EVERY AUTUMN the Turner Prize flatters egos and ruffles feathers in equal measure. This year, two diverse factions have been unexpectedly flattered and ruffled with mixed consequences. The first, Turner nominees Assemble, a free flowing collective of around 18 young artists and architects, on the whole self taught, based at a deserted IKEA site in Bow. The second, a spirited local community action group based in Toxteth, Liverpool 8, who have been striving to save and renew four semi-derelict streets in the Granby area – Ducie, Jermyn, Cairns and Beaconsfield – some 200 houses of which, in 2011, 150 were empty.
Text: MIKE VON JOEL | Images: courtesy Assemble/Ronnie Hughes
The Community Land Trust (CLT) has adopted a 20-year fight to stem redevelopment and maintain the local community with an energetic programme of ‘guerrilla gardening’, street markets and painting up the facades of empty properties. Endless pressure groups and meetings paid dividends in 2014, when the City Council, with housing associations Plus Dane and Liverpool Mutual Homes, became part of an officially recognised regeneration initiative. The CLT was only too pleased to accept practical help from a London-based group of radical builders and designers called Assemble – who set to work with enthusiasm on 10 of the wrecked houses of the ‘Granby Four Streets’. And then Assemble were controversially nominated for the high-profile Turner Prize.
A media frenzy ensued which caused to the CLT’s leading light Ronnie Hughes to disconnect his mobile phone and the Assemble team to ‘go dark’. The Granby Four Streets project, which had been hard fought in relative obscurity – all recorded on Hughes’ inspirational website and blog – became front page news. Lewis Jones, who found himself unwillingly thrust into the limelight as (temporary) Assemble spokesman, spent no little time in refocusing the credit for the Granby restoration rightfully on to Hughes and the CLT. Coincidentally, the CLT was also selected for The Academy of Urbanism’s Great Street award which covers the UK and Ireland. These nominations are made by members of the academy, not by representatives of the streets themselves, and it also encompasses places, neighbourhoods and towns.
The Turner Prize judges have seized on Assemble, a team only five years old, imbuing it with a host of art historical imperatives and no doubt hoping its young, socialist and artisan dynamic will help deflect the wall of media criticism for institutional elitism and conceptual vacuity the prize enjoys every year. They are certain winners.
Assemble, a largely unqualified group, was first noticed in 2010 when it created a theatrical and imaginative pop-up cinema from the temporary conversion of a derelict petrol station in London’s Clerkenwell (the Cineroleum). A curtain of silver insulating material created a tent-like space beneath the old canopy which was raised when the film ended, returning movie-goers to the grim realities of urban squalor. This was followed by a series of DIY, hands-on builds that amused the eye and the senses and slowly evolved into socially aware, interactive projects that engaged with ordinary people and reflected environmental desires that they may not have been able to articulate themselves. The Granby Four Streets collaboration effectively epitomised the new direction Assemble was exploring.
This urban guerrilla architecture is not new. Leaving aside the notion that at one time in history almost everyone built their own homes themselves, in recent times Patrick Bouchain (Paris) pioneered the concept of making a ‘circus’ of construction, engaging with residents, designers and artisans to realise buildings. Self building projects and reclamation are a political and socialised dynamic. Also in Paris, EXYZT mirrors Assemble’s idealism; and, in Berlin, Raumlabor combines radical architectural interventions from a political and socialist baseline.
Across the world, disenchantment with authority, interference, and the inhibition of free expression is adding fuel to a fire and a younger generation is responding with an informed and intellectual agenda. In art, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the sense of impotence felt by those whose world has been hijacked by an otherwise disengaged global capitalist class for whom art is a bond market to trade and the art business no more than a socialised toy town. 'In an age when anything can be art, why not have a housing estate?' asked TP judge, Alistair Hudson. In this light, Assemble is the perfect candidate to win the 2015 Turner Prize. How the group’s modus operandi can square with the actual rules and terms of the TP constitution remains to be seen.