A glimpse of Grayson Perry's House for Essex. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Grayson Perry’s new house is a dollop of architectural fun

Cult figure Grayson Perry has won over the locals with his eccentric House for Essex.

At the end of Black Boy Lane, a farm track sneaking out of the northern Essex village of Wrabness (population: 400), two bouncers wearing black suits and wrap-around sunglasses are guarding a gate. The muscle, seemingly imported from the fleshpot nightclubs of Basildon or Romford, isn’t there to protect a local pop star or footie player but a celebrity of another kind – the artist Grayson Perry.

Behind the two men, Perry, in male artist mode rather than female partygoer attire, is holding forth about his latest jeu d’esprit, a small, intricately tiled building – part gingerbread house, part wayside chapel – sitting at the edge of a field that slopes gently down to the River Stour, with Suffolk resting on the opposite bank. A House for Essex, or “Julie’s house”, is a collaboration between the potter/tapestry-maker and the FAT architectural practice – a part of the Living Architecture scheme, dreamt up by Alain de Botton so that people can rent out holiday homes designed by “world-class” practitioners. People, in this instance, will need to stump up £1,800 for a three-night stay.

What they get for their money is a trim, two-bedroom property constructed from four boxes of descending scale, something akin to an architectural Russian doll. The roof is covered with a shiny copper alloy and decorated with sculptural finials. The walls are clad with 1,925 ceramic tiles, each cast with Perry-style fetish symbols: a nappy pin, a cassette tape, a heart and a scooter wheel.

Inside, there hangs a series of tapestries, above which looms a life-size statue of a woman of substantial girth. It’s a bit Game of Thrones meets The Hobbit, or, to mangle the metaphors further, a “Taj Mahal upon the Stour”, as Perry puts it.

To justify the building’s appearance and explain the iconography, Perry invented the story of Julie Cope – a fictional Essex Everywoman whose story takes us from her birth (on Canvey Island in 1953) to her death (in 2014, after she was hit by a curry delivery scooter), stopping on the way for two marriages, children, a career as a social worker and homes that filter her away from the conurbations of estuary Essex and up into the county’s rural hinterland (Julie’s gravestone stands in the back garden of the house). Her social mobility, reckons Perry – an Essex man – is archetypal and Julie’s house doubles as a pilgrimage shrine to a woman who represents innumerable unsung heroines.

The backstory is an elaborate justification for a dollop of architectural fun. As Perry notes, “Minimalism is the new kitsch.” Who knows how much the artist believes in Julie’s story, or in his claim that the house is “a three-dimensional musing on religion, local history, feminism, happiness and death” (let alone the architect’s supposed influences, ranging from the arts and crafts movement to the English baroque)?

The house has won over local people. A presentation by Perry at the nearby community centre, during which he pointed out that he didn’t intend “to socially engineer Wrabness”, was the turning point.

What is certain is that the pilgrims who make the journey to this distant corner of Essex are unlikely to be devotees of the martyred Julie, but rather of the bouncer-protected cult of Grayson Perry. 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times