Few design students pass through the University of Tennessee’s Art and Architecture Building without wondering about the purpose of the large courtyard outside the Reading Room. More curious still is the expansive grass hill nestled snuggly between two concrete retaining walls. Although rarely seen in use, it always seems to acquire a respectable number of chairs, cigarette butts, empty energy drink cans, and the occasional sculpture project— all of which barely warrant such a large amount of enclosed space. However, a select few know the truth of how this space comes to life each night.


In 1981, nearing the end of the construction on the new Art and Architecture building, a sub-contractor decides to have his crew pile their empty shipping containers in the corner of the spacious Reading Room Courtyard. As the job draws to a close, rather than moving the containers, they simply bury them— building up the extra interior retaining wall we know so well to hold in the resulting grassy slope. Thinking the containers might need to be accessed eventually, a small hatch is placed on the stair leading down to the ceramics studio, a detail that goes almost entirely unnoticed. Only one fourth-year student, visiting the work site each day to clear his head, sees the now hidden potential of the space. The next year, the Assembly is initiated. The only signs of the container-catacomb’s occupation is the hollow echo of muffled voices sometimes heard from the bridge and a single corner emerging from the grass near the back of the courtyard, cut away over the years to leave a single skylight.

The Assembly, a secret society composed of fifth year thesis students, has existed unknown and unspoken of for nearly 30 years. The Assembly was formed to fulfill a deep need for the discussion of ideas amongst friends and fellow designers outside the studio setting. Meetings vary each year with the needs, interests, and struggles faced by the members of the group. Some come together to discuss readings or films, some to drink coffee and grade papers, others to hold informal design critiques away from the exposure of the open studio bays and the pressure of cluttered desks. This year’s chapter of the Assembly meets once each week to unwind and open up their minds by telling stories. They speak of dreams—of man-made mountains, endless forests, jetpacks, and apocalyptic landscapes, darkness, solitary archivists, crab hunting, and buildings made of fabric. The location of the passage into the Assembly’s meeting place remains a closely guarded secret—as underground as the existence of the group itself.

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Status: Competition Entry
Location: Knoxville, TN, US
Additional Credits: Awarded First Place in the 2012 MAX_min Alumni Competition