London-based group Assemble were selected for their work helping a local community restore condemned Victorian terraces in Granby Four Streets
, a rundown part of Liverpool, northwest England.
In collaboration with residents, the collective created a low-cost model of grassroots regeneration, using found materials to produce interior fittings (think terrazzo-style polished mantelpieces fashioned from brick and rubble or ceramic door handles fired in sawdust-powered barbeques) that have so far been used to refurbish 10 derelict properties.
Accepting the prize at a cavernous former tram station-turned-exhibition space
in Glasgow, Scotland, the young group (all of them are under 30) looked joyfully bewildered as they huddled on stage to receive a £25,000 ($38,000) check from the host, Sonic Youth co-founder Kim Gordon.
"I think it's safe to say this nomination was a surprise to all of us" said Assemble member Joseph Halligan.
Indeed, while the Turner Prize has long elevated controversial works, prodding public consensus around what really counts as art -- an unmade bed; a dissected cow; a light switching on and off -- it's always been dispensed to those who've at least referred to themselves as artists.
Now this rag-tag group of builders, crafters and problem-solvers - who formed straight from university just five years ago -- share an unlikely place in history alongside art establishment grandees Damien Hirst, Anthony Gormely, Anish Kapoor and Steve McQueen in the ranks of previous winners.
Not that Assemble find the comparisons particularly significant.
"I don't think we worry too much about whether we're artists or not," said fellow member Louis Schulz (also, full disclosure, a friend of mine). "For us it's all about the projects and in this case it's all about the Granby Workshop."
The workshop is a space where local residents are taught to produce furnishings for sale to the public -- from Matisse-influenced cut-out tiles
to Arts and Crafts-stye block-printed fabrics
to pressed terracotta lampshades
and burned timber stools
-- with all funds ploughed back into the project.
In fact, the group say they accepted the nomination for the purpose of directing publicity to the workshop. To this end, they've built a full-scale wooden-clad replica inside the whitewashed exhibition hall, standing like a rough-hewn temple to DIY in the kind of space usually reserved for less functional displays.
Which is not to say the rest of the competition was conventional.
The three runners-up were Janice Kerbel, who produced a six-person operatic piece charting the gruesome misadventures of a character called Doug; Nicole Wermers, with an arrangement of high-design Marcel Breur's Cesca chairs attached to luxurious fur-coats; and Bonnie Camplin, who was nominated for her part-installation, part-resource project "The Military Industrial Complex" featuring videotaped interviews with alien abductees and conspiracy theorists and a fully fledged library of academic (and pseudo-academic) texts exploring notions of subjective reality.
Taken as a whole, this year's Turner Prize promotes a feeling that good art can exist just as much in the mingling of disciplines as in its purest form, and that, in the vein of William Morris, it needn't be at odds with ideals of social utility.
There'll be many who disagree. "I think it's changed the nature of the prize, because I don't think it is modern art" said Muriel Gray, journalist and chair of the Glasgow School of Art immediately after the announcement. "I think it's socially responsible, beautiful architecture... I'm delighted for them, but it's odd."
Whether the result will leave a mark on the restless debate about what art actually is remains to be seen but, as Schulz says, "it's an academic question" and one that's unlikely to trouble those outside the industry.
"Ultimately the thing that really matters is the thing itself," said Lewis Jones, one of the team who'd spent most time on the project.
"For some people it's art, for some it's housing, for others it's a social enterprise. They're all good as far as we're concerned."