This article appears in Even no. 4, published in summer 2016.
Briefly, last December, the world was extremely excited by the fact that the 2015 Turner Prize — still one of art’s richest and most respected awards, though hardly the career-maker it was in the days of Hirst and Blair — was awarded not to an artist, but to a group of architects. Not just any architects: a group called Assemble, a loose architectural practice based in London (the Architect’s Newspaper pointed out that media outlets can’t even agree on how many people the group actually comprises), whose ambitions are anything but aesthetic. The collective won for its work renovating the Granby Four Streets area in Toxteth, Liverpool, and Assemble are happy to describe themselves as “non-artists.” They want, or claim to want, to build things that people can live in and engage with, something you can really grab hold of.
Because the Turner is an art prize, the discussion around Assemble has so far orbited around what all this means for art — even though Assemble’s prize also points to a large shift in the public character of architecture. Is art finally abandoning unconsidered conceptualism for work with an explicit social function? Is it time to admit that something that changes people’s material reality has worth as an artwork, perhaps more worth than something that doesn’t? Is art finally getting serious? Or, equally, the other side: must art now be shackled to fresh-faced social do-goodery? Has it lost even its pretensions to independence from the rotting social tide on which it floats?
Assemble is hardly the first to win the art world’s approbation for the ad hoc provisioning of public improvements. The last decade has given us a whole host of artists, grouped loosely under the banner of “social practice,” who have left the gallery and set themselves up as, essentially, charity providers. This has been especially popular in the United States, where Rick Lowe has gut-renovated row houses in African-American neighborhoods in Houston; Tania Bruguera has set up an immigrant community center in Queens; and Theaster Gates has retrofitted abandoned Chicago buildings as public facilities, all in the name of art.
Then, a month later, came another garland for building as beneficence. In January the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s biggest gong, went to Alejandro Aravena, a Chilean lauded primarily for social housing projects. After years when the Pritzker fell on world-famous architects better known for grand projects designed with an artist’s air, the choice of Aravena — who has built more than a thousand houses for Chile’s least fortunate, with far more underway — seemed to rhyme with Assemble’s Turner Prize, and to call time on public praise for a certain architectural grandiosity. The Pritzker, after all, came after Aravena was named as the curator for this summer’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which he has promised to make into a showcase for a more engaged sort of building practice.
What is different about Assemble is that they are not artists at all, but have found their way into the art world anyway, and with no especial difficulty. Their work seems much closer to Aravena’s collaborative and ameliorative building practice than to Gates’s or Bruguera’s projects, which at least retain a faint glimmer of formal concern. For both Assemble and Aravena, the aesthetic seems to only be a surface-level phenomenon, something bolted to the outside of the real work. “What we architects model is not bricks or stones or steel or wood, but life itself,” Aravena proclaimed at the Pritzker ceremony, held rather unsubtly at the United Nations in New York. This could be a general manifesto for social practice: these artists and architects no longer want to craft beautiful objects; they want to change the world. But in a way, it’s not too different from what artists have always claimed — if art is worthwhile, isn’t it because those who create it aren’t just pushing paint around an easel, but modeling life itself?
The work for which Assemble netted the Turner Prize has roots in one of the earliest of the many violent episodes that would build Thatcher’s Britain. In 1981, Merseyside Police arrested a young black photography student called Leroy Alphonse Cooper on the corner of Selborne Street in Toxteth, an inner city area in Liverpool. The arrest was one of many: police were infamous for their use of “sus laws” — stop-and-search procedures, based on a Vagrancy Act passed in 1824 — against the area’s predominately Afro-Caribbean population. The neurologist and historian Andrew Lees quotes an exemplary piece of “police dialogue” from the time: “Monkeys go back to the zoo, niggers get your arses back to Granby Street.” With Cooper’s arrest, some line of building tension finally snapped. An angry crowd began pelting police vehicles with rocks and bricks, and nine days of rioting followed. Riot cops began using crowd-control techniques that had until then been con ned to the slow war in Northern Ireland: the riots saw the first use of CS gas grenades on the British mainland, along with the practice of breaking up groups of people by driving vans into them at high speed. One man, a wheelchair user, was killed after being hit.
The rioters destroyed up to 70 buildings with fire. This was generally regarded as an illegitimate form of violence. (“Oh, those poor shopkeepers,” Thatcher remarked.) In response, the state destroyed the entire neighborhood. This was not.
Immediately after the riots, the government considered proposals for “managed decline”: the slow and systematic evacuation of the working population from the whole of Liverpool. In Toxteth, the local council bought up hundreds of homes, many of them entirely undamaged, and earmarked them for a reconstruction that never took place. Instead, they were either razed, or boarded up and left to slowly collapse.
This is the trajectory that Assemble has attempted to combat. Erika Rushton, chair of Toxteth’s community land trust, told the Guardian last year that previous reconstruction initiatives were blankly destructive. “Everyone just offered a total solution,” she lamented. “Every house would be done, with no recognition of what people had crafted into their original homes…. Regeneration is always this blunt, abstract, over-professionalized thing.” Against what Hegel might call this abstract negation, Assemble offered something else: something determinate, a dialectic in brick. The houses they develop retain and repurpose the trace of their ruination. Where ceilings collapse, they’re not replaced, but opened up into double-height rooms. Where only the walls remain, the whole thing is hollowed out and turned into a garden. The furniture and fixtures are newly made from materials salvaged from the ruins. It’s a way of learning to live with ruination, building on history instead of tearing it down and pretending it never happened. And in a Britain now frantic with the Brexit-fueled dream of a sudden return to 19th-century glory, it offers a different path. It’s hard not to see these reconstituted ruins and think of the Romans after their own empire fell, repurposing the stones from now-useless monuments to build homes and churches, or slowly furrowing Diocletian’s palace until it turned into a city.
There’s something similar in Aravena’s Quinta Monroy housing project in Iquique, Chile: an attention to the plasticity of urban forms and their capacity to bloat and crumble. The residents of Quinta Monroy were illegal squatters, many of them living in shanty homes that families had built themselves. The site was small — 5,000 square meters for over 100 large and growing families — but rather than razing the existing homes for a blank high-rise development, Aravena’s firm Elemental instead opted to preserve the practices, if not the forms, of the shanty town they were replacing. Each of the new houses is deliberately incomplete: as a family grows, it has space to add new rooms and structures itself, with the architects contributing only those portions that the residents would not be able to afford themselves. Like Assemble, Aravena tries not to suffocate the particularities of family life with the all-knowing architect’s master plan. But there’s an optimism here that’s missing from the Granby Four Streets: in Chile a building can grow plantlike in the sun; its residents live through it, pushing against the skin. In Britain, the walls are final and constraining.
In a critique of the Toxteth development, the architectural critic Fred Scharmen writes that “we see the forms of historical vernacular again, along with a material palette that fetishizes authenticity and thriftiness. Is this what we want our future to look like? Where are the new forms, materials, and aesthetics of this new world?” This misses the point a little. The constant, restless production of the new, stripping away everything that was there before, is something that the clinical capitalism of the housing market already does very well. London, for one, is full of new buildings with playful and inventive forms. Most prominently and domineeringly, there is Rafael Viñoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street in the City, a drooping and curvilinear skyscraper wider on top than at its base — built to house banks and insurers, sterile offices where the only playfulness and invention is in the form of new ways to commit financial fraud. Toxteth might count itself lucky that such invention is not heading its way anytime soon.
There is something in Scharmen’s critique that sticks, though: the work Assemble is doing is essentially palliative. “Awarding an art prize for nice adaptive reuse of half-demolished public housing,” he writes, “is like giving an award for the prettiest band-aid on a sucking chest wound.” If Assemble’s Toxteth project is work with a social function, then the social function is noticeably diminished. For much of the 20th century, architects across the political spectrum took as their aim nothing less than the total transformation of everyday life. The experimental living spaces of the early Soviet Union were built to overthrow the isolated family unit and replace it with a proletarian communitarianism; the high-modernist social housing of western Europe replaced bombed-out slums with vast icons of an impending future. Even the mass suburbanization of American cities after World War II had a social ambition. The new forms of practice that are emerging have no such aims; in anti-austerity movements, small art spaces, and unconventional housing initiatives the much more modest goal is to provide an “alternative.” Think of the artist Theaster Gates, the hero of social practice, who won reams of news coverage for his conversion of a crumbling pile in Chicago into a community arts center; a modest reweaving of the fraying urban fabric is as bold as it gets. The work carried out by Assemble, with its fetishism of the local and the minute, is similarly incapable of being replicated on a mass, national level. It’s a “social practice” that’s always addressing one or another milieu rather than the social as such. The role of socially minded architecture has contracted from the transformative to the ameliorative: no longer steering the course of society, but splashing softly against the tide.
Of course, it’s a little unfair to blame a small architectural practice for not having single-handedly effected the abolition of all existing conditions. But the ease with which the project was appropriated for art is telling. It’s worth pointing out that the Turner Prize is awarded for specific exhibits, not just to an artist or collective, and the thing that won the 2015 Turner was not the actual redevelopment in Toxteth — still only partially completed as the award was handed out. Rather, the winning “artwork” was a mockup of the interior of one of the redeveloped homes, built inside the Tramway art center in Glasgow. (The Tramway, interestingly, is itself a piece of formerly derelict urban infrastructure, renovated into something that its website describes as “a space where you are welcomed to witness, engage, experience, participate, to be challenged and to learn.”) It’s a scene not too different from the model apartments that advertise any other development: the imitation interiors, the photos of something yet to exist. Visitors are free to wander around a house that nobody will ever live in, lips carefully pursed, hands reverentially clutched, in silent contemplation of a mode of life that the object signifies but does not provide, the same way they might wander around Pompeii or Chichén Itzá.
In an art exhibition, the function allotted to groups like Assemble, or artists like Gates, becomes something like a vulgarized manifestation of the role of art in Schopenhauer: the world is bad, and incurably so; things will not get better, but art can briefly open up a small space outside the general misery of the will, a “Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing” where “the wheel of Ixion stands still.” Which is not in itself a bad thing. Most traditional art forms don’t harbor any pretensions towards really changing the world; those that do tend to not be very good. But are we not asking rather too little from architecture when we ask it only to provide temporary respite from general ruination?
Britain’s current Conservative government has as its propelling ideology the idea of a “Big Society” to replace the interventionist state: local charitable projects and community initiatives will step in as the government drastically cuts back services and leaves broad sectors of society to fend for themselves. It is an ideology (or pseudo-ideology, as in practice this hasn’t happened very much) that chimes rather clearly with the work of Assemble, which has a fairly edifying list of clients served. Alongside the people of Toxteth, they’ve created tables for a British Council exhibition, a playground for the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a “workspace building” for the London Legacy Development Corporation, a quasi-NGO tasked with turning the dross left behind by the 2012 Olympics into something somehow useful. The latter project, Sugarhouse Studios in Stratford, is a large, two-story barn built to serve as Assemble’s own office, as well as one for non-specific “creatives” — the Stakhanovites of digital capitalism. Its exterior is clad in multicolored concrete scales and offers a great background for selfies. That has been enough to make it a minor tourist destination in its own right. Never mind what the thing is for — how does it look?
What happened to the city—the city in general, the British city in particular? Arguably, those selfie shooters in Stratford know better than anyone: a total aestheticization, the reduction of life to image. And it’s only in this context that the acclaim for Assemble and for Aravena, in the domains of both art and architecture, begins to make sense.
Big expressive shapes are everywhere on the skyline today: triangles, stacked cubes, vaguely threatening blobs. But form has abstracted itself beyond any connection to function; the shape of a thing has no bearing on what’s inside. “Architecture today is little more than cardboard,” insists Rem Koolhaas, always the most present-tense of architects (and Aravena’s predecessor as Venice curator). The social housing stock in western European cities is eagerly gutted; old factories and old churches are converted into apartment complexes. You can now even live in what used to be Arsenal’s Highbury football stadium; the stands have been turned into measly little homes, the pitch now cut open by footpaths and wire fences. What remain of the prewar slums, meanwhile, are now highly sought after by investors and hipsters alike. Their bare brick façades suggest hard work and artful dodgery, a chance for the tech firms that now lurk behind the curtains of poverty to grab at an authenticity baked into the clay.
At the same time, the city as it actually exists cringes in the shadow of what it might be. When you see images of cities and skylines in British newspapers, they’re almost invariably computer-generated projections that show how it might look if some developer gets its way. Whatever actually exists is only a future under construction: don’t get too comfortable with it, it’s not finished yet. Urban landscapes have always been in a state of constant change, but until relatively recently, the image of an unbuilt structure was always a schematic or diagram to aid its construction, and very rarely an image of something that might never exist.
There are some exceptions. In the 18th century, the capriccios of Panini and visionary paper architecture of Piranesi and Boullée dramatized the invention of the new Enlightenment mind in impossible public spaces. In the 19th century, the English artist Joseph Gandy worked closely with the architect Sir John Soane, producing images of his proposals for a rebuilt Bank of England. Most of these are the kind of images you’d expect from a modern planning proposal: smartly dressed figures walking busily through impressive corridors in pursuit of their business. The most famous image, though, is one from 1830. Along the outside, a few stretches of Soane’s bank remain intact, but the interior is devastated. Sloping fragments of wall, denuded arches, cut-off columns: the image of the future is the image of a ruin.
Inner-city Liverpool and disadvantaged northern Chile may be what we normally think of as ruined urbanity. But even the great world capitals as they stand today — at least for those of us who actually live in them, rather than treat them as investment vehicles — can feel like these 19th-century visions of ruination. Walk through the City of London, or down 57th Street in New York; there’s an emptiness to the structure-as-commodity, something unmistakably desolate about the glossy, plasticky new developments that splotch the wealthier Euro-American cities like mildew. They’re built to be viewed at a distance, as signs of economic dominance. Walter Benjamin, in a section on the Paris barricades from Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century (1935), wrote that we can “recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.” So too our contemporary canyons of glass: to walk through them at night, past the shuttered coffee outlets, along the sheerness of glass or the obsequious brutality of card-entry gates and anti-homeless spikes, is to feel some of the chill of a necropolis. Many of these units are never inhabited: they’re congealed capital, bought up by overseas investors, and left to accumulate value and spiders in equal measure.
Most buildings, Benjamin argued elsewhere, are not perceived visually, or not primarily so. Unlike art, structures are perceived in “incidental fashion” or a “state of distraction.” A building is lived in, or meant to be lived in — as Aravena notes, it’s not made of stone or wood, but life. There is an exception: Benjamin considers the “attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building.” Another exception, one he doesn’t mention, is the ruin. Ruins press against the horizons of architecture; they are built spaces that have shed their practical function, and what was once perceived tactically is now meant only for the eye. Often there are extensive networks of barriers to prevent visitors from touching the ancient stones, and explanatory signs to tell you the history of this rubble and ward off any lazy drift into utility. The Acropolis in Athens, the stubbed-out columns of Rome, or the Aztec and Maya sites in Mexico: all of these have been subjected to a double ruination. First, they were weathered by time and castrated by invading armies; next, what remained was offered for view as an inert carapace.
This is why the work of so many big-name architects, all those playful and inventive forms, can appear so pallid and deathly: the aestheticization of architecture produces a ruin. And this, too, is the situation faced by the winners of the 2015 Turner Prize. The award is very often surrounded by a bout of philistine chin-stroking, encouraged by Britain’s top-of-the-league mangy tabloids: is a shark pickled in a tank really art? What about this gender-queering pottery, or these flickering light bulbs? Which puts the artist in a strange position: to loudly insist on the integrity of their work gives ground to the accusers; the best thing to do (à la Martin Creed, author of those lights going on and off ) is to maintain a smug laconicism. This time, though, the winners are happy to provide an answer: they are not artists, and will take your artistic laurels anyway. The art world has, for a long time, been very unconcerned with aesthetics, instead preferring a theory-saturated conceptualism and, latterly, the mucky-handed altruism of social practice. But the aesthetic isn’t just a matter of things looking nice. It’s a mode of engagement with objects in which a thing ceases to be itself, and starts to represent itself instead.
Alistair Hudson, one of the Turner Prize judges, commented: “In an age when anything can be art, why not have a housing estate?” This should be read less as an amicable ecumenicalism than as a statement of grim intent. Here is Walter Benjamin again, from his essay on the barricades: “The 19th century worked to emancipate the forms of construction from art, just as in the 16th century the sciences freed themselves from philosophy.” However much Assemble might insist that they are not artists, their art prize marks a retreat from that emancipation. Hundreds of people who would never have gone to Toxteth before — the critics of art, and its appreciators — are now wandering through the riot-blasted outskirts of Liverpool. Assemble must hope that they like what they see.