Assemble and Granby Four Streets CLT: A Fable for the Socially Engaged Arts

Turner Prize 2015

Text by Laura Harris

How is it that four streets on the outskirts of Liverpool, for years teetering on the edge of dereliction, have found themselves embroiled in this years’ Turner Prize? Their journey is a fable for the socially engaged arts, populated by characters of extraordinary vision, dedication and boundless ingenuity.

Concertinaing out from the city’s regal Princes Avenue lie street after street of empty houses. Part of this is the Granby Triangle, a once diverse neighbourhood of Victorian housing dismantled physically and psychologically by violent protests and civic mismanagement. The windows of the barren terraces are boarded up, unblinking. Here or there buddleia might burst through a fractured roof, or fronds of ivy cling to a crumbling wall, the greenery sharp against the red bricks. The houses huddle together and seem to slowly succumb to decay.

The travesty of these Granby streets lies heaviest on their former residents. The few who remain remember feeling that at one time “the whole world lived here” (Josephine Burger in the Granby Workshop Catalogue). Over the years Granby has proved an accommodating host to a vibrant cast of communities who have found themselves in Liverpool from across the globe. The current of international shipping bringing goods into Liverpool’s docks also welcomed a steady flow of seafarers and their families. The wealth that this trade brought to the city is remembered in the grand houses of Princes Avenue, within earshot of Granby’s once spirited, now silent, clubs, music and cafes.

Granby’s metamorphosis was administered by a Council reeling from the ‘Toxteth Riots’ of 1981. The riots were a manifestation of the voice of an ostracised community frustrated by their experiences of inequality of opportunity and racially motivated police brutality. In cities across the country, from Brixton to Bristol, the anger of the oppressed exploded onto their streets. In the wake of 1981, Liverpool City Council set in motion a process of degradation that nearly swept the area under the blanket of history. Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) forced out existing residents and demolitions were rife. Flimsy new builds were offered as replacements and those residents who remained were subject to a barrage of bureaucracy, with endless questionnaires and surveys constantly probing and making them feel as though they were living in “a zoo” (from the Granby Workshop Catalogue). Cinemas and cultural venues were torn down, schools and other facilities condemned to rubble.

The new millennium brought fresh struggle to the four remaining streets of Granby; Beaconsfield, Cairns, Jermyn and Ducie. In a callous attempt to bolster the diminishing housing market, John Prescott’s ‘Pathfinder’ proposed large scale clearance of Northern and Midland terraces, giving the land over to private hands with a view to build less dense properties. Once again, the residents of Granby were the only oppositional force against the bulldozers making a collision course for their homes.

It is testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of the residents that their condemned streets are not only still standing, but are once again welcoming new people home. A group of local activists dedicated to reclaiming their heritage have successfully saved their streets. Since organising as a Community Land Trust (CLT) in 2012, the ‘Granby Four Streets’ organisation have come to own ten properties which soon will be transformed into beautifully functional homes.

The versatility of Granby Four Streets is demonstrated by the allies that they have recruited to bolster the project and realize its potential. Recognising the central role that creativity has to Granby’s character, ‘Assemble’ – an eighteen strong London collective of artists and architects - were invited to collaborate. Since forming in 2010, Assemble have aimed to address the disjoint between the public and the processes of place making. Working interdependently and collaboratively, their work has seen them turn a disused petrol station into a cinema, a forgotten flyover into a public arts venue and erect a brutalist playground. Their work is driven by a dedication to realising the potential public functions of fertile but disused spaces.

Building upon the hard work of the local activists, Assemble collaborated with the Granby Four Streets CLT on a production plan to refurbish houses and public spaces. As an eye-catching centrepiece the collective reimagined two of the most dilapidated terraces, with cavernous two story interiors and no roof, as a winter garden. The plan is a sanctuary of life, with exotic plants, ferns and trees rubbing shoulders and thriving in their new home from home.

Elsewhere, their vision for ‘10 Houses on Cairns Street’ turns sorely dilapidated houses into homes full of utility and vitality. Materials are reclaimed where possible, and the plans optimism space and light while being thoroughly user friendly. The playful and handmade architectural elements retain the DIY ethos that is so central to the Granby character. They are inviting, asking to be occupied – a perfect rebuttal to their former solitary confinement.

This ongoing story of social activism and the boundless potential of creative collaboration captures the zeitgeist wherein the field of art has been expanded to encompass enacting real social change. Artists’ practices are increasingly socially engaged, allowing distinctions between ‘art’ and activism to peel away. Notable predecessors of Assemble’s work in Granby include Chicago based Theaster Gates, whose Dorchester Projects turn dilapidated buildings into cultural resources for the residents. Similarly, in 1993, Rick Lowe instigated Project Row Houses in Houston as an experiment in how the arts can be used to revitalise depressed inner city neighbourhoods; it now spans six blocks.

Assemble’s nomination has been met with humility from the collective, and a determination to ensure that Granby residents receive the recognition they deserve. Being thrown into the ring of the Turner Prize was a little “uncomfortable”, Assemble’s Fran Edgerly describes . The process cast a rarefied gaze over the struggle of Granby, distilling decades of injustice into a trend within the institutionalised arts.

The platform of the Turner Prize had to be put to work. The Turner Prize exhibition (at Tramway, Glasgow until Jan 17) launched the Granby Workshops’ showroom. It bursts with homewares handmade in Granby, from block printed fabrics, to mantelpieces made of reclaimed Granby rock. The emporium is a celebration of resourcefulness and creativity, and all profit generated from sales will be ploughed back into the area’s regeneration. Pre-orders placed during the exhibition will go into manufacture in January.

Using the platform of the Turner Prize to propel the project illustrates the inexhaustible ingenuity of Assemble. Their instinctive deferral of individual glory for the social good is woven into their practice as a collective, and has endeared them to a community in need of support. Congratulations are due to all involved – every campaigner, volunteer or artist – who together created this engine of change. Assemble’s Turner Prize win announced earlier this week is a fantastic coup for the collective, but the long-term prize for Granby Four Streets will be a community finally and deservingly restored.

This article has been commissioned by the Contemporary Visual Arts Network North West (CVAN NW), as part of a regional critical writing development programme supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England — see more here #writecritical

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