How do you develop a city-wide strategy when you are fascinated by the detail of things? And how can you make something small-scale in the here and now if you are driven by the urge to formulate strategic proposals for the future? In a sense, this conundrum has always presented itself to the architect-planner. Abercrombie was one of the foremost and most famous of this limited breed. If you look at the popular version (as retold by Ernö Goldfinger) of his 1945 plan for London today, you are struck by the tangible immediacy of Abercrombie’s propositions – from the scale of a flat to the palpable quality of the city-encompassing green belt. I say that the architect-planner is a limited breed: yet one of the most influential documents of recent urban history – the report of the government-appointed task-force called Towards an Urban Renaissance – is a clarion call for just such a design-driven over-view of British cities. It is in this context that I want to start to look at some of the implications of muf’s work, exploring
a number of new ‘takes’ on the relationship between the material reality of the small-scale detail and the strategic vision within muf’s work that could be considered a possible paradigm for the operations of the architect-planner. Two 'takes' are considered in tandem.
The first ‘take’ concerns a special process in muf’s work which stands in marked contrast to the methodologies of other urban strategists, who invariably move from general themes to particular instances. muf’s work, on the other hand, develops the particular to the general and back to the particular (which final formulation they normally term an exemplar). It is expressed in the formula d/s = D (detail/strategy = DETAIL) and can be described in abstraction:
1) The close interrogation of the up close and personal (detail)
2) The extraction of what the personal can tell you about the general (strategy)
3) The reformulation of the strategy in the here and now: a small-scale construction of a future ‘what if …’ (DETAIL). The second ‘take’ – both interrelated with and expressive of the methodology
d/s = D – is the principle of premature gratification, which colours both the content of muf’s work and the timing and nature of their architectural, artistic and strategic production.
The project A Car-Free London? 1 presents a fairly clear example of how the two ‘takes’ work in practice. To formulate an overall strategy for getting rid of the car, first you interrogate the car itself (detail). What are its seductions? Why do we cling to it? Explored up close and personal, the car gives comfort, reassurance, luxury and glamour – instantaneously. muf’s strategy is to get in among this feeling. Abercrombie reputedly used to ask to have an aeroplane circle round any city he was approaching for the first time, so that he could formulate his initial proposals. Instead of swanning in from on high and retaining that moral ground associated with height, muf try to tune into those aspects of the urban experience that the distancing and technical methods of analysis, concomitant with moving from the general to the particular, inevitably fudge. They try, in other words, to be a lot more precise.
What is special is that muf’s initial examination of the detail is unencumbered by the habitual detachment of the strategist. Uncoincidentally, this is one of the crucial ways in which muf’s work incorporates successful contemporary art practice, which is characterised by the ability to record minutely what is, while remaining unworried by what should be. The habitual detachment of the strategist, on the other hand, is not just an inevitable function of Abercrombie-style quasi-physical distance. It is engendered by the spectre of policy-making lurking in the wings, the sense that there is a predetermined problem and all your efforts must entail coming up with a solution. muf’s work with detail aims to shed that imperative: at that stage of the work, it is no more relevant than it would be to an artist intent solely on observing the world. In A Car-Free London?, this then allows muf to recognise, and more importantly, to understand, the sensation of clunking the door, turning on the music, sinking into the leather, caressing the dashboard, in the face of the detached tut-tutting of the policy maker. The result is the understanding that it, the car, is your destination, within a matter of seconds
before you even go anywhere else, without delay. muf understands the car as a both a case of premature gratification and a demonstration of premature gratification’s success as a design principle. The pleasure of arrival is not deferred and the car is a site of premature gratification.
A key difference between contemporary art practice and architecture, though, is embedded in the strategic stage of the work and indeed in the very idea of a strategy itself. The ‘what ifs …’ posited by muf, by contrast with their detail research, are driven by an urgency to ‘make the world a better place’, and to engage fully with policy-making in practice. As a rule in muf’s projects, this involves the transformation of observed sensations of immediate gratification, generalising from them, and then recasting them from the individual and private to something which is freely and publicly available. The Car-Free London? strategy of the detail of the car writ large on the city, then, seeks urban, public-scale, premature gratification. It means ending delays. muf’s tram loop seamlessly meets the suburban train at its city terminals: the eye is delighted instantly.
It receives and celebrates the entrance into the city, and wipes out the usual deferral of the pleasure of entrance via the subway’s familiar descent to the rarely fulfilled fantasy of car driving: the feeling of wellbeing in sweeping into the city centre on the motorway, the celebration of arrival.
But there is more to this. The muf formula is detail/strategy = DETAIL, meaning the utopian projections of strategy are simultaneously understood through the transformation of a tiny piece of the here-and-now, DETAIL, capital letters. So in A Car-Free London?, the DETAIL which derives from the interrogation of the detail, mediated by strategy, is the production of the T-shirt which glorifies the cult of the dashboard. It’s a small bit of the future, the hereafter when walnut dashboards are featured on The Antiques Road Show. When you put on the T-shirt, you get into the imagined future of someone who will walk tall in an era yet to come.
So strategy derives from the up-close look at the up close and personal; and DETAIL from an up-close look at a strategic ‘what if …’. DETAIL is a kind of premature gratification of a utopian longing. More polemically, maybe,
this is seen in the Scarman Trust project with people in Birmingham 2. This group, called Law, Learning, and Leisure (lll), had already got together before muf/Scarman came on the scene. They secured a lease on a run-down building because they were going to create an advice, leisure centre and social club for themselves and others with similar experiences. Their first architectural act was not to secure the roof or the structure, but to install a sauna. The idea here is that the gratification of the whole completed project is experienced prematurely: up close and personal in the wellbeing of the body relaxing in heat. It’s like starting your meal with the best bit. It is the antithesis of the mentality of 1940s and 1950s town planning. Then, the smoked salmon and asparagus rarely made their presence felt and the dry outlines of ghostly place settings, viewed from an immense distance, were the only sense of meals to come.
In practical terms, this immediate realisation of the transformation of a place is the spur towards its extension: it makes you want to eat more because the hors d’oeuvres tasted so good. Thus the strategy of successful urban regeneration itself – how you do it, in other words –
is itself a strategy of premature gratification. Do the best, most sensual and seductive bit first – and fast. Again there is a contemporary art sensibility at work: muf’s detail method allows them to observe how the world beyond the limitations of professionals finds its own ways. The professionalism, though, is important: it comes through muf’s ability to generalise and proselytise from others’ insights, to allow these insights some gravitas in the world of officialdom.
Interestingly, we can understand muf’s revisions to the client-architect relationship, that have so far been most radically questioned in the Birmingham projects, in a similar way. The architects put themselves into the position of servants to the client to really try to understand the purport and specificity of what the client is saying, and what they want, rather than prejudging by performing a force-fit into a meta structure of urban regeneration. The client in these projects is the supervisor: in the terms of this discussion the specific detail of their needs and how they themselves frame them constitute the detail to be interrogated, from which the general strategy emerges – and which then feeds back as the exemplar DETAIL.
muf’s Birmingham project for a playground of strips which accrete over time emerges as a literal microcosm of this process. The careful up-close and personal observation of the supervisor’s reality – the lack of money, of a playground, of a normative site – leads to the strategy of building the strip of playground you can afford each year.
So while the norm under money restrictions would be to tarmac the designated area and get the play equipment as and when, at a future date, both the notion of the exemplar DETAIL and the doctrine of premature gratification mitigate against this approach. Using money to prepare the site for goodies to be supplied at a future date is revealed in the same light as making the mashed potato in a shepherd’s pie while waiting indefinitely for the mince. Instead, DETAIL starts with a tasty strip of playthings – restricted, but complete and immediately satisfying in itself.
It becomes clear that the principle of premature gratification in tandem with the equation about process, detail/strategy = DETAIL, in and of itself both challenges the principle of tabula rasa in urban regeneration.
It also, though, challenges the piecemeal: it is important to note that the existence of the exemplar DETAIL is understood as a spur to take the risks of a large-scale ‘what if …’ strategy. Premature gratification is about both-and, not either/or.
In muf’s work the fashionable mantra ‘including the excluded’ applies as much to the unloved, unregarded detritus of urban life as it does to the notion of a supervisor client. For them, in urban renewal, as in divorce and marriage, the wholesale excision of the past only leads to uncritical nostalgia for it, the moment it has gone 3. Such excision fuels the appropriations of the heritage industry in all its manifestations. Nostalgia’s sentimental sense of loss is anathema to premature gratification and its seizure of pleasures for the here and now. muf’s work depends on the observation, the accretion and the expansion of what is already here: people, their circumstances, the physical world of the city, and its circumstances. In the case of the Stoke project, The Pleasure Garden of the Utilities 4, this is quite literal. The personal, the detail of the domestic willow-pattern service, is literally writ large on the surface of the new ceramic bench.
The point is that the fragility and temporary qualities of the personal are made robust and public and available to all. The past that has gone is thus symbolically remade, valued and included in the present, transformed but absolutely recognisable. So the equation detail/strategy = DETAIL forces a paradoxical recognition of the universality of the detail, the up close and personal.
The Pleasure Garden of the Utilities encapsulates a further questioning of the assumption that strategy and detail are generically, qualitatively and aesthetically disjointed. Much of muf’s work unpicks what is assumed to be deeply personal and individual, and reveals it to be both personal and at the same time a source of social solidarity, that yearned-for thing ‘community’ that we are in the habit of trying to impose from above. This is polemically expressed in associate, the Walsall art project 5. It used the experience of falling in love at first sight to release the experience of social solidarity between the young and the old through this most universal of experiences. The project sets up a public and individual domestic interior where you talk personally: and your story is transmitted on TV to others.
In transmission, it becomes mythologised, in the sense that writing the individual experience large gives it mythic status like Odysseus and Helen, Posh and Becks. associate unearthed the arbitrary beginnings of relationships that were very important: it celebrated the unplanned chances of falling in love.
Initiated as a self-conscious utopian mechanism to provoke old and young to make friends, it revealed incidentally the marvels of the city, both in the past and in the here and now, as unwitting love broker by virtue of its accommodation of, and absent-minded engendering of, unplanned moments. The project concerns not future, but past gratifications, brought into the immediate present through celebration. It works both ways: recognition of human common ground demands public space to celebrate and declaim mutuality, so the unique tales of love were publicised to the whole of Walsall, by being projected adjacent to the New Art Gallery Walsall, as stories in which Walsall itself had a crucial role.
The principle of premature gratification has other very tangible, and sensual, architectural manifestations in muf’s technique of the ‘grab’.
An architectural mechanism which allows you simultaneous spatial experiences is a recurrent element in a number of muf projects. But this is the very opposite of modernist attempts to blur the distinction between inside and outside, to blunt the opposition between public and private: its poignancy depends on maintaining the differences of both at one and the same time.
In the spirit of both-and, the Hypocaust building at St Albans 6 grabs in both nature and the urban to be consumed within the building – magnified and presented again to you as an additional present, it gratifies your desire for the outside. And vice versa: as a stroller in the park the vitrine allows a revelation of interior secrets: the contained, precious Roman mosaic, the last domestic relic to be found in Verulamium, is glimpsed among trees and grass. A leitmotif of the Museum of Women’s Art and other unbuilt muf projects, such as the Walsall Art Gallery submission, are windows that poke out deep into the street, like hugely exaggerated bays, and their inverse: windows that allowed people in the street to walk, as it were, deep into the building.
The windows mean that the building grabs the street and the street grabs the building: you can be in the street and in the gallery and in the gallery and in the street. You don’t have to wait for your street or your gallery or your mosaic or your park: you get your gratification both simultaneously and prematurely.
It’s probably obvious that muf’s refused project for the Millennium Dome 7 presents the greatest challenge to both the methodology detail/strategy=DETAIL and to the principle of premature gratification. The Dome as a project, even independent of its disputed content, represented a concerted effort to except itself from its context, from the poison gases lurking sealed beneath it, to the purity of its circular form. muf’s project for the Local Zone made the Dome a place for strategic comprehension of the particulars of detailed projects which were transforming localities across the country: a machine for experiencing detail/strategy simultaneously. It meant the entire Local Zone itself was understood as a DETAIL, one which worked as sensual respite to the relentlessly hermetic world of the Dome.
Its vast transforming bench brought the pleasures of public and private to be experienced together. At its most heroic, that unassailable circular perimeter was distorted to bulge, inwardly grabbing the outside to provide an ice rink 8 which allowed you to skate inside and out of the building at will. It was a DETAIL of a project for the future, the freezing of the Thames, a project to bring the north prematurely to the south side, and gratify our desire for both.
1 muf et al, This is What we Do, a muf manual (London: ellipsis, 2001) pp. 68–77
2 This is What we Do op. cit. pp. 198–212
3 A Strategy for the South Bank, muf with Katherine Shonfield (1994)
4 This is What we Do op. cit. pp. 92–96
5 This is What we Do op. cit. pp. 132–138
6 This is What we Do op. cit. pp. 150–155
7 This is What we Do op. cit. pp. 190–197
8 Don Grey and Atelier 1 scheme for freezing the Thames 1997