‘A show you want to pick up and fondle’: Assemble electrify the RA’s Summer Exhibition

<span>Ready to fly … Assemble’s Maria Lisogorskaya with a model of a Ghanaian coffin on a rubble plinth.</span><span>Photograph: Charlie J Ercilla/Alamy</span>
Ready to fly … Assemble’s Maria Lisogorskaya with a model of a Ghanaian coffin on a rubble plinth.Photograph: Charlie J Ercilla/Alamy

Slimy curtains made of seaweed and hog guts dangle from the ceiling in the central rotunda of the Royal Academy, with the look of slippery skins shed by some reptilian creature. They hang above a busy scene, where workbenches brim with half-finished maquettes and material samples, next to a teetering prototype of a structural stone tower and a plaster mould used to manufacture toilets. A brightly painted model of a Ghanaian coffin, shaped like a phoenix, stands on a plinth made of rubble, while pastel-hued tiles formed from crushed seashells hang on the wall nearby.

This is the architecture room of the RA Summer Exhibition – but not as we know it. The usual selection of little model buildings and impenetrable drawings, often sped through by baffled members of the visiting public, has been transformed this year into a mesmerising museum of making. It is the radical vision of Assemble, the young Turner prize-winning architecture collective, who were ushered into the hallowed ranks of Royal Academicians in 2022, and have breathed fresh life into how their rarefied discipline is shown here.

“It can be quite difficult to engage with architecture exhibitions sometimes,” says Maria Lisogorskaya, one of Assemble’s founding members. “We wanted to celebrate the messy parts of architecture, and showcase the people involved in making buildings who aren’t traditionally seen as architects.”

The result is a wonderfully diverse assemblage of material experiments and novel techniques that revel in the tactile, crafted qualities of architecture and offer a behind-the-scenes window on how things are made. There are beautiful mosaic panels produced by volunteers at the Hackney Mosaic Project in London, dazzling neon nylon chairs woven by Samuel Obusi Adjei at the Nubuke Foundation in Accra, and numerous odds and ends that you want to pick up and fondle. In a world where buildings have increasingly become assemblies of proprietary components specified from catalogues, Assemble offers an alternative universe of things moulded, cast, carved, thatched, rammed and fermented into being.

The stakes are high: architecture occupies two rooms this year, including the central rotunda for the first time, giving the subject a good deal more prominence than usual. Gallery six, behind the rotunda, has been conceived as a kind of back-of-house industrial space, kitted out with off-the-shelf metal racking systems and pegboard, on which models, machines and curios are displayed, as if in a warehouse.

In a nod to sustainability, elements from the previous exhibition, Entangled Pasts, have also been reused, including some big mirrors and a low table by JA Projects, while the walls have been left the deep burgundy they were already painted. It is a regal backdrop for some hefty bits of industry, including a big agricultural mechanism for compacting earth bricks, submitted by Feilden Clegg Bradley, and a fearsome army of hydraulic “nippers” made by artist James Capper, who uses them to gnaw and gnash at his sculptures. One hopes their mighty steel jaws might turn to crush the model of 1 Undershaft, Eric Parry’s latest bloated office tower for the City of London – a greedy hulk that feels distinctly out of place here.

The rotunda, meanwhile, has been styled more like a working studio space, with paint swatches daubed on the walls and objects shown on workbenches, no museum plinths in sight. Pieces of furniture and other building elements submitted by artists and makers have been cleverly deployed as display structures themselves, such as a shelf made of woven rushes by Felicity Irons, and a recycled terrazzo fireplace by Granby Workshop, on which other exhibits are perched like domestic bric-a-brac, adding to the ad hoc feel of it all. A luminous Murano glass gourd by Yinka Ilori glows on a ceramic side table by Matthew Raw, while a roll of hand-printed wallpaper by Victoria Browne hangs alongside the carved woodblock that made it.

There is real skill and refinement on show here, celebrating the specialist hands that realise architects’ visions. An immaculate scale model of a wooden staircase, made by students at Stratford’s Building Crafts College stands on the very workbench where it was made by apprentice joiners. Next to it are a pair of bowls, made by decorative plaster experts Steven and Ffion Blench, using unlikely ingredients. One is made of waste from a gypsum quarry, while the other uses 18th-century soot and lime, collected during repairs to the domed ceiling of General Register House in Edinburgh. Both have the look of precious mineral, trash turned to treasure in a process of geological alchemy.

The magical possibilities of stone also loom large throughout. Webb Yates Engineers and the Stonemasonry Company (who exhibited a daringly cantilevered stone beam here in 2022 ) are back with their latest improbable venture into the structural potentials of rock. This time, they are demonstrating how stone might be used to replace steel in space-frame structures, with slender rods of pink Portuguese marble bolted together to form a delicate tower. The result looks like it could be a radio mast from the Flintstones.

“This kind of structure can replace any kind of truss,” says engineer Steve Webb, who suggests we could one day see long span roofs, bridges and tower cranes made from stone – meaning 75% less carbon in the manufacturing process. “Imagine the Eden Centre biomes, or Stansted airport, or even Stadium Australia, formed with stone rods – inherently fireproof, durable and low carbon.”

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Next to it stands a very different kind of stone tower by Palestinian architects AAU Anastas. It is a section of a larger stone column, made of chunks of limestone salvaged from a demolished 1950s ministry of education building in Bethlehem, stacked between smooth stone nodes, precisely carved to nestle between the salvaged rocks. It is a poignant inclusion from the young duo, who also operate a cultural centre in Bethlehem, in the shadow of Israel’s concrete security barrier. As Gaza is relentlessly flattened, their poetic work offers a glimmer of hope for how a powerful architecture of memory might one day be born from the rubble.