Crystal Talk
Text: Florian HeilmeyerPhotos: Torsten Seidel, muf architecture / art


muf architecture / art
muf architecture / art

Every child knows – a baker bakes bread, you cannot buy pickles at a bookstore and architects build buildings. Right? Well, only those who cast the net of definitions far wider will catch a big fish, like “muf architecture / art”. Since its foundation in 1995, the London-based studio has only realized one “real” building. It has even recommended its clients not to build anything on several occasions when the architects were of the opinion that the task could also be solved without new buildings. Yet, it is one of the most imaginative, radical and humorous architecture studios that exists at present and just recently, its very complex projects have finally also been receiving international attention. In 2008, the architects received the European Prize for Urban Public Space and as the curators of the British Pavilion they have become something like the official national representatives of England at the 2010 Architecture Biennial in Venice. But, muf is still no normal architecture studio – and, after all, architecture can be so much more than just buildings.

muf projects always focus on the public space, even if they are about one individual building. For muf, every building forms part of a complex network in the spatial, economic and social fabric. In order to identify all these interrelations, every project starts with almost obsessive analyses: There are interviews and conversations with residents, users, passersby, clients, associations, institutions, and politicians whose wishes, requests, opinions, and interests are made visible on maps and diagrams. Following the analysis, muf develops a strategy of how it could best preserve strong points, reduce weaknesses and use potentials. It seems that muf effortlessly helps itself to the tool boxes of architecture, art, urban planning, theory and politics. “We are not anti building”, says Liza Fior, one of the four founders of muf in the interview. “As a matter of fact, we have worked on some housing projects recently. But due to the economic crisis, they will not be realized for the time being.” In any case, in the above-mentioned tool boxes buildings are only one of very many tools through which public space can be developed.

No, muf is not a conventional architecture studio. Neither was this the architects’ intention when they founded muf in 1995. The four founders were friends and colleagues asked to carry out a study for an art institution. This led to an exhibition, then a competition and their first commission. All of a sudden, they – the architects Liza Fior and Juliet Bidgood, the author Katherine Shonfield, and the artist Katherine Clarke – were expected to be a studio and they did not even have an office. muf was not set up following a business plan. Much rather, the office was an open workspace with people coming and going. This way, a well-networked platform with many contributors developed. Every project produced new constellations and muf always attached great importance to interdisciplinary exchange with external experts. Thus, in the conservative England of the 1990s, muf was a rare exception in every respect.

At the time of Richard Roger’s proclaimed “Urban Renaissance” muf did not want to be the omniscient problem solver, but an advisor and moderator in a participatory process. Many of its early projects look like a purely intellectual critique of the consumption-oriented dealing with public space. Observers who were welldisposed towards muf, often perceived these working methods as bizarre or idealistic. Others, who were less well-disposed, considered the four women radical leftist political activists, eccentrics or feminists as almost all people working for muf were women. Overall, speculations were running wild and every resolved rumor was followed by three new ones. “We refused to talk about our gender and allowed misinterpretations of what ‘muf’ might mean”, is how they put it in their book. “We were complicit in the myth and brushed our hair for photo shoots.”

At the same time, many observers lost their interest in muf, because they did not know how to label the architects – they did not build anything, did not comment on the role of women any more, and their complex, elaborate projects hardly ever produced any spectacular pictures which would have been easy to sell. Simultaneously, muf became more and more convinced that it was heading in the right direction. In the foreword of the architects’ book “this is what we do – a muf manual” (2001), you find the following chapter: “How to have the front to not build buildings but still call yourself an architect”. In it, they say: “Buildings are considered to be the target, wherever you are on the trajectory that begins with a kitchen extension and ends with a museum.”

Freed from the constraint of having to build something, muf developed alternatives for the public space of English cities by means of artistic strategies. In its “Wide” project (1998), the public spaces in particularly bleak social housing estate were aimed to be improved with artworks. muf, however, started off by inviting artists in order to explore the potential and the history of the spaces: Residents were asked for their dreams, wishes and demands. Dream spaces were projected on large-format photographs in the middle of the brick-colored social reality of England; a flock of sheep grazed on the unused lawns and showed that the customary notion of an idyll was not out of reach. Yes, smirking was allowed, because laughing benefits the patient.

More than once muf’s thorough analyses resulted in the need to expand the brief or the area. This was also the case with “Shared Ground” (2001): The public spaces along Southwark Street, which are in close vicinity to Tate Modern, were supposed to be redesigned. muf interviewed 100 residents and identified a multifaceted landscape of dreams which extended far beyond the envisaged territory. Subsequently, it realized a series of permanent and temporary improvements, reduced the space for cars, and, in turn, enlarged the sidewalk on the sunny side of the street. The comprehensive the work and the spectacular its content, the unspectacular mufs interventions often look. After thorough analyses sometimes small improvements are all it takes to achieve great effects. It is part of muf’s philosophy that it is only through close looking that you can recognize the entire complexity of a situation.

Many muf projects concern spaces in the immediate surroundings of large-scale urban development projects. After Tate Modern, it won the competition for the design of the open space around the Millennium Dome. “We wanted to offer an alternative to the Dome as a singular object and to the purely anecdotic quality of the open spaces – it was a frustrating project”, they write later on. The investor already got suspicious because of the conversations with residents, initiatives, politicians and associations; the gathered ideas for ice-skating rinks and playgrounds and an opening in the cupola was the final straw for the cooperation after only nine months. At the moment muf is involved in as many as four projects near the new Olympic Quarter in London. The studio has earned itself quite a good reputation as an expert for these urban “intersections” where it aims to link the great leaps of development with their surroundings in a sustainable and socially acceptable way. In the case of “High Street 2012”, money was supposed to be invested in the embellishment of the Olympic Marathon Route.

“Our plan is to create spaces for grace and pleasure. Places that connect with the past and that recognize the street as a social space.”

With its “Barking Town Project”, which won the European Prize for Urban Public Space in 2008, muf attracted international attention for the first time. In Barking, a suburb of London, they designed an eclectic square in the best sense of the word, which makes reference to its built, historical and social environment in an imaginative as well as thoughtful and cheeky way. A tiny forest with 16 different types of trees is illuminated gently at night, some remaining bricks of Barking’s demolished buildings have been used to build a wall that looks like a ruin and, with the sculpture of a sheep towering on its top, reminds us of Barking’s past. On the one hand, an arcade with black-and-white Terrazzo flooring is reminiscent of the Grandezza of Edwardian era in London, and on the other hand it connects the square with the new high street. Here, the arcade is the only one of its kind that does not accommodate any stores – it is simply a beautiful, roofed public space.

muf respects existing structures and does not predetermine the use of newly designed spaces. Therefore, it is so important to first make existing networks of people, buildings, and the history of a place visible without immediately judging them. The “Villa Frankenstein” in Venice works with these references, too. On the basis of John Ruskin’s “Stones of Venice”, it shows the transfer of ideas between England and Venice that has been taking place since the 19th century. To reanimate this exchange, muf has cooperated with numerous project partners in Venice, the philosopher Wolfgang Scheppe, for example, and the two environmental experts Jane da Mosto and Lorenzo Bonometto who have installed a fully functional lagoon landscape – even including tides – on the terrace of the British Pavilion. The main hall features a wooden model of London’s new Olympic Stadium on a scale of 1:10. Room-filling. In this room, which is called “The Stadium of Close Looking”, school children and students can take painting classes – for one cannot start early enough to look at things closely.