“It’s revolutionary” – The Art of Reconstruction in Granby

Granby Four Streets    Granby 4 Streets - 7 

By Kenn Taylor
Images Ronnie Hughes and Kenn Taylor

The Granby area of Liverpool recently became the centre of a brief flurry of international media interest when a project based there was nominated for the Turner Prize.

Assemble, a collective of eighteen London-based artists and architects, all aged under 30, have been working with the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust (CLT) on the re-development of ten terraced houses left derelict after the machinations of the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI) of the 2000s. Once refurbished, the land will remain held in trust to deliver permanently affordable housing.

But the CLT’s work with Assemble is only the latest stage in a spirited and creative campaign to save these homes – one that began many years ago.

“It’s been quite a messy process,” says Lewis Jones, one of Assemble’s members. “Lots of people have been involved, going back 20 years, and we’re just a small part of that. So when suddenly there has been this huge wave of interest when the Turner Prize nomination was announced, we were quite keen to divert more of that attention to the Community Land Trust, to give a more balanced view of the situation. I still think that’s really important.”

The Housing Market Renewal Initiative was a Labour scheme, started in 2002, which was intended to renew “failing housing markets” in economically struggling parts of England. When the Coalition government axed HMRI in 2011, it created a vacuum that left vast areas of housing in limbo.

But this also turned out to be an opportunity for the Four Streets campaigners. “As time had moved on,” says Ronnie Hughes, a housing activist and CLT member, “things had got tighter in the housing market. So the ideas we’d been having, of splitting the streets into smaller groupings and having different kinds of tenure and different kinds organisations working there – well, they turned out to be the only ideas left.”

Granby Four Streets

After beginning their own plans to regenerate these ten houses, the CLT decided it was time to work with some professional architects. “Assemble worked to turn all of the people’s ideas into sketch plans and real plans,” explains Hughes. “They helped to make the community and the Community Land Trust look like a real thing. As time went on, though, obviously they had to stop being volunteers and compete to be the architects for the CLT, which they now are.”

Hughes is keen to stress the CLT and Assemble are not regenerating Liverpool 8 alone, however. A complex web of organisations, alliances and initiatives is working to re-develop empty houses in the area, and the campaigners are keen to move on the from the “heroes and villains” narrative that’s dominated some of the press coverage.

“We couldn’t do any of this without the city’s support,” he says. “They gave us the houses, for free. The council also completely changed their policy in order to allow this to happen.”

The group is happy to work with specialist housing providers, too, he adds: 47 houses being worked on by Liverpool Mutual Homes is working on 47 homes, Plus Dan is working on 26. Other work is being undertaken by a social investor, and by the eco-based Terrace 21 housing co-op “I think it’s that mix which has worked, as there’s lots of different ideas going into the place,” Hughes adds.

Assemble themselves are a relatively recent arrival, for a group nominated for the art world’s most famous gong. “We started working together in 2010,” says Jones. “We came together as a group just to do one project, which became the Cinerolium.”

That was a glittering temporary cinema, created in a former petrol station in London’s Clerkenwell district. “We thought that would be a really great site to test ideas out on. So we brought together loads of friends to help build it and lots of other people to come and experience it. It was a really kind of fun process for us, just testing out ideas and building things ourselves. Lots of the ways of working we developed in that project have gradually been evolving over subsequent years.”

“A lot of us graduated in 2009,” Jones explains, “and were working for a year or so in different architecture practices. We wanted a way to be more hands on and test ideas out within the city, rather than being stuck behind a computer working on a small part of a very large project.” The point of the Cinerolium was to do something “on a small enough scale that we’d be able to have our hands in every different part of it. We’d have to find the funding, find the site, design it, build it, manage it, everything, and have a much more complete and holistic involvement.”

This was to be the first of several distinctive architectural projects around the UK, from a scrap playground at Baltic Street in Glasgow to a temporary arts venue in a motorway undercroft in Hackney. I ask Jones about themes he sees in the group’s work.

“We’re kind of really interested in the idea of resourcefulness and complexity and messiness in the city, as that what makes places interesting,” he says. “So the fact that there are places where there can be overlaps and intersections between historic building fabrics and something new and inserted and also between the different needs of different groups – that’s kind of a very exciting situation to be part of.”

Yardhouse/Sugarhouse Studios, Bow

This sort of ethos is visible when visiting the studio complex they occupy in Bow, east London, with several other creative practitioners. Sugarhouse Studios and the adjacent Yardhouse, with its striking polychromatic concrete tiles – designed and largely built by Assemble – are filled with well-used machine tools, packed storage racks and a busy, bustling office. It’s all a long way from the glass-coffee table minimalism of many architectural practices.

A sense of the practical and of innovative solutions pervades their work. But how does a collective of 18 people work in practice?

“Normally what happens is that if a project or invitation comes in to us,” Jones explains. “Then basically if two people in Assemble want to work on it and no one else has an issue with them working on it, then that’s enough for us to take on that project.”

Each project is managed by two people – “like a buddy system,” Jones says. There’s a group meeting every Monday morning, then a project review that evening. “That was just a way of us being able to take on more work, but also allow us a bit more independence in the way we do work, so that we’re not all trying to hold the same pen at the same time.”

Assemble are currently involved with a range of other projects, including designing a new art gallery for Goldsmiths College in a former Victorian bathhouse. They’re now going international, too. “We’re working on a project now in Berlin, with the House of World Cultures: they partnered four local Berlin based initiatives with four international architecture practices to each develop new models for housing.

“We’re working with this really amazing group called Stille Strasse who are a self-organised seniors group aged between their 70s and 90s who squatted and saved their local meeting house and they run it themselves. So we’ve been working with them to develop a model of self-determined living in housing in old age.”

Assemble and the Four Streets CLT will have to wait until December to find out if they have won the Turner Prize. In Granby however, the work goes on rebuilding regardless, bit by bit, day by day, not headline-grabbing, but with far more important long-lasting results.

Granby Four Streets

“The next thing in the big picture is the Four Corners project, which is the four corners of Granby Street and Cairns Street,” says Hughes. “There are three existing though derelict shop units there and one that sort of accidently fell in on itself. We’ve just completed a six-week community storytelling project that Writing on the Wall ran with us, to involve everybody in the wider Granby and Liverpool 8 in gathering together stories of Granby and out of them we want to start pulling together what people’s ideas are for the best things to do with the Four Corners.”

The Turner judges were keen to set the Granby project in an art historical context, linking back to the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement, the Bauhaus. So, is what’s going on in Granby a new movement in art and ideas?

“Yesterday there were community members coming into their [Assemble’s] workshop,” says Ronnie Hughes, “and doing that proper kind of co-working; while you’re focusing on getting the hardcore into the moulds and pouring concrete on them, people are having deep and meaningful conversations about re-making the place.” It appeals to him, he adds, “in a way that sitting around having endless blue-sky visions no longer does”.

“Let’s make something and see what we come up with while we’re making it. It’s revolutionary.”

This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in September 2015.

Granby Four Streets CLT
Assemble

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Bread and Houses

The Anfield Home Tour

Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial

 

By Kenn Taylor

It’s rather surreal to be taken on a tour of a city you live in, but then this is quite a different tour. We start conventionally enough, by the Edwardian splendor of the Cunard building at the heart of Liverpool‘s regenerated waterfront, but soon we will be heading to the other side of the city – and the other side of Britain.

After we pile into the minibus, our tour guide Carl “with a C not a K, that’s just weird” Ainsworth announces that we’re heading for a district in the north of the city, Anfield. The word for many means solely the home ground of Liverpool FC, but Anfield is also one of the city’s oldest residential districts.

Welcome to the Anfield Home Tour, part of the Liverpool Biennial, the UK’s largest visual arts festival. The arts in Liverpool have always had something of a social conscience, and the Biennial is no exception; we are not heading to Anfield to look at football stadia or recently restored Stanley Park, but to learn some things about housing, community and regeneration.

Our first stop is Everton Park, where Carl tells us a story that sums up the British urban landscape in microcosm. From the top of the hill above the Mersey, there are amazing views across central Liverpool as far as the mountains of Wales on a good day. It was this view which led rich merchants to build fine houses here in the 18th century, some of which remain. With the expansion of nearby docks and industry, however, speculators built hundreds of densely packed terraced houses in the area, described by Carl as a “tidal wave”.

The merchants then moved further out, and a tight-knit working class community was formed on streets so steep that is some cases they had railings to help people climb them. Then, from the 1930s onwards, there were successive ‘slum clearance’ programmes, culminating in mass demolition in the 1960s. Many people were moved to overspill estates and new towns on the edge of the city. Others meanwhile lived out Le Corbusier’s vision of ‘a machine for living in’ at huge new high-rise blocks of flats. Some enjoyed scaling these new heights, and those old ‘tight-knit’ streets also often meant horrible conditions, but the dream soon turned sour. Carl reveals that some of these ‘new visions’ in housing were demolished fewer than ten years after being built.

In the 1980s, from the rubble of tower blocks came Everton Park , a green space on wasteland; but one with little thought given to its integration into the local area. Carl says: “Many former residents of the area come here to have picnics right where their houses used to be. You’d think from all that history, the powers that be would have learned.”

We find that they did not. Anfield was one of many areas in the UK subject to the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI). Despite the housing boom from the 1990s onwards, there were areas of the UK that stagnated, mostly in the north of England. The then government took up a report from Birmingham University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Studies. They decided what was needed was demolition, en masse, and new built homes, en masse. The process became the HMRI.

We arrive in Anfield to an area of new homes built by Keepmoat Construction. There’s been criticism from some that such houses in HMRI areas aren’t as ‘nice and neat’ as the terraces they replaced. However, as Carl points out, they do have gardens, off-street parking and modern levels of insulation and damp proofing, things denied to many though not all f the old houses. The tragedy of these homes, one often lost broadsheet debates about aesthetics, is that many people who owned the demolished homes did not get a good enough price for them under compulsory purchase orders to buy one of the new ones. They often had to take out second mortgages in old age to be able to buy somewhere to live. New homes in a community are all very well, but not if the community has to get into debt to buy them when they owned their old homes outright. With the cancellation of HMRI by the present government, we are told it was even touch and go if these new homes would be built or just wasteland left in their place.

As Carl points out, the biggest problem with HMRI was in its title: market renewal, not community or neighborhood renewal. This was of course, pre-crunch, when the market appeared to have the answer to everything; it just needed to be helped on its way. Speaking of markets, in my favourite part of the tour Carl passes two bricks around the bus, one from the new building site and one from the demolished homes. The new brick we are told is worth 30p, the old brick £1. Apparently bricks from the demolished homes are being exported to building sites around the UK, even abroad. Carl tells us: “There’s about 20,000 bricks in an average terrace, whole streets demolished, you do the math.”

As we drive down Granton Road, one of the ‘tinned up’ streets awaiting demolition, Carl plays a recording by Jayne Lawless, a former resident, recalling how just a few years ago, every house in the street was occupied. She speaks of the “controlled decline” under HMRI, which saw people pushed to leave, one by one, until the last residents left in despair. She says: “They said we were deprived, don’t remember being deprived.”

However, Anfield isn’t all dereliction, although newspapers have been full of emotive photos of empty homes. That is one reality, but just round the corner is another. Skerries Road is a traditional terraced street renovated to looking almost new by residents who refused to move. It shows how a different approach can succeed.

Then another local resident, Bob, gets on the bus as we drive past the house where he lived for 50 years. Now it sits empty, with abandoned properties all around. Yet this wasn’t a HMRI street. When former council houses were sold under ‘right to buy’, many ended up owned by landlords who rented to whoever they could get. Bob says this saw an increase of “unruly families” moving in, and with them anti-social behavior, crime and then often abandonment. Bob is a regular on Liverpool’s pub singing scene and gives us a rendition of ‘This Old House’ by Rosemary Clooney, before we move on.

We finish the tour at the former Mitchell’s Bakery, a local business for over 100 years which closed in 2010 and has now become a community hub, the centre of a two-year plan worked up between artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, on a Liverpool Biennial commission, and a myriad of other participants and project partners.

When they began, they had no idea where the idea would lead. The answer is a long-term plan to re-open the bakery as a cooperative, offering local people jobs and training and a Community Land Trust (CLT). If the city council lifts the current clearance order on the building, the CLT hopes to buy it and refurbish the bakery’s former living accommodation. Architect Marianne Heaslip and a group of local young people have drawn up the plans. In the long run the CLT would like to take on more buildings in the area and renovate them for not for profit re-occupation. The bakery has now been refurbished internally and with community members undergoing training, they hope to start trading soon.

Then, a surprise: over tea and cakes, it is revealed that Carl is actually actor Graham Hicks, but that all the stories we have heard are true. Britt Jurgensen, who directed the tour and co-wrote its script with Graham and local novelist Debbie Morgan, adds that many in the community were reluctant to get involved with this project. They had been let down so much by outsiders in the past. But this external spark brought people together who were frustrated by waiting for others to make decisions for them and has acted as a new impetus for residents to become stakeholders in their neighbourhood.

“This is our future,” says Britt, a theatre professional who lives locally and is a member of the CLT and the bakery cooperative. Progress will be slow but from the ground up, not a grand vision imposed from outside. The catalyst may have been the Liverpool Biennial, but local people are now taking things far beyond the ideas of any curators or artists. She says: “I hope we will be able to sustain ourselves as a group and know when to pass responsibilities on to new people. I hope we will be courageous enough to admit when we make mistakes and adapt our plans when it is appropriate. And I hope we will continue to enjoy ourselves whilst we do all that.”

As we munch cake, there is much discussion within our tour group, many of whom have never met before, about the injustice, the problems, and the potential solutions for Anfield and elsewhere. Overall, the feeling is one of energy, of something good coming out of a mess and of things finally, slowly, heading in the right direction.

In the hierarchy of needs in austere times in deprived areas, art may come pretty low, but if art can help regain food and shelter, pride and spirit, then it has a purpose both practical and ephemeral. This was a story that could have been complex, technical, dull and aggressively ideological; instead it has been brilliantly reduced to its actual simplicity: what has been done to a community, and what needs to be done to repair the damage.

The Liverpool Biennial has often struggled to define itself apart from all the other art festivals in the world. Given Liverpool’s weather, it isn’t necessarily going to attract the crowds that head to Venice, Lisbon or Miami. With more projects like this though, it can express itself as something unique in the world.

The Anfield Home Tour is a fine art work. It may also be a fine bit of sociology, entertainment, architecture, history, politics, and cake, but it is an art work. And it is one that should be compulsory consumption for every government minister, every housing association director, every town planner, student of architecture and social affairs correspondent. Its message is simple, and one we should all have learned long ago: The people who know what is best for communities are communities themselves and they are the only people who can truly regenerate an area.

The success of the Eldonian Village, a self-organised community that began in Liverpool in an area of urban blight in the 1980s, just a mile or so from Anfield, is testament to what can be achieved if the support and will is there. Anfield clearly has the will. It remains to be seen though, if those powers that be, whatever coloured rosette they happen to wear, will give them the power and the financial resources to build on this creative start.

This piece appeared on The Guardian in October 2012.

www.2up2down.org.uk

Images Copyright Mark Loudon, Jerry Hardman-Jones and Britt Jurgensen.