LONDON • Assemble, the architectural collective shortlisted for this year's Turner Prize, reckons its nomination has launched a fresh debate about the state of contemporary art in Britain.
The London-based group has blurred traditional boundaries between art and design with its redevelopment plans for 10 Victorian houses in the Toxteth district of Liverpool, north-west England. That project, along with a children's adventure playground in the Scottish city of Glasgow, earned the group its place among the four finalists shortlisted in May for Britain's top contemporary arts prize.
"It was a massive surprise," said Joe Halligan, standing outside the former factory which serves as its studio in the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London. "As a nomination, it is like starting a debate about art and the place that art is in at the moment.
"We are not allowed to call ourselves architects because none of us is fully qualified and before we got nominated for the Turner Prize, I don't think anyone would have called us artists," he explained.
The Turner Prize is known for its surprising choices. Awarded in December, it has been handed out every year since 1984 to an artist aged under 50 who is living in, or was born in, Britain.
It is closely followed as a marker for art world trends, but is also frequently mocked by critics of the contemporary art scene.
Never before had a group so large - 18 founder members of whom 14 are active, all in their 20s - been nominated, even more surprising given that they are rooted in architecture.
The group started as friends at the prestigious University of Cambridge, where many of them studied architecture while others came from different disciplines, but all shared the "idea to do something real in the city", said Fran Edgerley, a colleague of Halligan's.
She said they felt "dissatisfied by the disconnect between their interests and the reality of making cities - and the fact that you spend a lot of time on a computer drawing stuff that never gets built".
Their first project, completed in 2010 during their weekends and holidays, was turning a former central London petrol station into a temporary cinema.
Nothing was formalised then, but their methodology was firmly established: cheap or reclaimed materials, a do-it-yourself approach and close collaboration with the public.
Some 20-odd projects later, the philosophy and approach remain the same. Assemble has set up a building so that local youngsters can make fittings that will adorn the homes they are working on, including door handles.
But four years after its launch, Assemble is still grappling with the need to install some formal structure without losing the spontaneity of its origins. There are 14 active members - eight men and six women. Each one chooses whether to work on a project or not.
"There's no hierarchy. Everyone is on the same level," said Edgerley, adding that the collective's informality is "the main quality that we are trying to protect".