Architecture for art’s sake

What does Assemble’s Turner triumph tell us about the relationship between art and architecture?

We’ve been familiar with the notion of community architecture since Ralph Erskine in the 1970s. We’ve trodden the modern path of art/architecture fusion since Le Corbusier in the 1920s and saw its revival in the UK with the arrival of FAT and Muf in the 1990s. But come on – architecture and art have rubbed along together at the Royal Academy since it was established in 1768. The RIBA’s charter of 1837 talks of the ‘various arts and sciences’ of the profession and comes down in favour of the former: ‘it being an art esteemed and encouraged in all enlightened nations’. As for the notion that architecture can emerge from other disciplines, that’s older still: we can point to Inigo Jones (stage-set design) and Christopher Wren (mathematics and astronomy). But it has taken until 2015 for a community-minded, not-exclusively-architect architecture practice to win the Turner Prize, in the 21st year of that art award. Well done, Assemble, but why now?

OK, we know that anything can be defined as art if someone (especially the artist) says it is and enough people agree. And if architecture is an art, which it clearly thinks it is, then there should be no argument.  But it is a DIFFERENT art. Never mind the ‘frozen music’ thing. Architects are different from artists. That’s clear from all the biennales and triennales where you too often encounter architects let off the leash of planning permission and building regulations, and trying – my, how they try – to cut it as installation artists. But they can’t escape their training. It shows. Artists, believe me, always do art better than architects.

Assemble is, unlike Muf and FAT when they set out, much more heavily into actual buildings that get built. What public art it does is always useful art rather than art for art’s sake. It just does things involving buildings and people of one kind or another. Its members have ideas: they are good at making things happen and helping others to make things happen. That’s a very architectural skill. 

All of this is admirable. Where FAT wrote a tongue-in-cheek (but wonderfully accurate) manifesto on ‘How to be a famous architect’, Assemble just got on and did it, by force of collective will, in five years from a standing start. But this still leaves the mystery of the Turner Prize. Its terms of reference are clear: it is awarded to 'a British artist under 50 for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the 12 months preceding'. It’s hard to see how the 18-strong Assemble collective fits that description apart from the under 50 bit.

The Turner Prize – and especially the jury member who nominated Assemble, Alistair Hudson, director of the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art – wants to broaden our ideas of what constitutes art. He told us in May: ‘We’re now a lot more interested in art, design and architecture being a social practice rather than an isolated discipline.’ He rejects the idea of the lone artist genius, and commends a kind of art that is not about commodification of the work produced – is, in fact, anti-capitalist. Thus Assemble’s community architecture work at Granby Four Streets in Liverpool qualified as its ‘exhibition’. It’s true that this chimes with an emerging strand in architecture exhibition practice right now, which tends towards social engagement rather than the presentation of objects. Something that is rather hard to demonstrate to a public looking for, well, things to look at.

Is this the death of ‘useless art’ then? Or is it the birth of a new kind of recognition for what architects – who are not visual artists – do? Probably neither, but this doesn’t actually matter. It’s one of those Turner Prize moments and it’s got everyone (well, everyone interested in contemporary art) talking about architecture, and what it is. I’m not going to argue with that.