Muf is enough

The British representatives at the Venice Architecture Biennale work with rubbish, fragments and cyanide. Jay Merrick meets the two women behind the groundbreaking Muf

Monday 02 August 2010 00:00 BST

There is a grainy, two-metre square image of a white horse on one wall, several bikes are stacked against another, and in a corner there is a collage composed of faintly toxic rubbish from Beckton Alp in east London – dog bones and balled-up tights formed into rat-like figures. They are like freaked out votive offerings, or African ju-ju icons. What's going on, exactly?

The inexact is what's going on – the scattering and picking up of the runes of people's lives in places that have not been branded by the outstations of Starbucks or Wagamama. I'm in a small, nicely battered studio in Central Street in Clerkenwell which houses Muf, perhaps Britain's most remarkable and unusually obsessive studio of architecture and art.

Muf are the curators of the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, which begins at the end of this month. They are going to change the way visitors perceive British architecture, by focusing on Venice instead – and drawing on the furies that besieged the mind of the great 19th-century art and architecture historian John Ruskin. His book, The Stones of Venice, remains a touchstone on the tragedy and beauty of fragments and ruin and the fine line of artifice between the noble and the pagan. It has been revisited superbly in a new book, Ruskin on Venice, by Robert Hewison.

Muf have been dogged by the empty cliché that what they do is "funky" or "edgy" or "subversive". Twenty years after Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force announced Britain's "urban renaissance" through the government's Urban White Paper on towns and cities, Muf's architectural interventions are not about Rogers' ideals of an automatically beneficent café and plaza society.

Liza Fior, the vivid co-founder of Muf (as in "modern urban fabric"), is sitting at a screen, talking in a manner that seems to float across time from a 1970s squat inhabited by artists and intellectuals and littered with the pages of Frendz and International Times. Muf's modus operandi is about starkly different ideas and objects, fastidiously itemised and then re-expressed in wittily surreal and practical ways: a structure infused with pearl shells to house Roman mosaics on the Roman site of Verulamium in St Albans; a collaged reinvention of a Hackney housing estate as a bucolic idyll.

It is this obsession with juxtaposition and the potential power of apparently useless urban junkspace and detritus that will see the British Pavilion renamed as the Villa Frankenstein. Villa Frankenstein? Has the British Council's new director of architecture, design and fashion, Vicky Richardson, gone mad? No, she has gone sane. Richardson's choice of Muf as curators of the British Pavilion has, importantly, broken a tendency to dress up our architectural establishment's chosen ones as if they were radical or profound. Most are neither.

"Muf's use of the Pavilion is going to be really exciting and complex," says Richardson. "I hope it won't have that preachy worthiness that the British Pavilion has sometimes had. It's a risk, but we're trying to shift the way people think about the Pavilion. What's the point of tramping around the Giardini at the Biennale looking at second-rate architectural exhibitions?"

Muf are turning the Pavilion into the centre of a web of enquiries and connections with Venice and collaborators including scientists studying the Venice Lagoon, the Venice Natural History Museum and the environmentalist Jane da Mosto. "What's so wonderful about this," says Richardson, "is that the Pavilion will show exactly how Muf work. It'll be a total insight."

Fior and Muf co-founder Katherine Clarke are pathologists of the genius loci – the spirit of place – and their projects emphasise previously ignored aspects of an existing area; they then reinvent the messages and meanings of these cultural findings and it is this nexus of the found and the strangely new that gives their interventions unexpected socio-urban harmonics.

They met at the Architectural Association in London and have created a reputation based on forensic collections of unexpected cultural evidence, used to create new connections between people and places. What they do is unclassifiable and owes more to the spirit of 1970s agitprop subculture than to the specifics of 21st-century architecture or art. Their manifesto speaks of "potential pleasures that exist at the intersection between the lived and the built... access is understood not as a concession but as the gorgeous norm."

Their best-known project, Barking Square, gives beautiful life to an otherwise witless urban regeneration scheme. Muf's centrepieces are a delightfully composed arboretum and a bizarrely mythic brick folly, propped from behind like a stage set. "We bought a collection of salvaged local artefacts and bricks," says Fior. "We wanted to make a relationship with the past, which had been savagely interrupted by this monoculture, this hostage to 1990s development. So we brought in this fragile reference to Barking's history. We used the master bricklayers from Barking College. We had to find out how to build a ruin. Cracks are very difficult!"

Through narrowed eyes, the folly blurs into classical Italian antiquity; one could be looking at the 2,000-year-old ruins of housing that still stand in Rome. "It's a memento mori," says Fior, speaking of the wall's relationship with the new buildings around it. "As in, 'One day, my shiny friends, you will be a ruin just like me.'" Withnail meets De Chirico!

Fior's visions are not precious hippie rubbish. They are hardcore socio-politics at work, an antidote to the gormless gentrification of our towns and cities at a time when the top 20 per cent of British earners are making 75 times more than the bottom 20 per cent; two decades ago, it was only 15 times more. This mendacious situation encourages the increasingly controlled, webcammed and reductive presentation of culture and an effluent of cravenly vacuous architecture sponsored by second-rate developers.

And so rubbish matters to Muf – rubbish, as in the rubbish they collected on the toxic slag heap known as Beckton Alp, as part of the Big Art Project for Newham Council. Hence Clarke's ravishingly unearthly collage of hybrid voodoo objects – sea urchins made of the nylon spikes of a defunct dry ski slope; dog bones printed with faintly poisonous blue patterns made from the cyanide in the Alp's soil; a creature made of thistles. All of it is presented to local people in a "guerrilla exhibition", as an exercise in the redefinition of local creative potential.

Fior's riffs keep coming: "Beckton Alp, the Olympic site's toxic cousin... the principle of loving care, and breaking presumptions... turning dictatorial urban patterns into a game... different languages intersecting, one tongue becoming another... I want to get a Henry Moore sculpture put outside the Billy Bunter Café in Mile End..."

Is Venice ready for the Muffia? The ghost of John Ruskin certainly is. Ruskin left Denmark Hill for the Lake District in 1872 because of the spread of bogus historical features on London's domestic architecture. "There is scarcely a public-house near the Crystal Palace but sells its gin and bitters under pseudo-Venetian capitals copied from the Church of Madonna of Health or of Miracles," he wrote to a friend. "And one of my principal notions for leaving my present home is that it is surrounded everywhere by the accursed Frankenstein monsters of, indirectly, my own making."

One of Muf's favourite montages shows a crude cardboard sign in a wheat field. On the sign is a question, handwritten in felt-tip: "How Are Thoughts Made Into Things?" It's a teasingly incomplete idea, isn't it? Architecture and art that is richly and humanely provocative must always tripwire an extra alchemy. Thought into thing is only meaningful if that thing produces another, and perhaps very different, thought or action. That is Muf's gig. And in a few weeks it will be Venice's too.

The British Pavilion at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, 29 August to 21 November

For further reading: 'Ruskin on Venice' by Robert Hewison (Yale University Press, £45). Order for £40.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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