“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

On the Waterfront

In July 2011 a new museum will open on Liverpool’s waterfront. Inside it will tell how a tiny, insignificant fishing village rose to become the pre-eminent port in the world, a centre of industrial innovation, global trade and culture, and then on, to a pariah city, struck by deep poverty and malaise. It will also tell, not least by the nature of its striking new building, of a contemporary city in transition.

Nearby there are also new office complexes, retail and leisure playgrounds, an arena and, soon, a new exhibition hall. The city it seems has come full circle, with transformed docklands that were, only twenty years ago, abandoned, silted up, useless, the most prominent symbol of our decline.

Not that far away though, there is a different story. Half an hour’s walk from the new museum in any direction, you hit areas like Vauxhall, Kensington, and Toxteth, changed little by the regeneration of central Liverpool. These are districts, battered by the loss of industry and then by the subsequent break down of their community and way of life, where closed-down shops and pubs, and tinned-up streets of terraced houses, are a common sight.

It is easy to highlight this stark difference, and many writers have. The same comparison could be made in varying degrees in Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow, Hull, Portsmouth, Salford and others. Regenerated waterfronts have been the symbolic centre of change for many cities over the last ten years, even if that hasn’t always led to opportunities for those living nearby. Yet, having protested about the gap between waterside regeneration and the continuing decay of our inner-urban communities, so many writers then stop. Satisfied in their telling of a ‘truth’, but rarely offering any real workable alternatives for these economically weak and battered cities beyond mocking their pretensions of having changed. Because what many refuse to face is that there is no easy answer to this, no simple solution to relieve this contrast.

For someone living with regenerated docks a stones throw one direction and boarded-up terraces in the other, I see both sides of the story. There is a truth in the continued deprivation in such places, but there is also a truth that such developments are also a positive change, creating at least some jobs and growth in cities were, more often than not, nothing was built for years and decline often seemed terminal.

The waterfront was the basis of Liverpool becoming a city, for years it became an embarrassment as it fell out of use, but now, it is has been made relevant again. A place where things happen and people want to visit. Historic buildings have been saved and brought back into use, new ones built. These developments will not on their own solve the myriad of problems of a city that suffers from poverty and deprivation, but they are better than continued rot and abandonment, which serves local people not at all, even if some aesthete critics would rather see poetic decay than imperfect growth.

The brutal fact is the old industries and jobs are not coming back, at least not in the same way, and neither is the culture and way of life that went with them. And lest we forget, working on the waterfront in the old days was, for all the community spirit, often hard and unforgiving. Those who look back with nostalgia at that world are guilty of the same sentimentality as the writers of the past who claimed the industrial revolution had ‘corrupted’ the working class and romanticised about a ‘better’ rural world, ignoring the harshness of a life on the land. The industrialisation of Britain once destroyed a way of life just as surely as its de-industrialisation has now done in our time, but it also created a new, different one, in some ways better, in some ways worse.

Our regenerated waterfronts represent the new reality that we are now entering. Cities ultimately must have a form of sustenance or they will not survive. Places like Liverpool have to go for whatever growth and jobs we can get and our biggest asset, undoubtedly, is the waterfront. The only alternatives are to be reliant on subsidy, which, as we are now seeing, is very easy to be taken away, or surrendering to terminal decline as our young people leave for better chances elsewhere.

The key question is what next? The decline of the industrial waterfront set the rot in the communities that surrounded it. Now the post-industrial waterfront is re-growing, what, if anything, can be done for its neighborhoods to benefit? Despite the many problems such areas face, there are some examples of growth and, more importantly, of ground-up, community-led regeneration. By Liverpool’s old northern docks, on the site of an old sugar refinery is the Eldonian Village. An integrated sustainable development owned and organised by the community, one that has won the UK’s first United Nations World Habitat Award. Meanwhile, in Toxteth, near the old southern docks, an abandoned Victorian youth centre, ‘The Florrie’, has been taken over by local people and is being restored into a new multi-function community facility to open next year.

With such self-organisation and self-determination under way, can these communities take a stake in these new economies? Will they, like the canny leaders of the Shetland Islands when the oil companies came to town in the 1970s, make sure that local people benefit from their geography, or will they instead be pushed out by economic growth, like in London, where the wealth of Canary Wharf built on the old east end docks does little help to the poor in Tower Hamlets. If such waterfront developments are to benefit the many not the few, communities will have to take matters into their own hands to make them, the profiteers in power are unlikely to acquiesce of their own accord.

On the Mersey, the waterfront continues to re-grow. The huge Liverpool Waters and Wirral Waters schemes, by the company behind Salford’s MediaCity, promise vast new centres for living and working on the sites of old docks. There is new industrial development too, with plans for large new port terminals and distribution centres to serve the emerging economies and several renewable energy facilities, including possibly the UK’s first tidal energy barrage. I am a sceptic to all of this, but then I disbelieved the current crop of developments and yet here they are. Such attempts at growth by our old industrial cities may still ultimately be futile in the face of a world which is shifting rapidly, but for maybe the first time in thirty or forty years, Liverpool seems like it may just have a future, and its fate, and that of other cities like it, once again hangs on the waterfront.

This piece appeared in Article magazine’s ‘Ports’ issue in June 2011.