BY Kester Rattenbury in Frieze | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

Eager beavers

Art and architecture collective Muf

BY Kester Rattenbury in Frieze | 09 SEP 01

In a profession predicated upon the belief that the answer is always a building, the all-female art/architecture collaborative Muf are known for not actually building things. The title of their new book This Is What We Do (2001) is a response to years of journalists and jealous contemporaries, maddened at their high profile within the architectural community, continually asking the same question: 'but what have they actually built?'

For young practices, not making buildings is partly inevitable - architects are unlikely to get a decent commission until they are well past 40. But as young architects spend their lives struggling to move beyond small collaborative or ephemeral designs, a firm that appears successfully to enjoy non-building seems infuriating and perverse.

This Is What We Do is an unusually well-written and enjoyable scrapbook-variant of architects' inevitable books about themselves. Its content is also certain to be endlessly harried by professionals crying 'but is it architecture?' Indeed, the book embraces such arguments, incorporating as its frontispiece a fax from Blueprint magazine describing Muf's 'magnificent achievements' - designing a park bench and taking a photograph. 'Is this the future of architecture as we know it?' asks Blueprint.

The answer so far has been: yes. Late 20th-century radical architecture has a strong history of architecture not necessarily meaning a building - just think of the two British revolutionary greats Archigram and Cedric Price (famous for telling clients they didn't need a building, they needed a new computer, or a divorce, and whose unbuilt Fun Palace was the model for the Pompidou Centre). But in the last ten years it's the art/architecture collaborative that has been shifting steadily to the foreground of architecture's radical new wave - and at the same time has swamped mainstream architectural commissioning.

Design briefs for anything to do with public space, particularly in London, now almost always require an artist on the team. Likewise, many artists are given jobs that would formerly have been assigned to architects or landscape architects - Richard Wentworth designing the space around Walsall's New Art Gallery is a typical example.

To many architects it seems that artists have it easy: more status, less responsibility. (Indeed, architecture's quasi-artistic, professional status was born in the Italian Renaissance, when architecture moved into artists' studios and adopted named authorship - beating the anonymous, craft-based, collective cathedral workshops of the north hands down.) When artists do the job of architects - or when architects are employed in the capacity of artists - a project manager is usually employed to do all the dirty work.

The current art/architecture imperative is the convergence of two very different streams. One comes from the Percent for Art policy, an aesthetic public sop to large commercial development. The other comes from a radical movement in architecture schools since the 1970s, which has encouraged the use of art practices, particularly those associated with Conceptual art, in order to discover new creative possibilities in a very restrictive and moribund profession. Taken together, this means there has been money available for small experimental architecture practices to make art projects far more readily than to make buildings.

Full time art/architecture collaboratives are rare, but it is notable that the two that have led the UK architectural avant-garde for the last five years - Muf and Fat - both have artists as key members and collaborators: Muf have worked with David Shrigley, Adam Chodzko, Catherine Yass and others; Fat with Peter Blake, Gilbert and George, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Julian Opie, Richard Wentworth and Jane and Louise Wilson on their collectible shopping bags for Carnaby Street. Both Fat and Muf are also movers in the world of 'community collaboration', which previously wallowed in the aesthetic doldrums. Indeed, Muf have made something of a name for themselves in re-inventing this niche as a creative and aesthetically ambitious area. If they hadn't been sacked, the Local Zone in the Dome would have been by far Muf's largest building project. They were 'horrified' to be selected, and pitched a suggestion based on diverting much of the funding to 'real' local projects and stretching a bit of the fabric dome over an ice-rink located part inside, part outside - typical Muf moves. Their book, which exposes the trials and humour of working life, also introduces the peculiar position the art/architecture role has put them in - as providers of 'useful art'. It is a predicament they might resist, but can't really escape: on one occasion they were effectively brought in as rubberstamp 'art' for a community in Scotland that really wanted play equipment.

If Muf have been criticized for lack of substance, Fat have won both fame and opprobrium for their adoption of popular taste and low culture in the design of very real buildings. Projects featuring Baywatch huts painted gold, or spangly mini-castles in Northumberland, readily have the architectural world up in arms. Where Muf are thought delightful but elusive, Fat deliberately trample on the architectural profession's curious, arcane notions of authenticity and morality. (Theme park projects have been popular in schools for at least five years; but to design a themed castle using real rather than fake stone is deemed horrifying.)

It would be unfair to judge either Muf or Fat in terms of straight art or straight architecture, since these are both obviously different disciplines. Perhaps both groups have earned the right to be considered on their own cross-disciplinary terms in a world where the symbolic or functional usefulness of art is both driving imperative and a major problem and where the old minefield of public versus educated taste is very much alive. Incidentally, though it doesn't rustle up a finished building anywhere, Muf's lovely-looking and very readable book is the best description of being an architect I've ever read.