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Saturday Interview: The woman who commissions the artists, designers and builders involved in the project that won this year's Turner Prize

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Jersey girl Xanthe Hamilton, who commissioned the artists, designers and builders involved in the project that has won this year’s Turner Prize, talks to Toby Chiang

A LITTLE over two years ago Jersey girl Xanthe Hamilton picked a run-down street in Liverpool with a simple mission in mind: to work with the few people who lived among dozens of derelict houses to refurbish properties and re-establish a community.

It is the kind of positive social enterprise that would not normally be given a huge amount of attention by anyone who was not involved.

However, this week in Glasgow the small group of young architects, designers and builders who Miss Hamilton commissioned to help with the scheme became the winners of the 2015 Turner Prize – arguably the most prestigious award for contemporary art in Britain.

What was all but an abandoned street, condemned and listed for demolition following the Toxteth riots in 1981, has been turned into a thriving community, while also being recognised as a major statement in the art world.

[figure caption="31st Turner Prize winner Assemble

Picture: Press Association" title="Turner Prize 2015" align="right" url="/wpmvc/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/assemble.jpg" id="1704111" size="100"]

The high-profile award has prompted debate and controversy since its creation in 1984 and Monday's announcement continued that trend.

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It was awarded to Assemble, a collective of 18 designers, who are all in their mid-20s.

They worked to help refurbish properties in Liverpool's Granby Four Streets and also set up a workshop to make bespoke items for the newly redecorated homes.

They were commissioned by Miss Hamilton (36), who began the project with her company, ethical community developers Steinbeck Studio, which was looking for opportunities for a client investor.

Picture: Assemble/ Tate Britain

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Speaking from her east London home, the former Jersey College for Girls student, who is also a former director of the Branchage Film Festival, said: 'We were delighted, of course.

'When we set out to do the project we hadn't aimed to do an "art" project, so the whole journey has had quite an unexpected twist in the tale.

'We are over the moon and couldn't have asked for a better outcome, really.

'In the UK there's quite an extreme housing crisis for many different reasons and there's been some bad housing policy in the past.

'A lot of homes stand empty from failed housing renewal schemes.

'The figures change, but I think at the moment there are something like 400,000 houses tinned up – stripped out with metal placed over the windows – across the UK.

'We set out to try to address this problem, firstly to restore and bring back long-term empty houses into use, but also to take care in doing so while working with the community.

'The project has been about the people who are going to live there, rather than having a developer coming in and saying this is what we want to build and we will sell these homes to strangers.

'A community that cares about where they live makes it great place to live and cares about its people.

'We think working with the people who are going to live in a place is as critical as what the buildings are like themselves.

'Once we had worked out what we wanted to do, that's when we found Granby Four Streets.

'But we had looked around the country before that, mainly at post-industrial cities where the majority of these empty houses exist.'

Work on the housing project in Liverpool's Granby Four Streets

Working alongside Save Britain's Heritage and with help from an architecture expert, Islander Marcus Binney, Miss Hamilton chose Liverpool – the home of her 93-year-old grandmother – and began the development process.

The 36-year-old, who studied social sciences at Bath University before becoming a documentary filmmaker, said that Granby Four Streets was a very special place and explained that Steinbeck Studio had made a substantial interest-free loan to the Granby Community Land Trust to fund the project.

Describing the area, she said: 'Firstly there were quite a lot of people still living there who had lived with 20 years of dereliction and empty houses.

'But about every ten or 15 doors there would be people, mainly these amazing women, who had lived there and campaigned to keep the houses standing.

'They were the only reason they hadn't been demolished.

'They had this grand vision to refurbish the whole street, so there was already this momentum and force of life there.

'We wanted to work with them and we absolutely shared the same goals and definitely shared a vision with the residents about how great the area could be.

'The first thing we did was to commission Assemble to draw up illustrations for refurbishing the area.

'As soon as people could see what the street could be, it was easier to get people involved.

'I say it was easy, but this all took years.

'Once we were all aiming for this image, things started to happen and the council and other housing associations wanted to invest money into the area.

'The council also started to sell houses there for £1.

'They transferred land to the local Community Land Trust and the project was off and virtually every house – about 150 – was being refurbished.

'Another thing we did early on there was to buy one of the homes at an early stage to show we were committed to the area.

'That became a base and community hub from which Assemble started a craft workshop.

'The Turner Prize nomination came and that kick-started this workshop, where crafts and things were made to go into the homes, things like mantlepieces and kitchen work surfaces.

'Hand-crafting these items brought an extra level of detail and care in and also allowed people in the community the opportunity to make things, which also led to employment.'

Picture: Press Association

Assemble's victory in this year's Turner Prize has been welcomed by some and called a 'peculiar' nomination by others.

BBC arts editor Will Gompertz, who tipped the group to win, said this year's competition had reached a high not seen for a long time

'Is it art?' he wrote.

'Does it matter? If somebody turning on and off lights can win the Turner Prize, why shouldn't somebody trying to re-energise a neglected part of an inner city win?'

It's a question that Miss Hamilton, the daughter of church lay reader Helen and cancer drug researcher Gary, has also wrestled with.

Miss Hamilton said: 'I think there will probably be opposition to this year's Turner Prize.

'People are saying, is this art?

'It's not in a gallery and these people didn't go to the Royal College of Art.

'We loved Assemble's work, even though they had never done a housing project.

'We loved their approach to design.

'They have a hands-on approach and we wanted to apply that to a housing scheme, but never imagined it would go this far.

'I think what has made this flourish is people having an opportunity to be creative, and those people being supported and encouraged in their vision.

'I think the message that I hope people might get in Jersey is that people who work in the arts as artists or designers really need to be helped and encouraged and given opportunities – especially young up-and-coming people, as that's where radical and amazing ideas can come from.

'Arts and culture are key elements for any community or place, but their value is hard to measure and can't always be justified on the balance books.

'But they have a power and ability to make people love living somewhere and this makes a huge difference.

'The Granby Four Streets area is also one of the oldest black areas in the country.

'From the 1820s it started to attract black settlers, so the history, heritage and diversity of the community is really important.

'I think this was beyond anybody's expectation.

'People have put their whole lives into this and have campaigned for almost 20 years.

'These houses were earmarked for demolition after the Toxteth riots in 1981 and campaigning and resisting demolition has been a huge part of residents' lives.

'This is what they deserve.

'To go from being threatened with demolition to being nominated for the Turner Prize is quite a journey.'

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