STATISTA

Statecraft - Pioneer Usage - Representation

In conversation with Fran Edgerley of Assemble

An interview on the relation of art and gentrification, the temporary use of space and the story of the engaged residents of Granby Four Streets, which saved the houses from demolition - strategic and permanent ways to exclude them from market speculations - while starting a unique and creative redevelopment project with the design and art collective Assemble, which won the most important art prize of the UK.

Carla Mann in conversation with Fran Edgerley
Assemble is a collective working in the fields of architecture, design and art. The group formed in 2010 when about 17 young people that had studied together - architecture, english, philosophy - decided to start a self initiated project as an experiment to make something happen in the city. Since then, Assemble has been working together for 9 years in multi-disciplinary areas - from the development and management of workspace, construction work and teaching up to large scale development projects - while giving attention to non-hierarchical and collective ways of working together.

C
How does Assemble work together?
F
We were non-hierarchical for a long time, so basically everyone is at the same level, apart from the three employees now. Everyone does project management, practice management, admin, resourcing – it’s like a rotating management group. The structure of the practice has evolved over the past 9 years to support ways of working that are, I guess, a bit more collective than the normal, hierarchical structures of practice - because of early projects, they were the best when they had the most input from as many people as possible, so we are trying to, like, recreate that opportunity – in a situation where we are paid, and that is not an economic structure that is really supported in normal fields, so you know, you don’t get extra money just because you want  lots of people thinking about something but you also need support of the people, so we also do a lot of figuring out how to afford it and we have done that by taking lots of different work. We do consultation and brief writing, but we also develop workspace and manage that work space, we do projects, we started setting up companies, so we can take up construction work, doing larger scale development projects and teaching -a lot of stuff. It is also a lot of organizing and management.


Art and Gentrification

 

C
What kind of thoughts do you, or you as a group have on the topic of art and gentrification?
F
I think it’s difficult, because obviously art relies on patronage, on people investing in art, it needs to be paid for - art needs financing. And a lot of sources, where money is – particularly in London – are in commercial real estate and property development. It means that in particular when you are working in-between arts and architecture and design a lot of money and opportunities are structured within situations, where the money is tied in ideas of property development and the value of that as an economic structure. And so I think it’s really hard for people to abstract themselves from that situation and to stand outside of it, because a lot of the work is often compromised. The way that we do it, we are also reliant on the structures that lead to gentrification – the only way we can have our studio bases is in having a temporary release, which is really insecure, and the area is being gentrified. The only way we can exist in the way that we want to work, in the type of space that we want to work - creating with community of makers, sharing tools and building stuff together - is by having it like (this), because the value of the land in London is so high and so we really depend on this structures of development at the moment.
There is so much inequality in who controls how people live and where they can live and that is the problem with change. Change is always going to be present in cities. Gentrification itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is where it excludes certain type of people from a space.


Community Land Trust


C
Do you address these topics in your projects?
F
I don’t know if we particularly get at it, but the thing that comes closest to be able to address gentrification in our work – which wasn’t our work at all – is in Liverpool, when we helped to develop houses on the Community Land Trust, an organisational structure which is owned by the community. It’s not a charity and it’s not a business and it’s not the state. It’s quite an active movement in the UK. A group in another part of England, in Cornwall developed this common land structure for when you sell property, the value of the property will always be tied to the average wage of the city. That is something they did and shared with the people in Liverpool and that is legal work that is financial structuring - I think it is really in those areas, where you have the power to interact with issues of gentrification. It’s tricky. I sometimes like to talk about our work as being about working in different mediums of experience. Sometimes that’s material and sometimes that’s organisational. We are not like artists in the traditional sense of working with paint. I mean, sometimes we work with clay and sometimes we work with other materials, but also we do a lot of work, thinking about how the structures of the world relate people. It’s the conditions that create the environments.
C
So in the Community Land Trust structure, the price of the rent is always connected to the average income?
F
Yes. In Liverpool, it was first properties that were being sold.  The idea was to try to stop speculation, so that people buying houses could not just buy them for speculation - to increase the value and then sell them off. They buy them and then they know that the value that they can sell the property for is only gonna be an amount of the proportion related to the average wage of Liverpool.


Granby four streets


C
You already mentioned the project in Liverpool. What was the project in Granby Four Streets about?
F
It is based in Toxteth in the south of Liverpool – in a neighbourhood that had extremely high levels of poverty in the 50ies, 60ies and 70ies – in particular as the main port of Liverpool was closed down. There was a lot of unemployment and people started suffering, particular in this neighbourhood, where a lot of the immigrant communities and the black community lived. Toxteth used to be most famous for the race uprising that happened in 1981, which was a reaction to police brutality and lack of economic opportunity for these people. A lot of the houses in the area were overpopulated, they were falling into disrepair, in an area with a very strong sense of community. This place has like a long lineage of being a place where immigrants did live because they had settled there initially for working in the ports and then because some places in the city might be much more hostile to black people than others, they end up living in that same area. In the 2002 the labour government in England started the HRMI “housing market renewal initiative”, an urban redevelopment policy, which tried to address the topics of poverty and land value by demolishing lots of housing and rebuilding them in suburban density, so people had more gardens and more space.
But the reality was that they were doing this in places, which were old, historic, with long established communities – and they were basically destroying those lives by demolishing houses.  They started doing this in the early 2000s and at the time there was a lot of development going on, but as the initiative got rolled out across the country the housing market crashed, which meant a lot of places where the government had started buying the houses and blocking them of from people, so that squatters could not get in where just being left like that because there was no money and no capital to invest in that. It was too risky because there was no market. So there was this really awful situation in a country, where there is a severe housing crisis: you have all this perfectly Victorian, often beautifully constructed terrace houses that are cut off from inhabitants. And they were rotting over time, this is something which happened all over the country.
And then there is this one place in Liverpool, where a group of residences started to protect their streets from demolition: they started a marked, they started cleaning up the streets – because when an area was designated as a place being demolished, the city council stopped collecting the bins, cleaning the streets, also stopped any policing so it became like a ghetto. So these residences started cleaning the streets and doing lots of gardening, putting that level of care that you have in your own home outside, showing that this is a place of care, a place that they value, which they didn’t want to see destroyed. And doing that by direct action, that was visible in and on the streets.


Assemble with Granby Four Streets


C
And they also changed their legal form?
F
They made a Community Land Trust, the CLT, this administrative structure, which allowed them to own land, so they could start repopulating the area and we worked with that group of residences to refurbish the houses and bring them back into use. As it had to be affordable houses, we did that through basic works, but at the same time we were trying to pay respect to the ideas and the lived experience of the residences. We spend a lot of time cataloguing changes in the houses and using this to design new ones and also we developed this connection of architecture pieces and products that were unique to every house made from recycled materials from the area as its being redeveloped – like mantel pieces and kitchen tops and bricks and things like that. From there the project was nominated for the Turner Price and we wanted to use that opportunity to leverage the attention that we were getting, to invest in that neighbourhood, so that they could have real economic long meaningful change from that art prize, that could be used to launch a business which worked really well through Granby workshop making ceramics. And we worked with the community land trust to assemble a winter garden – inventing a space for community gardening and also a space for experimentation and for arts, because those were the things that really transformed the area. It was creative gardening and creative action and we’re still working with them we’re doing a café and more housing and its incremental and just carrying on over years. It’s a really amazing place.


Ownership


C
At the time when these houses should be demolished, who had the ownership of them?
F
A lot of them had been run by housing associations and then they had been compulsory purchase ordered, which when is the state buys them back, for example when they want to do an infrastructure project and they buy all the property in order to do so. But there were still a hand full of houses that were privately owned, those people had refused to sell, they were still there and so it was a mixture. Most of the houses were all boarded-up and empty and then there were few people living amongst them and they were the ones doing all this work. It was only because some people weren’t renting, that they were able to save the streets.


Getting in touch


C
How did you get in contact with the Granby four streets community?
F
It was a really random connection. There was a guy, a social investor, who was interested in thinking of new ways that social housing could be developed. He had been put in touch with that group to try and see if he could work with them and someone who is working with him got in touch with us. So it was just out of the blue.
C
What did you do after the connection was made, when you arrived there?
F
At first, we were doing this piece of work for this social investor. We did this proposal, like a plan for the whole neighbourhood, so we were doing a lot of research on the different kinds of groups in the area. We did visit a lot of people in their homes and where they’re working. And it was only later on, that we were employed by the residences themselves, because they respected the amount of attention that we paid to their interests and their position in the community.
C
At that time, who owned the houses?
F
The area was still meant to be demolished and then, once the residences won that campaign and then the city council stopped threatening that, then the community was really interested in trying to take back control. They hadn’t had a say about what’s going on the whole time with this demolition being threatened and they had larger development initiative coming in, redeveloping the area which all had kind of failed for one reason or the other: not having the money, or going bankrupt – different things. So the CLT got a grant from the Lottery and a loan from a bank. They had different pots of money from different places with that they managed to buy the properties from the council in the end.


Everyday life and change


C
What changed at the time when Assemble worked with the residences?
F
 There were small things that changed, there was more life on the streets, lots of kids playing on the streets, which is very nice. I would say that is quite unusual, you don’t really get that in lots of places anymore. The project that we set up as the workshop, is working really well and looking to expand, which is cool – you can see people at work, making things, it is very productive and there is lots of stuff happening, but there is also still lots of shops there, brought up. They have the market still every month, which is very brilliant and there are gardening groups, which are meeting and starting with the winter garden. And most of the houses now are reoccupied, there are some that are still empty. But I think the life for a lot of people in the area hasn’t really changed for the past 5 years because we are still in recession, people are still struggling to find work. There are a lot of problems around.
C
Is there still a connection, where Assemble is working with the residences?
F
Yes, the workshop is a business, which has one person from Assemble running it and then there is 5 members of staff, some of them are residences and some are people living a bit further away. And they sometimes run kids workshops, they have open days, when they talk about what they are making and that people understand what’s going on in the business. It’s very much a community orientated business, involved in the market, running a program in the winter garden. And there is one guy from Assemble who lives there all the time. There used to be two of us out there for a couple of years, but now just one. Everyone else is based in London and when we work on projects we go up and down.
C
Do you think winning the Turner Prize and the attention of the art scene influenced the area?
F
Yes, I think it has, definitely. It led to the creation of the workshop and also of the winter garden, which are both really amazing things. The winter garden is still quite young, we don’t know what is going to happen, hopefully it is going to be used much more, and hopefully it will give birth to other groups and things happening. I mean, it just recently opened and is kind of new.


On house prices


C
Did the house prices change around the area of the Granby Four Streets, after Assembles projects there?
F
Actually not that much. The thing is, the area has changed quite dramatically because now it’s a lot more people and the houses are being reused so that will always change the dynamic of the street. It used to be really empty and now there is a lot more cars, a lot more people and I don’t think it’s necessarily really gentrified. It’s kind of funny, if it happened in London it would be completely different, it’s just, Liverpool is a much less dense place than London or Berlin. And relatively speaking, in comparison to those big major cities, land value isn’t extremely high, so there is not that much pressure on the space.
C
Do some rents get a bit higher or is it all in the dynamic of the fixed prices of the CLT?
F
Only some houses owned by the CLT have that condition. The rest of the buildings were developed by several people, some were individual, some were housing cooperatives, some were management organisations, lots of different groups and they are all in the market, in the normal situation. The house prices in Granby have gone up quite a lot in the last four years, because it is no longer an area to be demolished, you know, it’s actually a thriving place, I think prices have at least doubled in the last few years, which is massive. Because it was a really insecure place and if you are buying a house with two houses on each side, which are rotting, obviously it’s just bad news. And it’s a good location, there are lots of parks and it’s not that far away from the centre of town, it’s a really amazing place to live. It was just very misguided, high level policy that was not having a very good effect. So, it makes sense, house prices are coming back in with the other levels around, where there wasn’t dereliction, so they are now in the same situation.


Thoughts on making a dynamic permanent


C
Do you think, a dynamic like the temporary use of space by artists, which is often followed by gentrification can be made permanent?
F
It depends, it’s all about land ownership, really. The idea of economic progress is based on economic growth and capital accruals. I don’t think you can stop this. It’s not gonna stop, unless you have radical changes in understanding of what is valuable and unless financial structures are reconfigured to support those people who are independent and community lead and not parts of large scale cooperations or people with lots of money. I think politics have to change, financial and government structures have to change. If it was easy for independent groups to borrow money in order to secure property, that would change the whole dynamic of everything. But it isn’t, because they are not getting Investors and it’s very difficult even though there is this project and lots of other ones across the country. The financing available for community lead projects is very difficult and not forth coming, because they are not seen as reliable, safe, risk averse, or low risk. It’s difficult.


Politics, image and pride


C
How did the city council react towards the Granby four streets? Could people buy the buildings?
F
Yes, they are still selling them off to people, buying the derelict ones. They have been supporting it – there is lots of political visits, like the major comes and sees it and has photographs taken and the leader of the opposition party of the country also came to visit and had a photoshoot. It’s quite like they are into it, but at the same time the actual people who are running the city aren’t replicating any of the lessons from that situation – anywhere. There was a very similar situation happening about 400 meters away just at the other side of the main road, where there is lots of old houses that were meant to be demolished. There were strong-will-residences who were trying to manage the redevelopment of these houses and after they had gone to the high court and proving that they shouldn’t be demolished etc. – that was literally just after Granby won the Turner Prize, that the city authorities still awarded the development of the houses to a single large scale developer and weren’t willing to talk to the community about any other possibilities. That is because they are just too proud, because they screwed people over for so long and there is a lot of anger there.
C
Did Assemble get offers from investors that wanted to increase the houses prices?
F
Not really. No,, that has never happened. You know, the residences really want investment, because they don’t have any money, and so if we could get investment from anyone to support them, then we would.


Government, political strategy and free space


C
What impact does the government have on the context of housing, art and gentrification?
F
There is a lot of austerity politics and cuts that have gone through many of the councils. The normal situation now is that councils have a duty to try and abstract as much financial value from their assets as possible, because they have no money, so that means either selling things off or trying to charge as high rates as they can. There is something that has been trialled in London, which is trying to get councils to re-conceptualise how they designate value to land or to property, so that its not just on financial value, but also on use, and community. That is really interesting, because that’s the first time this starts to happen. Because now the normal situation is having to sell property and having to extract financial value from them, actually the situations where things like Granby happen or were squatting can still survive is with private property, because there is more nuance in peoples reactions to things and they have less power bringing in larger scale control.