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Redefining design

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This Is What We Do: A muf Manual Edited by Rosa Ainley. ellipsis, 2001. 238 pp. £18.

In 1993, the RIBA mounted a fairly disastrous exhibition called 'The Art of the Process'. Far from promoting the design process to the public as being of equal value to the product, it offered a series of backbreaking horizontal glass cases, each featuring the usual 'name' practices, and incomprehensible even to most architects.

Would that the muf group had taken part, or better, organised the exhibition, but it was not formed until 1994, by architects Juliet Bidgood, Liza Fior and Katherine Shonfield and artist Katherine Clarke. The principle of the group is the recognition of the over-riding importance of process over pre-determined product, and it has developed this far beyond the routines of the Plan of Work.

This book sets out muf 's approach, or rather, philosophy, with an implied critique of traditional methods of design. Eschewing any proscriptive theorising, muf has developed imaginative hands-on, collaborative working methods, which embrace, expand and transcend old ideas of consultation, user participation, research or site analysis.

Insofar as any methodology is admitted, it is a recognition that every process is also a product - that the result is, or should be, conditioned by a detailed investigation of all aspects of a given brief, the funding process, public involvement, social/political implications and so on. To reveal this 'invisible content' of a site, the traditional process of design - working from overall plan through to detail - is rejected in favour of starting with detail (especially the human content), proceeding to the larger scale, then returning to the detail with a better understanding.

The working methods have more in common with contemporary art than architecture or planning, for muf is a multi-disciplinary team which breaks down barriers and categories. Video, installation and conceptual art, film, collage, photography and drawing are employed - not as ends in themselves, but as a way to involve 'ordinary' people who are often hostile to the idea of public art. This is done with a considerable amount of dedication, courage and risk.

The (unsigned) introductory pieces are mostly clear and confidently written, which means they are free from design jargon and pretention. Only Shonfield, the group's 'critical presence', occasionally drifts into arty obfuscation, with such concepts as 'premature gratification' (which sounds uncomfortably like a certain male sexual problem).

The main body of the book consists of clear accounts of projects undertaken by the group, which have great 'non-designer' titles such as 'Borrowed Pleasures' or 'The Beach At the End of the Line', and by which the success of its radical stance may be judged.

These are mostly small-scale, smallbudget designs for public spaces both urban and rural. Obviously muf puts the best gloss on these, but they make fascinating reading.

I could have done with more accounts of people's and communities' reactions, but the book is clearly aimed at the design professions - its square format and layout are reminiscent of those 1960s publications by Theo Crosby or the Smithsons. Maybe an old-fashioned book is not the best medium to communicate process to a wider audience;

there should be a video as well as a website.

There has been some sneering in the press that muf has not proved itself by designing a proper large building, but this surely misses the point. Its work extends beyond the confines of architecture. Why is, say, an art gallery, more important than a carefully crafted small community project?

In fact, the few traditional building projects illustrated are less interesting than the rest. So muf should resist involvement in prestigious projects, however helpful the fees might be. I would hate to see it featured in one of the glossy architecturalpornography magazines.

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