The housing estate given a spot on the Turner shortlist

A sketch of Granby Four Streets. Image: Assemble.

Some years it feels like the Turner Prize shortlist is easier mocked than understood. Luckily, this year isn’t one of them - although the list is as surprising as ever.

Unusual works on this year's shortlist include Nicole Wermers’s Infrastruckur, which juxtaposes high fashion with a bare room, Bonnie Camplin’s multimedia The Military Industrial Complex and Janice Kerbel’s DOUG, a polyvocal song cycle (we're not sure what this is, either) which “chronicles a continuous stream of nine catastrophic events endured by a single individual”.

The most notable nominee, however, is Assemble: a London-based architecture and design collective. Formed in 2010, the group of 18 seek to make spaces that users feel connected to, addressing what it calls the “typical disconnection” between places and the people who live or work in them.

It may seem unusual to have an architecture collective on the shortlist for a visual arts prize, especially as Assemble isn't listed for a specific piece, but Assemble’s projects mirror the interventionist, political spirit that drives the work of their fellow shortlisted artists. Their building designs are sustainable and community-focused; an updated version of “Slow Architecture”, which prioritises ecological harmony over speed.

Assemble’s buildings are well known in London - even if visitors may not know who is behind them. OTOProjects, a workshop and performance space for radical music venue Cafe Oto, is built from the rubble of nearby demolished buildings . Borrowing methods from 19th century London-stock brick, a small team worked over the summer of 2013 to bag and compress the waste.

Further east is Yardhouse, an affordable workspace that Assemble helped build in the Olympic Park. Its simple structure uses an open mezzanine and large spaces to encourage collaboration, and the coloured panels that insulate the building have become a local landmark.

An experimental music venue and East London collaborative workspace may sound like gentrification clichés. But the Turner Prize committee cite a rather different Assemble work in their shortlist announcement; one which undermines any such accusations.

Granby Four Streets is a project based around a knot of parallel roads in Toxteth, Liverpool. Built at the turn of the 20th century to house local workers, the roads suffered after the 1981 Toxteth riots, and houses earmarked for demolition and redevelopment were instead left to fall into blight. 

It was local residents who began to fight back, forming a Community Land Trust (CLT) and regenerating the area themselves. They repainted the empty houses, cleaned up the streets and began a monthly market.

When Assemble joined the project, they collaborated with the CLT to refurbish the streets’ housing and communal areas. Building on the work the locals have already done, they sought to offer “local training and employment opportunities” while “nurturing the resourcefulness and DIY spirit that defines the four streets”. Their plans are designed to honour the rich architectural and cultural heritage of the area, while also opening up public space by re-appropriating disused houses.

Erika Rushton, Chair of the original CLT in the area, told us: “Despite surrounding dereliction pervading for over twenty five years, Assemble, like Granby residents, could imagine this place as beautiful, busy and full of people. Some artists seek to decorate the world, some to shock it, some to reflect or question it. Assemble are working with us to change it.”

There’s no denying that Assemble’s projects are among the more concrete – excuse the pun - works that have found a place on the Turner shortlist, its nomination suggest a different direction for the prize. Their collective's integration of artistry and pragmatism seems in particularly sharp contrast to abstract pieces like Martin Creed’s 2001 Work no.227: the lights go on and off (which was, for those who have forgotten, pretty much what it sounds like).

But the concerns at the heart of Assemble’s work are not new to the Turner committee. Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 work House, a negative imprint of the inside of a demolished Mile End home built in concrete, also forced questions about community, evolving neighbourhoods and how we inhabit space. As one judge answered in reply to questioning about Assemble's inclusion on the shortlist, “In an age when anything can be art, why not have a housing estate?"

Indeed, Assemble’s work in Liverpool could be an answer to Whiteread’s in London. As global commerce continues to march roughshod into the former East End, Granby Four Streets offers an alternative, thoughtful vision of development. That Assemble have found a place on the Turner shortlist now is a subtle but important statement about the integral role art plays in today’s evolving cities; and a reminder that talent needn’t only be deployed to overcome local resistance. With elegance and ambition, you can arrest it – and make something beautiful.

A free exhibition of the four shortlisted artists’ work will run from October 2015 to January 2016 at Tramway, Glasgow. The Turner Prize will be announced in a ceremony in December.

All images courtesy of Assemble.


Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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