'Five years to do 10 chuffing houses!' – meet the guerrilla gardeners of Granby

'Five years to do 10 chuffing houses!' – meet the guerrilla gardeners of Granby

From the outside, they look like any other houses in the street, with their big bay windows framed by chunky liver-coloured sandstone, and bright-blue front doors in brick-arched openings. But there’s something strange going on. You can see the sky through the first-floor windows, and exotic leaves are pressing up against the panes. Step inside and, rather than a standard two-up two-down, you’re confronted with a lush scene of ferns, lilies and full-sized beech trees, while fronds of star jasmine wind up the stair banisters towards a greenhouse roof.

This is the Granby Winter Garden, the latest phase of architecture collective Assemble’s work in Liverpool. This innocuous street of terraced houses was catapulted to worldwide acclaim by the 2015 Turner prize. Assemble, a young practice, won the hallowed gong after a group of plucky residents took control of their street, having endured decades of “managed decline” that had seen the neighbourhood abandoned by the council and left to rot.

It was an intoxicating David-and-Goliath tale: a band of angry women taking on the authorities, organising guerrilla gardening and a street market, hatching a plan for a community land trust (CLT), and getting Assemble involved to transform abandoned houses into beautiful, permanently affordable homes. Easy as that, hugs and teary eyes all round.

'Five years to do 10 chuffing houses!' – meet the guerrilla gardeners of Granby

The reality wasn’t quite so simple. “It was bloody hard work,” says Eleanor Lee, who has lived on Cairns Street for 46 years, a few doors down from the winter garden. It was Lee, now 70, who finally cracked back in the mid-noughties, after years of seeing her neighbourhood fall into disrepair, taking a pickaxe to the pavement to start planting ivy in front of some abandoned houses. “It’s taken a lot longer and been a lot harder to pull off than we ever thought.”

When I first visited Granby, in November 2014, Assemble was planning to have the first 10 homes done up by March. Winning the Turner prize the following year brought a deluge of journalists – and international collectors asking if they could buy the houses. But it didn’t speed things up. Five years later, the homes have just been finished. “Five years to do 10 chuffing houses,” sighs resident Hazel Tilley, 64. “There were delays on every front – delays with the builders, delays with funding, delays in our knowledge, delays with the council. It’s nearly 29 years since I first got involved and I’m knackered.”

Their frustrations and fury have paid off. There are still a few tinned-up buildings on the street, but the CLT homes now stand out with smartly painted bay windows in chalky shades of blue, green and grey, providing homes for those most in need at affordable rents that will be tied to local wages for ever. Half of the houses were for sale and half for rent, priced at £99,000 to buy or £480 per month to rent – almost half the amount being charged by private landlords in the Welsh Streets nearby.

'Five years to do 10 chuffing houses!' – meet the guerrilla gardeners of Granby

“It’s a dream come true,” says Emily Alexander, 33, who moved in to one of the first houses with her 11-year-old daughter. “I lived in this street when I was six, back when it was all slum landlords and rats, and they were trying to get everyone out. It’s amazing to come back and see the place transformed.”

She’s sitting in her living room, where open shelves partly screen the room from the hall and a handsome fireplace made of “Granby rock” envelops the hearth. This gritty, colourful concrete was made with aggregate from demolished houses nearby, one of the many experimental techniques devised by Granby Workshop, an architectural ceramics studio Assemble set up at the end of the street (and into which they ploughed their Turner £25,000 prize money), which also produced barbecue-smoked ceramic doorknobs and colourful tiles for the bathrooms.

It has since evolved into a thriving enterprise, employing local young people to produce everything from slip-cast cups to marbled encaustic tiles, desirable wares that have been exhibited from Venice to Tokyo. They’re currently developing a ceramics range from 100% recycled material, with clay cleverly derived from the leftover sludge scraped from the filters in toilet factories, which usually goes to landfill.

'Five years to do 10 chuffing houses!' – meet the guerrilla gardeners of Granby

But it is the stealthy winter garden that is the hidden star of the street, an idea that Assemble came up with when they walked into a derelict house on nearby Ducie Street only to find a full-sized tree growing out of the living room floor. “It was a magical moment,” says Anthony Engi Meacock, 32, who led the design of the project. They produced a seductive image of a tropical palm house inside the raw brick shell of the house (on show in this year’s Royal Academy summer exhibition), which became a powerful symbol of new life springing from the ruins – and a useful tool to woo the Arts Council to fund the project.

When a pair of houses in Cairns Street proved to be beyond repair, with most of their roofs and floors missing, they became the ideal site for the winter garden. One now has a dramatic triple-height volume, filled with plants, while the other accommodates a project space, common room and community kitchen on the ground floor, as well as a flat above – used by an artist-in-residence for half the year and rented out via Airbnb the rest of the year to pay for upkeep. So far, they have hosted wreath- and lantern-making workshops, while their first artist, Nina Edge, has bestowed the space with a six-foot crystal chandelier that dangles among the tree leaves.

'Five years to do 10 chuffing houses!' – meet the guerrilla gardeners of Granby

Assemble have created a spellbinding space, where evocative traces of the former houses mingle with their crisp new insertions, the raw brick shell engulfed by plants that will only get thicker and more rampant with time. With the floors removed, you can see the curving form of the bare-brick chimney breasts, which come together as they rise, forming a gothic arch of sorts on the flank wall, lending the space a church-like air.

The architects have made a tight budget go a long way, using an off-the-peg greenhouse roof and painting steel bracing rings bright blue, in reference to Victorian palm houses, and swirling cosmic tiles by Granby Workshop in the bathroom. In a surreal touch upstairs, a stable door from the apartment opens on to naked floor joists, echoing where a bedroom door may once have been. In a small yard around the back, cheery yellow tiles line a rainwater pond, next to a potting shed that will serve the garden, and also be used to propagate plants for the street and neighbourhood.

“It’s a space for the community more than anything else,” says Lee, who, with the rest of the CLT group, is busy planning the next phase of work with Assemble: building a corner shop and cafe at the end of the street, with affordable apartments above, on the site of a collapsed building. “It’s a place to plot, make and create, centred around how it all began – gardening.”