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Meeting the young architects who are shortlisted for the Turner Prize

Collective decision making, progressive collaborations and a warren of sheds in east London: meet Assemble.

“Shall we play fives?” Lunch is over at the offices of Assemble, and a big decision awaits: who’s making tea? There’s a rota for lunch duties marker-penned on a whiteboard, points deducted for slackers. But tea-making is decided with “fives”, a kind of haka-cum-rock-paper-scissors. For a few minutes team-members fight it out with hands, until one succumbs. This is how business is conducted at Assemble’s “Global HQ”, as the gently mocking sign on their front door calls them. They might be nominated for the Turner Prize. They might be redesigning cities. They might be building art galleries and town squares. Life is getting serious. But at the offices of Assemble, it still feels like The Young Ones.

After all, this band of eighteen (“sort-of architects,” explains Assemble member Louis Schulz, “sort-of not, sort-of maybe”) are not long out of college, most in their mid twenties. And I say ‘offices’; but think student digs, lightly art directed. Their utilitarian sheds, lurking by Bow Flyover, east London, are leered at by dead-eyed apartment blocks and other sins of the modern city rising beside the Olympic Park.

Schulz gives me the tour. Inside, the sheds’ shaggy warren hides metal and wood workshops, towering shelves piled with odds and sods, “angle brackets”, John Lewis bags, mouldering mugs, columns of bubble wrap, chunks of buildings, shopping trolleys, assorted unidentified unfiled objects and, behind doors, a sizeable chunk of east London’s cultural community. Assemble sublets to carpenters, ceramicists and theatre designers, as much to balance the books as to have on hand a cultural community to share tea breaks and tips.

For Assemble might be young, but they’re astute. Not many graduates in 2010 would have turned down paid employment after an economic crash to knock up their own temporary community cinema in a derelict petrol station (as you do). Do-it-yourself drew them together. They wanted to build stuff, with bare hands.

British architecture schools notoriously train students sky-high on pretty, impractical dreams who couldn’t masterplan a flatpack shelf let alone a city, most destined for disillusionment as “CAD (computer-aided design) jockeys”, eyes chained to screens. “So unbelievably abstract,” says another member, Paloma Strelitz – of her architectural education, as much as the buildings it produces. Assemble is anything but. “We’re from another era,” Schulz grins. Not Luddites – they have a roomful of Apples – but people who just like making things. They cook up objects and materials (‘rubble-crete’?) at their digs and let them loose on the world.

Their old-skool methods include something passing for Bolshevik radicalism today: they actually talk to the users of the spaces they help create. “It’s simple,” says Schulz, artlessly, “go there, talk to people.” It’s amazing how few architects, though, achieve such Herculean feats.

The project that’s earned them their Turner nomination is the ongoing rehabilitation of four streets of Victorian terraces in Granby, Liverpool, round the corner from Toxteth. Plans for the area “have come and gone,” says Erika Rushton, chair of its community land trust, who’s lived there for 40 years, “and,” she sighs, “come and gone.” Myriad housing policies ‘cleansed’ Granby’s population; the four streets’ residents clung on among “tinned up” houses made intentionally derelict. As the state retreated, residents took charge. Rushton noticed the morale boost when they began clearing their own rubbish, painting their own homes. “Don’t ask permission,” she says. “Just do it.”

Assemble was brought in to finish the job, using local apprentices. “It’s the residents, as much as us at Assemble,” says member Fran Edgerley, “that come up with the ideas.” Like that game of ‘fives’, decisions are made around kitchen tables. Or, on a project at a Croydon housing estate, at a pensioners’ tea dance; “nothing like dancing with residents to break down barriers,” says Shultz. Assemble then forms ideas into a physical shape.

Fran Edgeley from the Assemble collective. Photo: Getty

Such democracy is a slow process of small important decisions, like what fireplace you want; hence it is rarely done these days. Naturally, Assemble decided collectively whether to accept the Turner nomination. Then, naturally, they consulted Granby’s residents, who accepted for the brief limelight Turner might shed on their obscured corner of urban politics (the abandonment, degradation and isolation of such stubbornly ungentrified parts of the inner city having been written out of the story of Britain's 'urban renaissance'.)

Assemble is aware of the debt owed for their newfound renown: they are public property. They are written about. What annoys Jane Hall is the “assumption we work for free, that we’re…” “Trustafarians”, suggests Shultz – able to do what they do because they’re well-spoken, mostly Cambridge graduates. But in this age of the intern, Hall insists, no-one there relies on the bank of mum and dad. If they have one unifying cause it’s that the work of architects is “respected and paid properly”.

It doesn’t take much, these days, to be progressive in architecture. For some, Assemble is a figurehead of a renewed interest in the politics of buildings (and, indeed, the politics of art), after 30 years during which architects have naval-gazed about style while the political economy topsy-turvied.

A builder at work in one of the houses in Granby, Liverpool. Photo: Getty

Assemble’s members, though, are hardly Che Guevaras. They talk of “brands”, “logos” and “income streams”. They are entrepreneurial. They make the best of what they’ve got. They, like their generation, have an attractive, wide-eyed faith in direct action and straight talking. They are honest, polite, generous, earnest, fun, and they do good work. Those are miracles enough for now.

Photo: Getty
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Why gay men love this photo of Prince George looking fabulous

It's not about sexuality, but resisting repressive ideas about what masculinity should be.

Last week’s royal tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge provided the most intimate view of the young family to date. Throughout the five-day visit to Poland and Germany, it was the couple’s adorable children who stole the spotlight.

As George and Charlotte become better acquainted with a world in which everyone recognises them, this level of public scrutiny is something that will no doubt have to be carefully managed by the family.

But there is one particular image from the trip that has both captured people’s hearts and prompted debate. On the eve of his fourth birthday, Prince George was invited behind the driver’s seat of a helicopter in Germany. Immaculately dressed in a purple gingham shirt neatly tucked in to navy shorts, the future King is pictured staring out of the helicopter in awe.

As a man who was visibly gay from a young age, the distinctly feminine image of George smiling as he delicately places his hands on his face instantly struck a chord with me. In fact, an almost identical photograph of five-year-old me happily playing in the garden is hung on my parents' kitchen wall. Since the photos appeared online, thousands of other gay men have remarked that the innocence of this image reminds them of childhood. In one viral tweet, the picture is accompanied by the caption: “When mom said I could finally quit the soccer team.” Another user remarks: “Me walking past the Barbies at Toys ‘R’ Us as a child.”

Gay men connecting this photograph of Prince George with their childhood memories has been met with a predictable level of scorn. “Insinuating that Prince George is gay is just the kind of homophobia you’d be outraged by if it was you," tweets one user. “Gay men should know better than that. He is a CHILD," says another.

Growing up gay, I know how irritating it can be when everyone needs to “know” your sexual orientation before you do. There are few things more unhelpful than a straight person you barely know telling you, as they love to do, that they “always knew you were gay” years after you came out. This minimises the struggle it took to come to terms with your sexuality and makes you feel like everyone was laughing at you behind your back as you failed to fit in.

I also understand that speculating about a child's future sexual orientation, especially from one photograph, has potential to cause them distress. But to assume that gay men tweeting this photograph are labelling Prince George is a misunderstanding of what we take from the image.

The reaction to this photo isn’t really about sexuality; it’s about the innocence of childhood. When I look at the carefree image of George, it reminds me of those precious years in early childhood when I didn’t know I was supposed to be manly. The time before boys are told they should like “boy things”, before femininity becomes associated with weakness or frivolity. Thanks to a supportive environment created by my parents, I felt that I could play with whichever toys I wanted for those short years before the outside world pressured me to conform.

Effeminate gay men like me have very specific experiences that relate to growing up in a heteronormative world. It is incredibly rare to see anything that remotely represents my childhood reflected in popular culture. This image has prompted us to discuss our childhoods because we see something in it that we recognise. In a community where mental illness and internalised homophobia are rife, sharing memories that many of us have suppressed for years can only be a good thing.

People expressing outrage at any comparisons between this image and growing up gay should remember that projecting heterosexuality on to a child is also sexualising them. People have no problem assuming that boys are straight from a young age, and this can be equally damaging to those who don’t fit the mould. I remember feeling uncomfortable when asked if my female friends were my girlfriends while I was still in primary school. The way young boys are taught to behave based on prescribed heterosexuality causes countless problems. From alarmingly high suicide rates to violent behaviour, the expectation for men to be tough and manly hurts us all.

If you are outraged at the possibility that the future king could perhaps be gay, but you are happy to assume your son or nephew is heterosexual, you should probably examine why that is. This not only sends out the message that being gay is wrong, but also that it is somehow an embarrassment if we have a gay King one day. Prince William appeared on the cover of Attitude magazine last year to discuss LGBT bullying, so we can only hope he will be supportive of his son regardless of his future sexuality.

Whether Prince George grows up to be heterosexual or not is completely irrelevant to why this image resonates with people like me. It is in no way homophobic to joke about this photograph if you don't see a boy being feminine as the lesser, and the vast majority of posts that I’ve seen come from a place of warmth, nostalgia and solidarity. 

What really matters is that Prince George feels supported when tackling the many obstacles that his unique life in the spotlight will present. In the meantime, we should all focus on creating a world where every person is accepted regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, because clearly we’ve got some way to go.