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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.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.