Pushing the boundaries of design for play

Turner prize-nominated collective, Assemble, is a mix of architecture and public art. Now its co-founder joins a judging panel for a Ballyfermot playground


When is architecture not architecture? When it gets involved in designing playgrounds for children? Enables social transformation in run down urban areas? Gets nominated for the art world’s most famous award, the Turner Prize?

Although they only got together in 2010 as a group of recent graduates – and not even all in the discipline of architecture – Assemble have been making waves, and have achieved all three.

They have also had an exhibition, The Brutalist Playground, just concluded at the headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and won a prestigious design competition for a gallery at London’s Goldsmiths College last year.

Now Assemble co-founder Amica Dall has joined the judging panel for a new play park in Dublin’s Ballyfermot.

So what brought Dall, a graduate of English literature from Queens’ College Cambridge into the architecture collective, and what will she be looking for in Ballyfermot?

“We sit somewhere between architecture and public art,” she says. “We were a group of friends; the majority had studied architecture and they were bored of sitting in front of a computer all day designing toilets.”

As this is usually the first opportunity a recent graduate gets on a project, she’s right. But the Assemble gang felt differently. “You’ve come through with this ambitious ideological education, and we were thinking ‘yes, but what are we doing?’ ”


Temporary cinema

What they did was team up to create Cineroleum, a temporary cinema in a disused petrol station in Clerkenwell. “We wanted to build something, to see a project through from start to finish, we loved the idea of making something.”

When a second temporary event space, Folly for a Flyover, a brilliant fairytale-style cottage under a motorway embankment, saw more than 200 people coming to help, “we realised a lot of people were interested in the same things as us”.

The eclecticism of Assemble is part of their genius. “Fran [Edgerley] studied philosophy, another of us studied finance. Maybe that gives you an inbuilt scepticism for what design can do, and that can make you do more with design. We call it the maths curse,” Dall says, describing the way education shapes thinking. “You know the way, if you have a hammer, every problem needs a nail.”

Assemble’s Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Glasgow was built to balance the dramatic changes in the fabric of Dalmarnock following the building projects and regeneration around the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Dall has spoken about how within the cycle of regeneration, which can take 10 to 20 years, whole childhoods can be lost. At Baltic Street, rubber tyre swings, scrap timber, and haphazard-looking dens are the order of the day. “The idea goes back to post-war Denmark,” she said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper at the time.

“A landscape architect called CT Srensen found that children seemed to be having more fun playing on bombed-out sites than the places he’d designed. He decided that instead of spending a lot of money on playground equipment, he was going to try and supervise that, support it and make it safer.”

“It matters what kind of person people think they’re designing for,” she says, when I speak to her on the eve of the opening of the Turner Prize exhibition. “It’s about the balance between making places robust, but also trusting people, and not designing out every possibility. I’m really passionate about children’s play, that the potential isn’t designed out of playgrounds. Most playgrounds seem to be designed for the kind of play adults like to see children do.”

So how does Assemble deal with the volumes of legislation around children’s play areas? “We can’t assume children are idiots,” she says. “A lot is about approach and sensibility. People’s understanding of Health and Safety legislation is often based on paranoia and concern. A large part of the project in Glasgow was about creating the conditions in which we could build the thing we wanted to build.

“There’s an awful lot of talk about risky play. For some children, that’s just going out on their own and trying to make a friend. At another stage they might try to take on more physical risks. Not everything can be catered for by playgrounds.”

So was the Turner Prize nomination, which was for their Granby Street project in Liverpool’s Toxteth area, run down since the riots in 1981, a surprise to the Assemble collective? “They phoned us a week before it was announced, and we said ‘Oh we didn’t know the Turner Prize was for architects …’

“And then the penny dropped. We were a bit confused at first, but the more we’ve got involved, the more relaxed and excited we’ve got, because they want to have a discussion about the role of art and design in the world, and we’re very grateful to be a part of that.”



The Play Park in Le Fanu Park in Ballyfermot is an initiative of the Irish Architecture Foundation (IAF), the Matheson Foundation and Dublin City Council. “We’re thrilled to have Amica on the jury,” says IAF director Nathalie Weadick. “Assemble have always brought an exciting spirit of collaboration and adventure to their projects, and that’s exactly the kind of approach we hope to inspire for the project.”

The IAF hope to attract entries from Ireland and internationally. “Importantly, it’s a chance for designers to gain experience of working closely with a community who are passionate about participating in this process,” Weadick says. The deadline for registering for the competition is October 23rd, with a closing date for submissions of November 5th. For more information, email projects@architecturefoundation.ie

The Turner Prize 2015 is at Glasgow’s Tramway until January 17th, 2016. The winner will be announced on December 7th. tate.org.uk assemblestudio.co.uk

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