Walk down a street of row houses in one of Liverpool’s densely packed 19th-century neighborhoods, and you will come upon a surprise: One of the houses is missing, or rather, its walls and roof are still there, but its insides have evaporated, giving way to an open space called the Winter Garden. One rainy afternoon this summer, I was welcomed into the space by Nu Caratella—a city employee and neighborhood resident and activist—who showed us around what has become a hub for arts, craft, and organization for this multicultural community. Designed by the London-based studio collective Assemble, the Granby Street Winter Garden (which is actually on Cairn Street) is an embodiment—or disembodiment, if you will—of a new kind of architecture that sees itself as a catalyst and enabler, a connector of buildings and communities, and a way to re-imagine our cities with more beauty and access.
Granby Four Streets is the collective name for the particular part of Toxteth, a working-class area of Liverpool, that for the last decade has organized itself against the deterioration of both the physical and social structure of the area. Toxteth was one of the first areas in England to become truly multicultural during the country’s post-War boom years, but since has suffered from “white flight,” disinvestment by landlords, and a lack of both public and private attention. The 1981 Toxteth Riots exasperated the situation. The result—here as in so many first-ring suburbs around the world—was dilapidation, boarded-up houses, and both a food and jobs desert. By 1990, 150 of 200 houses in the Four Streets were abandoned.
In 2013, Assemble started working with a Community Land Trust nonprofit that local inhabitants had established in 2012. The collective did not propose new structures but instead looked, listened, and investigated. Based on conversations with the inhabitants and workshops, they then produced drawings and models whose evocative qualities not only helped the trust raise money, but also was central to Assemble winning the Turner Prize in 2015. One of the most prestigious art awards in the world, it led to considerable attention and funding for the Granby Street project.
The various members of the somewhat loose collective that is Assemble then took on various roles, ranging from design and fabrication to continued neighborhood activism. As was the case in some of their earlier projects, they helped build and fabricate the elements as part of the renovation of several houses on Granby Street, as well as the Winter Garden. They emphasized recycling and reusing existing materials, both for environmental reasons and to extend and open up the neighborhood’s familiar forms. Assemble members (they choose to work anonymously) also did more traditional design tasks, and worked with community members to research, develop, and set up a workshop nearby that produces ceramic tiles. That operation provides work and training for residents, but also has become part of Assemble’s network, providing material for other projects in which they have been involved and creating an income stream for the ongoing projects. Currently Assemble’s and the Granby Four Streets’ focus is to develop retail and restaurant facilities on Granby, the local main drag.
Central to the whole process, but also to the design of the Winter Garden and the Cairn Street renovations, is education.
“By being so open and clear,” Caratella says, “you can understand how it is made, and how you can use the space.”
The brick walls of the surrounding houses, reinforced with steel beams, rise up around a two-story space lit by a new skylight construction that mirrors the original roof. The skeleton of the second floor is present only as the wood frame, which also acts to stabilize the walls. The room that has opened up is filled with plants, creating a respite from the densely packed row houses of the Four Streets, while also evoking the winter gardens and solaria that were the favored perks of wealth British inhabitants of villas built at the same time as these working class homes. There is a surreal quality to the eruption of all this exotic green in what Assemble left as an unfinished space. It brings to mind both a primordial time before the parceling of nature into human habitations and leaves open room for future speculation.
In contrast to the rough textures of the brick and the matter-of-fact manner in which Assemble added the steel beams and other bits of reinforcement to make the space work, the detailing around the windows and casework is exquisite. Here Assemble used their own skills and knowledge, as well as that of the carpenters and fabricators with which they collaborate (some of who are part of the collective workshop that is their base of operations, currently in South London) to highlight the framing elements, connections, and the simple materials of those objects users actually touch and manipulate. In the kitchen and bathrooms, the Granby Tiles are on display, their abstractions of Arts and Crafts motifs, which were themselves meant to be human elaborations of natural forms, evoking the traditions in which Assemble is working.
There is not much more to the Winter Garden than these dramatic spatial interventions and deft material choices. It is left open and flexible, and Caratella rattled off the uses to which it is put: classes, workshops, neighborhood meetings, yoga sessions, meditation, art-making. There is an apartment on what remains of the second floor where visiting artists or advisers who advise the group in their plans to further revitalize the neighborhood can stay.
Around the Winter Garden, you can see the signs of that renovation everywhere in newly painted doors and spruced-up façades. Inside the projects Assemble has helped design, the minimal approach of revealing the existing structure, opening up spaces as much as possible, and creating moments of craft, continues, while other row houses are more conventional in their redesign.
The danger of all this work and the attention Assemble has helped the Granby Four Streets attract is of course gentrification, and there are signs of that already. Property values, Caratella says, are on the rise, and the neighborhood demographics are changing as young, more economically secure individuals and families move in. She has good hope, however, that the strength of the neighborhood activism and the love of the area that Assemble has helped enhance will keep the area economically, socially, and racially mixed while increasing economic opportunities and retail facilities.
What the Winter Garden and the Granby Four Streets exhibit is architecture as a form of activism. Paired with craft, a commitment to making beautiful spaces and objects, and an ability to use the discipline’s techniques of representation—like the watercolor drawings Assemble produced for the projects—the strategy both evokes the possibilities of situation and attracts support for that vision. It has shown itself to be a viable alternative to the notion of architecture being a service profession. The Winter Garden is a proof of concept of another mode of architecture as well as a beautiful and active place to be.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
Read more: Aaron Betsky has traveled the globe this summer, exploring disruptive ways to exhibit art at MVRDV's Depot in Rotterdam, the innovative scrappiness of Bangkok's architecture, and his preference for minimalism in a sea of bodies at the 2022 Venice Biennale.