“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

As Ever the Phoenix

As Ever The Pheonix Image

His mind felt like it was cracking open, his eyes were puffy and red, and his skin itchy and sticky. He lay cocooned in his cheap, battered leather jacket and a t-shirt stuck to him by three days worth of sweat.

He held his head in his hands, keeping his burning, swollen eyes closed for as long as possible, only looking up occasionally to see the couple of Arab ladies opposite chatting through all his suffering.

The sound of the many washing machines turning was reassuring, though barely enough to drown out the brooding thoughts that threatened to career into his mind.

The laundrette had a stifling atmosphere. Strip lights on even in the day, walls plastered with brightly-coloured flyers advertising long past events and every surface covered with a thin, sickly-static residue of detergent.

He felt like he was breathing it in, the powder going deep, searing away at his already cigarette-abused lungs, slowly suffocating him as he sat beneath the grim yellow fluorescence. He put his head back in his hands again for a long time. Squeezing his eyes hard to try and take control of the throbbing, trying to take control of the feeling in his body.

When he looked up again the two ladies had gone and he found himself looking straight out through the large front window of the shop that looked across the junction of Upper Parliament Street, Catharine Street and Princes Avenue.

Cars, vans, buses, bikes and people all moved rapidly in all directions through the crossroads, all speeding along their own paths through the city. He felt a little better now, and continued to stare out at the never-ending flow through the window that was scarred around the edges with the dust and grease of a million washes.

He stared unblinking until his eyes started to stream and the Escorts and Polos and Hyundais and Transits began to blur. Blue and chrome became brown and plastic; the back of one car began to connect with the front of another.

As he watched, the pedestrians began to walk slower, their every action becoming long and fluid. Every single movement of every body could be seen in minute detail, dragged out and fractured. Eventually, their whole forms began to fragment and disintegrate.

The cars became viscous, their components stretching and flexing before losing their forms and turning into fluid shapes. These too began to flux and bend, breaking into pieces and floating off in many directions.

He saw a bird rise out of the now cracking tarmac on Princes Avenue, a Phoenix that struggled hard to free itself from the fragmenting road surface, eventually, violently, pushing its body outwards and turning the remaining tarmac to dust. It stretched out its brilliant red and gold wings as it rose away.

As he looked back to the road, he saw it had turned into a foaming torrent of a river, roaring forwards without pause down where the avenue had been. In it floated the last few forms of vehicles that quickly sank.

The Georgian terraces that lined the road began to crumble, their facades falling in on themselves to reveal thick jungle, soaring golden temples and, in the distance, jagged, snow-tipped mountain ranges.

The remaining people on the streets turned there, in the bright sunshine, into lions and stags and dragons and mermaids.

And, as the last vestiges of Liverpool 8 erupted, he saw the drive-in NatWest consumed by a waterfall and, far across the plains, the Renshaws factory was shunted aside by an emerging volcano.

Here were a million colours and forms rising before his eyes. Animals grazed on the rich plains and leaped through the surging waters now deep blue, then viscous green, now crystal clear.

It all became too much and, his eyes aflame, he closed them, squeezing them tighter than ever, but still he saw the colours on the inside of his closed lids, burning into his mind.

He concentrated all of his thoughts, all of his energy, on containing what he had seen: the sounds of the volcano; the continually rumbling drums from far away; the vivid, liquid brown of the stag’s eye; the flock of small, bright birds emerging from the dense, damp undergrowth.

All surged inside his head for what seemed like an age. When he eventually peeled open his dry, sticky eyelids again, he was confronted with only the dirty window of the launderette and a shrunken old woman gently snoring on the bench opposite.

Through the window, a Hackney Carriage honked and careered down Princes Road; but behind it, in the corner of his vision, he could see a Phoenix still rising.

This piece appeared on Northern Spirit in November 2012.



By Kenn Taylor

Blood flowed freely from both his nose and mouth. He was forced to sniff and swallow constantly to keep it from streaming down his face. The wet metal taste sickened him and he felt pain deep in his limbs with every movement.

He forced a cough when the blood in his mouth started to drip down his throat, a cough that scattered a field of red specs across the pavement. He accepted that this was just what happened, and tonight he had been unlucky, but a raw anger still seared through his stomach, his throat, his eyes. A pure anger the likes of which he’d never felt before. He coughed another mouthful on the pavement.

The rage he felt wasn’t so much for his attackers. No, rather his employers who had demanded once more that he stay behind to help them catch up with work that hadn’t been done. So he had ended up going home in the dark, and they had ended up getting him. And he wondered again if there was any point in trying.

As muscles and bones across his body complained, he gritted his teeth hard and felt enamel jarring on enamel. He would be dammed if he was going to let them get inside his head. They could beat him up, but he would come back stronger, as always.

The four of them had gripped him down by the Baltic Fleet as he walked home from the function in the arena the agency had sent him down to steward. He had stayed behind reluctantly, knowing that if he’d argued, he would have been blacklisted by the agency again. Now though, he knew however late he had worked today, if he turned in tomorrow, black eye and all, they’d accuse him of having been fighting and send him home, “Can’t have your sort upsetting the guests now can we?”

They’d been waiting down a side road off Jamaica Street that he’d had the misfortune to take a shortcut down. There were four of them in big Honda. It was past eight o’clock, but it wasn’t even that dark. He’d seen them eyeing him up as he walked past. Lips pursed, watching everything and giving nothing away.

He’d picked up the pace right away, hoping they had bigger fish to fry. But they decided he was something for them to do while they waited for whatever business that had brought them to that part of town to materialise.

His mistake was to put up a fight. They probably would’ve just taken his money and left if he’d stayed down. But he wasn’t going to go down without a having a go at least. Never. Even though he knew it was stupid, he had always stood up to what he saw as badness even after being knocked down so many times. So he took the beating, lay for a while to recover and consider his situation, and then moved on as best he could. Like he always did

He pushed on up past Cains and the new arts centre where he’d been working on a function the other day, passed the wrecked looking maisonettes that still contained a few families and the big, faded posters proclaiming brand new developments. “What a mad fucking world,” he said aloud through the blood and bile that filled his throat.

His faith in the rightness of things that had once been so strong was now decaying, but with every blow his faith in himself grew stronger. And he knew that it was only by being stronger and fighting harder that he would be able to push past all that had been loaded upon him. His only fear was that this desire to escape would corrupt him, but he took solace in all those others who had made it.

He pulled at his uniform; a nylon polo top now speckled with sweat and blood, and coughed another mouthful onto the pavement. A passer-by glanced briefly at his shambling but determined figure, before quickly averting their eyes and crossing the street.

Sucking the blood back into his nose once more, he hammered intently down the long expanse of Upper Parliament Street. Cars streamed past him, but as this point he had neither care nor thought to if they saw his split lip, swollen eye, bloodied top, and he raised his head and walked faster.

As he readied himself to cross over towards his street, he noticed something odd in the corner of his eye. Something incongruous had appeared in the familiar landscape of his regular walk home. He slowed his steps and the stopped to examine the new addition. All pain was forgotten briefly as he stood and stared at the object.

It stood on a battered and pock-marked field of grass where rows of terraces had once stood. It was a collection of white, flat metal strips. The strips weaved in and out of each other to form a slightly flattened square with criss-crosses at all angles. All-together, it resembled a kids’ climbing frame that had been assembled incorrectly.

He stood stock-still, save for blinking, and carried on staring intensely at the object. Behind him, cars still continued to scream past towards the Women’s’ Hospital and Renshaws.

As he stood, he raised his hand again to wipe more of the blood from his nose and to check on its congealing process. He looked absent-mindedly at the long, black and red smear on his hand and felt again the pain in his kicked shoulder as he lowered his arm.

He stepped over the small ledge of rubble that divided the field from the pavement, the only remaining marker from the houses that had once lined the street, and, with a confident stride and a slight limp, he headed across the grass towards the object.

He walked right up to the frame and lent in close, staring hard at its poles. He moved to one side, then another. Ran his hand along the smooth, coated-steel surface and look at the ridged bits on the edge where it had been folded by machine. He squatted down, lent on the frame and felt its coldness next to his cheek, then stood up again quickly, the blood rushing to his head giving him a touch of dizziness and clear white spots in front of his eyes.

As he regained full balance he looked at the object again. It still revealed nothing of its purpose, why it was here and what it was meant to be. What it had to do with anything in fact. This item, object, thing had arrived suddenly, without consent, and had been planted without asking. Not grown, bled, eeked out, but dropped from on high.

At the other end of the object he spotted a small, tilted plaque on a pole in the ground. He went over and read it: “Playground in a New Media Universe. Coated steel structure, 2008. Otto Lucas b. New York 1974. Commissioned for Liverpool’s Community Culture Programme.”

He read it again, then looked at the object, then read it again, then looked at the object. As he went to read the panel again, a drop of blood landed on it; a bright, bright red spot that expanded outwards a dozen tiny lines.

This made him smile, and he sucked the blood back up through his nostril once more, turned away and walked off purposefully towards a dead tree at the edge of the field.

Beneath it was a pile of rubbish left from the demolition of the terraces; broken brick, crisp wrappers and other assorted crap. A stubby, grey steel scaffolding pole that was amongst the detritus caught his eye. He lent forward slowly and gripped it with intent. The crusting stalagmites of blood in his nose heated and his heart pounded harder with every footstep as he headed back towards the object.

Once he reached the object again, he stopped and looked hard at it once more, willing it to reveal something, to give it a chance to redeem itself.

As he heard the cars streaming past behind him once again on Upper Parly, he smiled wide and manically, raised the scaffolding pole high above his head and brought it crashing down on ‘Playground in a New Media Universe’.

This appeared on Northern Spirit in November 2012.

Canning zine

‘Canning’ is a new zine I have created with artist Natalie Hughes and designer Mike Carney. It features a varied collection of my writing from the last few years that has been inspired by the Canning area of Liverpool 8. You can read it on Issuu at the link below or download the PDF. A limited number of print copies will also be available for free in the usual outlets in Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield in the next couple of weeks.


Canning zine PDF