Public-realm architecture made front page news in August, when Rab Bennetts, designer of Brighton's Jubilee Library, predicted 'a long period of stagnation ahead'. Highlighting the building innovation and investment fed by National Lottery funds under New Labour, Bennetts forecast cuts in public amenity building as regional development agencies are scrapped and private investors pull out of fund-matching schemes.
Yet this 'golden age', as he termed it, featured white elephants among the triumphs, and fostered top-down approaches based on partial understandings of public needs. The boom years produced as many overinflated egos as lasting public provision.
At this year's Venice Biennale of Architecture, the theme has reasserted its social role: 'People meet in architecture'. It is the perfect platform for muf, the London-based art and architecture practice behind the British Pavilion, to showcase its explicitly collaborative, local research-led approach.
People, politics and expertise
Muf's public-realm projects encompass urban design, art projects and urban strategy research. The firm builds games areas, parks, markets and gardens, using seating, lighting and pathways to open up spaces and bring down physical barriers to community interaction. It is concerned with ecological and economic sustainability and makes unexpected use of recycled materials.
For co-founders Liza Fior and Katherine Clarke, every project shares one core aim: to assert an area's social needs and cultural history. Rather than build monuments to their own creativity, they envision site users as co-authors of their space. 'The local community brings an expert knowledge of what it is to know a place intimately through experience,' says Clarke. 'That expertise can have enormous influence over spatial organisation. Our role is to ensure that that expertise informs the development brief.'
Muf takes an 'attentive care' approach towards communities, seeking out diverse voices, from pensioners and refugees to youth groups and young children. The uses of space are not presumed but rather collaboratively explored and their projects are strikingly innovative as a result, far removed from the dull or ill-conceived utilitarianism perhaps more readily associated with the term 'public realm'. 'It's odd to make a distinction [between aesthetics and functionality], as if there might be a socially relevant but serviceable response,' says Fior. 'To quote the striking textile workers [from the famous 'Bread and Roses' strike in Massachusetts in 1912] and Alina Marazzi's film of the same name, We Want Roses Too.'
A political impetus permeates muf's work, rendering concepts such as building, structure and space as metaphorically as well as materially important, and recognising that different needs must be negotiated and reconciled through collaborative creative processes and outputs.
'We're political in the broadest sense, in that close looking unearths differences and the process of design development is addressing how territory can or can't be shared across difference, and what strategies and spatial resolutions can be employed to resolve, counter or accommodate difference,' says Clarke.
Follies, policies and legacies
Muf's celebrated work in Barking Town Square bears the hallmarks of this approach. Developed with input from Barking Performing Arts College students and the Afro-Caribbean Sunrise Centre elders, the site features indigenous plant life and a public artwork, The Folly, built in collaboration with local bricklayers. Critic Rowan Moore named it in his 'Ten best public works of art' for the Observer in April, stating: 'It works with its surroundings to form a new public place, and humanise what might otherwise be a harsh new development.'
Moore's compliment also reveals the constraints placed on public-realm developments, however, as spaces increasingly must be etched out in the shadows of commercial development. Urban regeneration projects, ostensibly designed to redress decades of neglect in low-income areas, have in practice allowed private developers to build identikit suburbs that are no longer appealing or affordable to local communities. It is no surprise that councils, after selling their most valuable land to private interests, must seek out creative solutions for public space. Yet muf still feels able to assert the need for community provision and design involvement without capitulating to circumstances.
'It is impossible to work in close proximity with developers without entering into a dialogue with them,' says Fior. 'That dialogue may be a genuine exchange of ideas or might be less direct, a critical review of one another's position. Our position is always one of critical interrogation of what is of value in a situation, what is fragile and likely to be erased.'
Despite a growing recognition that planning and building cannot be divorced from politics and social contexts - 'a huge step forward' in Fior's view - Clarke strikes a cautionary note on the new government's proposals to make planning procedures less bureaucratic. 'Talk of "freeing up" makes our blood run cold, as what is freed up is the respon-sibility to deliver anything other than that which satisfies the market.'
Muf is currently working on the Olympic Fringe site in Hackney Wick and Fish Island, conducting extensive research on how space is currently used and assessing potential for lighting, seating, play spaces and art installations. It intends to draw on the vibrant artistic community living in the area and to forge new and lasting connections between communities soon to be a central point linking Victoria Park to the Olympic Village. In March this year, it took part in the Legacy Now symposium on the interim uses of the site and the East London Olympic Legacy.
In its Venice Pavilion, muf has installed a scaled-down replica of a section of the Olympic stadium, crafted by Venetian carpenters. Inside this 'Stadium of Close Looking', classes of local schoolchildren take part in daily drawing classes while outdoors street training sessions allow children to teach adults to use public space for joyful behaviour. The project demonstrates muf's outlook on the importance of community, localism, art and youth. It also sends a poignant message to Olympic developers to consider and cater for local communities - now, during and after the 2012 games.
For Fior, it reflects a necessary outlook. 'The Stadium of Close Looking reminds us that neighbourhoods, like ecosystems, are fragile and harder to recreate than to nurture - so start by valuing what you have before you make grand plans.' n
'People meet in architecture' is the rather quaint title of this year's barometer of the architectural profession, the Venice Biennale, deftly curated by Kazuyo Sejima of the Japanese practice Sanaa, writes Oliver Wainwright. The theme may sound obvious, but it represents a conscious departure from 2008's bloated exposition of profligate form-making, a self-indulgent fanfare that marked a timely end to the construction boom and, with it, the architect's inflated ego.
Post-recession, with the number of UK architects claiming benefit having risen by more than 750 per cent, emphasis has shifted towards the primary task at hand: the user's experience of a space, and the role of buildings to provide a flexible backdrop for multiple agendas. There has been a sobering up and, dare I say it, a renewed social conscience in the profession.
Pavilions at the Biennale display various responses to Sejima's brief, but there is a recurring emphasis on a newly politicised strand of architecture as an oppositional practice, no longer always complicit with market-driven developers. Example exhibits invert the usual top-down development process and hint at alternative participatory strategies that take advantage of vacant, stalled sites offered up by the recession.
The Dutch Pavilion is left poignantly empty, save for a sprawling model field of Holland's unoccupied buildings, alongside a manifesto for temporary use. Muf's British Pavilion, meanwhile, argues for a model of development founded in close observation of what is already there - existing communities as well as the buildings they occupy. Detail must inform strategy and temporary projects provide a means to test what is possible, an opportunity for the commitment-phobic (from councillors to landowners) to experience the risk of the unknown. Muf sees the temporary as a means to introduce occupation into inert development sites and ensure that fragile programmes - play, culture, the bucolic - are inscribed into the site and take on their own
With dozens of stalled sites and more than 230 hectares of post-Olympic 'legacy' looming on the horizon, London in particular is in a position to embrace these alternative bottom-up, user-generated, models. A wave of temporary allotments and community gardens has prompted the government to announce an open source 'land bank' of sites, as well as develop a 'meanwhile licence' to facilitate temporary land uses and the creative occupation of vacant shops. It's time to go and get building.
Oliver Wainwright is an architectural critic for Icon and Building Design, and author of Legacy Plus, a publication exploring alternative legacies for London's Olympic site
Siobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.