you say more about your work in Liverpool?

We’ve been working with a community organization to refurbish houses and rebuild the area after it had been lying derelict for a long period. The local counsel had bought houses from people and moved them out of the area in order to demolish the houses and start again. And this was very unpopular and opposed locally, so we’ve been working with residents to retake control of those streets. It started with redesigning and refurbishing the houses. And then as part of that we set up Granby Workshop as a way of using the process of rebuilding the houses to also look at bringing new employment opportunities back into the neighborhood.

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How does the work on an installation like this break down? Was everyone involved in the brainstorming and realization of the idea or was there a smaller team that devoted themselves to this project?

For all the projects we do there will be a smaller team within Assemble who focus on it. But then every week we review and discuss the work that’s happening across those different teams. So at the brainstorming phase there will be more people involved. But when it gets to the nitty-gritty there are just a few people running each project.

How would you characterize this installation’s key components?

Primarily it’s a material investigation. We’re looking at a single method of production — clay extruding — and at what possibilities there might be for making and designing around that process. So we set up this small workshop, and, using the clay extruder, we designed and developed cladding for the structure and a range of other products. We’re interested in how you can hack this industrial process to draw out a more playful and experimental dimension.

There’s this distinction or divide between something handmade and craft and the possibilities that really small-scale production can offer in terms of variety and flexibility. Then there’s this huge jump up to industrial production, where it’s really an act of repetition, where there’s a single product and it’s kind of fixed and then it’s turned out. We were looking at how you might play with a process that sits between those two worlds, where you can introduce chance and improvisation into something that is still able to produce a lot of stuff. So making thousands of these tiles for the façade, or making 200 cups in a day — it’s an interesting zone between those two forms of production.

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Because this is your first site-specific installation in the US, did you try to create something that felt particularly American? Or what were some of the considerations that you reflected on in this undertaking?

We didn’t look to try and encapsulate American identity in the project, but it closely relates to the situation the project was in. You can’t get the machine, for example, in the U.K. It’s made in California, and the clay we used was from a local supplier. There wasn’t so much of a fixed idea of how it would turn out when we started. All design and development took place on site and is invariably influenced by what was around us.

How do you feel about the space you were given to work with — was it special in any way or was it just your average plot of land?

I suppose it’s an interesting situation to be building in, because A/D/O is still at a very formative stage so there’s not a clear sense of who exactly is using it and how people will view it and interact with that courtyard space.

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Were there any unique features to the land itself or could it be anywhere?

For us, the idea of setting up an itinerant factory or workshop was quite interesting. Rather than making things in the U.K. and exporting to that project, everything is made on site. The same thing could happen in a different part of the world and the outcome would be different, but it could still happen there.

Why did you partner with A/D/O? What made it a compatible partnership?

We have this long-term investment and role in the work we’re doing in Liverpool, building a place of work and production really tied to its neighborhood. It seemed like an amazing opportunity to see how that could be scaled up. So we brought the team from Granby Workshop over to New York and all did the project together — partly as a way to develop what Granby Workshop can be in the future. A/D/O has been very supportive of that.

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Did A/D/O provide any direction, beyond the suggestion of their larger Design Academy programming, which explores the theme of “Utopia vs. Dystopia: Designing Our Imagined Futures”? Or did they give you total control over the concept?

So their starting point was this theme of utopia vs. dystopia, but beyond that they were very open to us interpreting it as we saw most appropriate.

An essay by William Morris lends the installation its title, A Factory As It Might Be — he was quite the multi-hyphenate (textile designer, social activist, poet, and novelist). Was it specific to this project that he emerged as an inspiration or has he always been a larger influence for Assemble?

It’s not about recreating what Morris tried to do. He’s not our hero. But he was exploring some similar issues and ideas and practices in his writing and design and practical work and in the businesses he set up. It’s something that crops up every now and then. But we exist in a completely different time and world to Morris. Though that idea from his text when he describes his utopian vision of the world through a place of work and that complex between vision and reality is interesting territory.

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What real-world impact do you think this installation has achieved or will achieve by the end of its run?

One of the primary outcomes will be to bring these ideas and designs and the machinery itself back to Liverpool, which is what will happen when the exhibition finishes. And then that machine will be set up in Granby and it will be a new addition to what Granby Workshop can offer. That’s a long-term outcome that we’ll continue to have a hand in shaping. But in terms of what it means in New York it’s quite hard to speculate not knowing yet how A/D/O will develop and who will use it.

When will the effort be complete or is it meant to be never-ending?

The basic structure is complete. The tiles are all finished, and the workspace is all set up. But A/D/O is working with a local ceramicist, who will run workshops in that space inviting people to come in and go through a similar process we did in developing products on the fly. Hopefully it will continue to develop.