Maria Lisogorskaya discusses the collective’s approach to combining bespoke materials and finishes with off-the shelf products.

Buildings.

Maria Lisogorskaya is one of the founding directors of Assemble, a collective whose work sees frequent overlaps between architecture, design and art.

Assemble, an architectural collective founded in 2010, runs from its self-designed Sugarhouse Studios within a retrofitted school building in Bermondsey, south London. It is the group’s second studio by the same name, having originally operated from another meanwhile space on Stratford High Street until 2016.

Here, the group designed and built Yardhouse – a pastel shingle-covered studio that offered affordable workspace to other makers – and developed the collective workspace model it continues with today. The timber-framed building was demounted and put in storage when the site was cleared for redevelopment.

The collective continues to provide affordable studios for artists, designers and fabricators since its move south of the river. It manages the Domeview Yard studio in Greenwich and Fabric Floor, a workspace dedicated to textiles in a former council office in Brixton, and shares its soon-to-be-redeveloped Bermondsey studio with 13 businesses, ranging from musicians to carpenters and architects.

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Materials are stored in large crates on floor-to-ceiling shelves in the workshop. “We’ve started a more organised library with crates and labels. When it’s brick samples or insulation or stuff that is off the shelf, we organise that quite well. The stuff we make ourselves is a little bit more fluid.”

Among them are Hayatsu Architects and graphic design studio Stinsensqueeze, which Assemble recently collaborated with on the redesign of The Blue outdoor market in Bermondsey, creating a clock tower innovatively covered in tin-can shingles, as well as benches, bollards and a drinking fountain made from waste.

It’s this kind of community-focused project the collective has become well known for. Assemble made waves when it became the first architectural studio to win the Turner Prize in 2015 for its Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool, where it worked with community groups to develop housing, a winter garden and an architectural ceramics studio – the Granby Workshop – for the neighbourhood.

Maria Lisogorskaya is one of 12 original founders of the collective, which currently stands at 20 members. She discusses the challenge of maintaining an affordable, noisy and messy studio space in London, and developing the materials that are integral to Assemble’s practice.

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Left to right: Pigmented cement shingle created as cladding for Yardhouse (2014-2016), cladding for Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (2018), plaster cast panel and Granby Rock Lamp. “The plaster model is for an installation at V&A Dundee that’s moved to Dundee Library. It’s a reading room with a timber frame and these plaster cast panels are based on scans of buildings in Dundee, which are made from local groups. It was about embracing how much variety there is in the city and its history.”

Take me through the array of samples you’ve pulled out – we’ve got terrazzos, stained timber, a marbled toilet…

The toilet was a project we did with Armitage Shanks where we were trying to develop a new toilet and this was a mini test. It just never really worked out, which is a shame.

And we sprinkled mineral pigments on these papier mâché forms for an exhibition in Hamburg. It was a crazy exhibition, very psychedelic. We did a lot of marbling for the early development of Granby Workshop and after that, it just hangs around. So these marbled tiles are for a project we were doing in Japan, which completed in 2019.

We’re discussing rolling out this passivated zinc chair as a product. We made them originally for Goldsmiths CCA and developed a couple of prototypes with manufacturers called Cake. Hopefully we’ll get them out in production, but we haven’t really had time. But people have been enquiring about them.

This timber has an algae stain that we’ve been developing with Atelier Luma in the south of France. We’ve been developing some new workshop spaces with them in the park in some of the old train shed buildings. It’s going to be a series of big spaces. One is made from rammed earth and we’re collaborating with BC Architects. Another is going to be a timber-framed structure that’s going to be stained.

Left: Marley Eternit tiles stained as a test for the cladding of Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (2018). Right: Cups developed for serving beer at Assemble’s Kamikatz Brewery in Japan (2019), which is clad in indigo-stained timber.

Is staining with algae an established technique? Where did the idea come from?

Not so much. It’s not super light-fast, so we’ll see how it goes!

There is a lot of algae production in the region. They’ve been using it to stain textiles and also for bioplastics, so it’s been knocking around. We used some to test making stained plaster, which we will also be making ourselves using quarry dust. Then we thought why don’t we try to stain wood? It’s also a way of protecting it a bit.

They’re regional materials that we’re experimenting with. We don’t always make everything; it’s about where we can make the most impact and balancing that out with standard off-the-shelf products.

How are you researching those off-the-shelf materials – is there a process to find new materials, or does everyone chip in?

It depends on the project and the people working on it. Some are more interested and inquisitive about new products and they end up researching. It’s fluid – there isn’t a rule but there is, I guess, a studio-wide interest in materials.

Everybody gets inspired by other projects. It’s something we think about a lot. We have internal design reviews so that’s something that comes up, and that’s a huge part of the profession – how something is going to be built and what it’s going to be made of. You always have to make a decision based on budget and the philosophy of the space. It’s a question that has to be answered somehow, so then you end up seeing what’s possible within the parameters of the project. The type of cladding you use is related to the type of structure you use and so on.

Are CPDs something you’re doing regularly?

We’re trying to. Everybody always loves having them, it’s just finding the time to organise it. We try to do a bit more of that, especially when it comes to questions about the environment.

“These are Granby Rock, a terrazzo using waste construction materials. Some are terrazzo tiles but there’s also a bigger slab that can be used for something like a table top or fireplace surrounds. It was originally being broken up on-site but now the Granby Workshop is more of an R&D space and they work with manufacturers in the region on a larger scale where they have systems in place already.”

Are you using any specific tools to look at the environmental impact of materials you’re using?

It depends on the project. We are working a lot with East Sussex-based practice Local Works Studio – one project in west London, called Durham Wharf, is affordable artists’ studios and residencies – and they have ways of measuring impact. We’re also working with think tank Atelier Luma. They have their body of research about where things are coming from, like the rammed earth used in the project.

It seems like there’s still a bit of a minefield. It’s not a clear science, and so each project has its investigation into a particular element. It’s still hard to have a clear picture of how it affects the world. We’re trying to seek the right expertise.

How are you keeping track of materials you’re producing or bringing in – do you have a digital database or systems for physical storage?

It’s a mixture of just having it around, and also recently we’ve started this more organised library with crates and labels. We do have some organisation, when it’s brick samples or insulation or stuff that is off the shelf, we organise that quite well. The stuff we make ourselves is a little bit more fluid. You can see the tiles here, displayed on a wall-mounted ledge, are organised in a way that makes sense.

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“These are Granby Rock, a terrazzo using waste construction materials. Some are terrazzo tiles but there’s also a bigger slab that can be used for something like a table top or fireplace surrounds. It was originally being broken up on-site but now the Granby Workshop is more of an R&D space and they work with manufacturers in the region on a larger scale where they have systems in place already.”

When a material doesn’t work out for a project do you hang onto it?

We rarely have a cull. Sometimes we tidy up and throw some stuff away but generally it just hangs around. It inspires other projects.

You don’t have too much pressure on space, but you’re looking for a new studio.

We’re lucky to have space and to be in Bermondsey. We were in east London but that building was demolished. The idea was to find people who also needed a messy, loud working space.

Are you anticipating your next studio will be another retrofit?

An ideal scenario would be to build our own space – a new building like Yardhouse, but bigger. But next to that, getting a space like this would be great. We will bring as many people with us as possible.

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Papier mâché and pigment forms developed for an installation in Hamburg

What would a new-build offer that this set up doesn’t?

It would be great to have the permanence – and it’s fun to design your own studios.

You’re involved in developing the Material Institute arts programme and buildings in New Orleans, which aims to offer free education and affordable workspace.

It’s something we helped set up back in 2018 as part of a bigger experimental arts school. The Material Institute was originally just the name for the fashion and textiles department, but now it’s the name for the whole place. We retrofitted an existing building but we also helped to set up the studio in the way we’ve done at Sugarhouse Studios, Blackhorse Yard or the Granby Workshop. We invited collaborators and I’m involved in developing the curriculum, which has become a one-year course offered free of charge. There’s textiles but it also has a music recording studio and a garden which at some point could expand into growing of natural dyes. It’s very early days, but it has a lot of potential.