Grayson Perry’s new public sculpture sheds light on Britain’s housing woes

Grayson Perry's Inspiration Lives Here in east London - Thierry Bal
Grayson Perry's Inspiration Lives Here in east London - Thierry Bal

As the London renting crisis continues to spiral, Grayson Perry’s new public sculpture in Barking offers a reminder of how much better things could be. Touted by the artist as a “small monument to social housing”, Inspiration Lives Here (2022) is a scaled-down metallic rendering of two pairs of semi-detached houses – modelled on the Arts and Crafts-style dwellings of the nearby Becontree Estate, a cottage estate built by the London County Council in the interwar years.

The buildings, positioned back-to-back, are perched atop a platform in the shape of a bird table. The whole thing has a charmingly rough-hewn feel: wonky lines for doors and windows, schematic outlines of trees and hedges, a matchstick boy kicking a little circle in a front yard. This is intentional. Perry wanted it to look like a painted cardboard model, handmade and humble. At the unveiling of the sculpture this morning, he contrasted it with the dismally identikit pieces of so-called “plop art” – usually big, abstract and shiny – that appear in plazas and parks across the globe. “Stainless steel,” he said, “gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

When darkness falls, the lights in the homes flicker on. The sculpture is transformed into a glowing lamp, illuminating the main courtyard of an even more remarkable residential site – an affordable housing project called A House for Artists. This five-storey structure, which opened at the end of last year, is a purpose-built block containing a dozen homes as well as shared outdoor and working spaces. Its residents are all artists (and their families or friends), who pay Barking and Dagenham Council just 65 per cent of market rent in exchange for their participation in an on-site public-art programme. At the time of writing, that’s between £825.93 and £1088.22 per calendar month, depending on the number of beds.

Designed by architectural duo Apparata, A House for Artists has been closely linked to Perry from the start: its name refers to A House for Essex, his 2015 public artwork-slash-holiday villa in Wrabness, while the artist is on the panel that selects the Barking building’s residents. Visually, their aesthetics couldn’t be more different. While Perry favours the whimsical and homespun, A House for Artists is all industrial cool: full-height glass walls; large slabs of concrete; cut-out geometric shapes punctuating a lofty exterior.

But at their cores, Perry’s sculpture and the adjacent building share an urgent conviction: that safe, stable housing should be affordable and accessible for all, precarious cultural workers included. Now I’m just waiting for someone to build A House for Critics.

Inspiration Lives Here was commissioned by Create London. Info: createlondon.org