The Rise And Fall Of London Pop-Up Architecture

How an architectural trend has changed in the age of refurbishing and repurposing.


This article titled “Assemble: from pop-ups to grown-ups” was written by Rowan Moore, for The Observer on Saturday 5th July 2014 23.05 UTC

It wasn’t the Summer of Love, nor yet the Winter of Discontent, but it is possible for impatient trend historians to look back to 2010 and discern the Autumn of Pop-Ups. For then it was that underemployed young architects and architectural students, finding sites left momentarily vacant by a lull in south-east England’s property orgy, used their energy, initiative and willingness to work hard for no more reward than personal satisfaction, to create short-lived projects of wit and charm. Of these, the most striking and delightful was Cineroleum, the cinema in an old petrol station in London by a loosely assembled group who eventually called themselves Assemble.

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With horrible predictability, the pop-up became a marketing concept and then a marketing phenomenon. Now it’s a device used to sell shortbread, tweed, bone china, vintage anything, “fun shoes”, “hamburger jumpers”, “ginger chicken bunnies”, fermented tea leaf salad and whatever it is that “pop-up high-end boutiques” sell. High ends, I suppose. The pop-up can be as urbanistically irritating as its online namesake. It feeds the English belief (vide The Apprentice) that the way to get on in life is through frenzies of shouting, frothing, huckstering activity that, in the end, don’t make anything better or different.

Assemble might also have continued, if at all, in a similar vein. Cineroleum was in Trendy Clerkenwell, a district that now wears its prefix as firmly as Weston-super-Mare wears its suffix, and it would have been easy to serve mostly the absurd-beard brigade of this and neighbouring districts. Instead, Assemble neither gave up nor sold out, but now are applying what is actually good about pop-ups to projects of wider significance. They have organised themselves more than in the past, although it remains an attractive feature that it’s not quite clear who exactly they all are or what their roles and status are. I talk mostly to Lewis Jones and Paloma Strelitz, two of Assemble’s founders, but also to various others. They now offer the prospect of something radical and transformative: that improvised architecture can help change for the better the way people live in a place.

assemble glasgow

Their work includes an adventure playground in Glasgow, the proposed revival of derelict terraces in Liverpool, the renewal of public spaces in the forgotten London suburb of New Addington, and workshops in Walthamstow where people can learn and apply practical skills. Also the Yardhouse, a “social and collaborative work environment” in Stratford, east London, in a zone awaiting the regenerative fairydust of the Olympics.

The ideas carried over from the Cineroleum include an attachment to the freedoms of the impromptu and the temporary, a desire to invent, initiate and realise projects as well as designing their structures, an interest in the activities of a space as much as its construction, the conception of construction itself as an activity, the sheer pleasure of making things.

If one version of architecture is about the perfection of a finite and permanent object, Assemble see it as a series of events and collaborations, of which building is one. They are in a tradition of architects who prize making and responsiveness over the design of monuments, which also includes Cedric Price and Walter Segal, and perhaps William Morris.

The Yardhouse stands in Sugarhouse Studios, a place set up with the help of the London Legacy Development Corporation. Here, Assemble work surrounded by engaging objects – a big model of a Liverpool house, colourful concrete samples that look like experimental ice creams, tools, an old picture of a cow. A stonemason and a wood workshop share the premises. In its short life, it has hosted a cafe and film screenings and construction workshops with schoolchildren.

The Yardhouse expands these activities into a two-storey timber structure where designers and makers occupy spaces on either side of a high communal hall. It’s a simple, open space whose users can enclose their individual units as little or as much as they want. Its dimensions are determined by the standard lengths of pieces of wood, to minimise cutting and waste. Its touches of art include metal chandeliers, slender handrails and a front in multicoloured concrete tiles made by hand on site that makes it theatrical, exotic and slightly like those Italian churches where an ornate facade is stuck on to a plain shed behind.

It took four months to build, cost £80,000 and, courtesy of the site’s owners, Landprop, can stand for a minimum of two years. It brings energy to a place that would otherwise be a wasteland awaiting the descent of another block of luxury flats. Lewis Jones (who is bearded but not absurdly so) compares it to the Amish barns of the kind raised in the film Witness, a type of construction whose directness means that it can be comprehended and shared. He also claims inspiration from the song and YouTube clip The Big Rock Candy Mountain – it’s something to do with the coloured tiles, I think, and the notion of a contented society.

In another work, a temporary musical practice space for Cafe Oto in Dalston, east London, the muck and stones already on its site have been scraped up and made into thick, rough, wobbly walls of what Jones calls “rubbledash”. An oversize plywood roof structure surmounts it. When the time comes, the walls can be broken down and returned to the ground whence they came, but despite its transience the building’s primal building techniques give it the air of having been there longer than anything else in the neighbourhood.

In Glasgow, Assemble responded to the desolation of the district in Dalmarnock, currently made more so by the construction of facilities for the Commonwealth Games. They revived the postwar idea of the adventure playground, as a response to the “boredom and exclusions” of children living in urban areas. With the help of things such as drain sections, tyres, planks, logs and mud, they want to make a “child-led” place, full of possibilities for creation and destruction. It’s a more anarchic version of the pleasures they seek with their buildings for adults.

One could contrast the Yardhouse in London with the nearby Stratford Halo, an apartment tower. Both have randomised polychromy, but the spirit is utterly different. The Halo is the product of a construction industry where each step of designing and making is isolated from the next and the whole is inscrutable to the public.

The colours are an attempt to introduce art and engagement into a process from which they are otherwise excluded. On the Yardhouse, the colours express an overflow of the creative energy that runs through the whole project. The Halo, of course, creates hundreds of flats, and it has yet to be seen how Assemble’s principles can be expanded to such a scale. The beautiful self-build houses and adaptive constructions of their predecessors, Segal and Price, had a way of not catching on as much as they should. It is worth noting, however, that in a short time Assemble have already succeeded in progressing from the amuse-bouche of the Cineroleum to works of greater size and social impact. The question is to see how far they can go from here.

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