The final design of the cultural laboratory at St Matthews’ school Cambridge is nearly upon us. A few adjustments left, nip-tuck, and it’s done. Looking at the design as it stands, it reminds me of the humble beginnings of MUD, on the day I proposed an idea to Tony Davies, the school’s visionary head-teacher. Tony had revealed the new school plan in a number of parents meetings: old 60s buildings were going to be knocked down and replaced by brand new pre-fabricated blocks to increase the school capacity from two classes per year to three , and to avoid the ritual breathe-squeeze-and-push bottle-neck school entry every morning. There was going to be a larger playground, more space for the children to roam. My seven year old daughter goes to St Matthews, so I attended all the meetings.
Cambridge being Cambridge you’re bound to bump into an academic sooner or later and have a conversation on a topic you never thought you would. I met Tony – not an academic – in a party, the summer before my daughter went to school. He was wearing a pair of ripped jeans and a T-shirt. We talked about beer, philosophy, Brixton, the way people drive in Tehran, and ended up with school uniforms. I don’t like school uniforms. My first significant moment of rebellion was at Reception when as a five year old boy I took off my navy-blue-cardigan-uniform and ran into the playground punching the air for victory. “We don’t have uniforms at my school”, Tony said and he went on to reveal that he is the head-teacher at St Matthews. On his first day in his new job, just as he was leaving home, Tony noticed a large empty box in the hall. He decided to take it with him. At 9 AM, the whole school met their new head-teacher for the first time, jumping out of a box on the stage of the assembly hall.
Later I talked to our host Dr Luke Skinner a research fellow at the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge. He was thin and tall. His daughter went to the same nursery as my daughter. His speciality was in marine sediments and millenial climate change. He explained it to me in simple terms: basically, you dig up mud from the bottom of the ocean and then, in the laboratory, you isolate microscopic fossils that have formed over millions of years and, by analysing their chemical make-up, you begin to construct a narrative of climate change in the past. Why mud? Because mud is basically dust that has settled on top of the ocean and gradually, slowly found its way to the bottom. Dust contains many characteristics including chemical atmosphere which eventually solidifies in and around marine sediments.
Perhaps it was no accident that the initial idea for MUD was formed in my head after the encounter with Tony and Luke. Walking around the school and looking at the tired spaces built in the 60s, I pictured them being knocked down – earth, rubble and dust – and within all that lay the secrets of everyone who had attended the school over decades, as pupils and teachers and dinner ladies and janitors and parents and grand-parents. Here was a chance to capture their narratives and to house them in a newly created space in the school. Initially, the idea of creating a structure with the rubble from the old buildings came to mind, the building itself, so to speak, being made of the past, literally. Our intention, however, was not to create a monument nor just an archive centre but something that was more about providing the possibility of re-interpreting the past, a way of both creating and amassing a narrative and at the same time critiquing and re-examining it.
Luke made an appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme recently, and was pressed by John Humphries to come up with a definite explanation on the causes of global warming, which to his credit, he refused. He kept insisting that the data they collect, provides them with the possibility of interpretations, not one, but many. The importance, he stressed, was not to arrive at the key explanation, but to sustain a healthy curiosity, a desire to challenge and discover. In his work, he deals with the concrete material of mud and marine sediments, the more conceived world of chemical narratives and millions of years of climate change and, a third space where the relationship between the concrete and the conceived is constantly questioned, re-formed and re-manufactured.
Before approaching Tony, I contacted Torange Khonsari from public works, an architectural practice based in London we have been working with for seven years. Torange, her colleague Andreas Lang and I got talking. In the end, we thought we would suggest the creation of a temporary structure and research and develop ideas around that. “A permanent structure would be great but it’s unlikely that the school would go with it”, thought Torange.
Every morning, Tony stands in the middle of the school car-park/entrance facing the early on-rush of human traffic – boys, girls, parents, grandparents, bikes, scooters, cars. He meets and greets; a conversation here, a conversation there. I walk my daughter in. On the way out I get hold of him and tell him about MUD. He listens, he says hello to a few more parents and makes sure the gates are closed. He tells me it’s a great idea, “why a temporary structure though?”
Later I call Torange : “He wants a permanent structure.”