Features Published 14 December 2015

Amber Massie-Blomfield: Assemble, Toxteth and the Turner Prize

On how Turner Prize-winning architecture collective, Assemble, have turned the process of regeneration into art.
Amber Massie-Blomfield
An exhibit by the Turner Prize 2015 winners Assemble collective

An exhibit by the Turner Prize 2015 winners Assemble collective

Hats off to the committee of the Turner Prize for presenting the 2015 award to art, design and architecture collective Assemble, for their work refurbishing ten homes in Liverpool’s Granby Four Streets. A prize that is more commonly associated with prompting befuddlement outside the Art-irati (‘the light…goes on…and off…that’s it??’) has laurelled an enterprise with resolutely old-fashioned social values and grassroots engagement at its very heart.

Assemble’s Turner Prize winning project has seen the organisation work on Liverpool’s notorious Toxteth estate, the site of violent riots in the 80s, followed by a period of steep decline. For a time earmarked for demolition, the area is now the subject of a series of innovative regeneration projects, after years of tireless campaigning by the local community to save the area.

Assemble have worked with residents to refurbish the houses on Cairns Street, using affordable and reclaimed materials to produce the fixtures and fittings: rough hewn ceramics, delicate glazed tiles, and printed fabrics, all produced carefully by hand. This is art not only for the people: it’s art with and by them. It is revealing of how unusual these values are in the upper echelons of the art world that so much focus of the discussion about the project has been on whether it is art at all.

About 18 months ago I wrote an article for Exeunt exploring the ethical challenges for artists in negotiating their role in areas going through regeneration, where so often they are not only invited to take advantage of the cheap yet precarious availability of creative ‘meanwhile’ space, but also form an active part of developers’ plans, bringing their cultural cache to bear in hipster-fying areas previously seen as undesirable – a process also known as ‘artwashing’.

These operating conditions lend themselves to the creation of superficial artworks, gone as soon as they’ve arrived, as the name ‘pop up’ suggests. Yet the arts surely have a pivotal role to play in working with communities facing change: offering a meeting point for different perspectives and a way to express them; better still, making them the enactors of change, not the passive recipients.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last couple of months, both as we prepare for our Whose London Is It Anyway? festival at CPT, which explores the impact of regeneration on the capital, and as we face the changes the likely arrival of HS2 in Euston will bring to our nieghbourhood. Assemble’s project strikes me as an exemplar of what regeneration art can and should be.

Its success is in part due to the fact the project was not actually originated by Assemble at all. Instead the collective were commissioned by Granby Four Streets Trust, a Community Land Trust whose mission is to create ‘a thriving, vibrant mixed community, building on the existing creativity, energy and commitment within the community’.

I don’t know if you know much about Community Land Trusts – I didn’t before Assemble’s win. But there are over 170 of these nonprofits across the country, set up and run by ordinary people, each established to develop and manage genuinely affordable housing, not only now but for future generations.

So Assemble’s work is necessarily about the people of Toxteth, part of a movement to build and strengthen the established community, bringing the benefits of regeneration to the people who already live in an area, not property developers who stand to profit. This isn’t insincere. Take projects like those in New Addington, Stratford High Street and Walthamstow; what distinguishes Assemble’s output is meaningful engagement in the communities in which they are sited.

Further, Assemble succeeds by making the process of regeneration itself the art. The artistry lies in the very process of building a house; of who makes it, how it is made and why. As The Guardian’s Rowan Moore puts it:

“The word ‘making’ best summarises their interests, the idea that by creating something out of materials and space, you can understand yourself, your surroundings and your companions in ways that are different from talking or looking.”

While I’m not particularly preoccupied with the debate about whether or not this ought to be called art at all, I am curious about the power of applying the word art to things. Doing so invites us to bring to bear the kind of concentration we’d usually reserve for the gallery or the theatre auditorium.  Assemble’s Turner win should prompt us to look at processes of regeneration and ask wherein lies the beauty, the meaning and the humanity. That seems to me rather a hopeful thing for art to do.

The Whose London is It Anyway? season is at Camden People’s Theatre from 9th-31st January 2015

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Amber Massie-Blomfield is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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