These are early observations taken from on-court experiences, post-game conversations and many hours spent cycling around the wards of London looking for an orange rim peering over a wall, or listening out for the disconnected clang and rattle of a ball pelting a perimeter of welded steel. This is an introduction to a project documenting London’s MUGAs (Multi-Use Games Areas) and their outdoor sporting communities as they began to thaw out in Spring this year.
Inside the MUGA, each season arrives with its own set of struggles; Nike Air trainer treads are printed into treacly, sun-baked tarmac; grown men attempt to avoid permanent pot-hole puddles, or slip about on catkins from the oak trees that lean over the enclosures. Furthermore, for most of winter the MUGA assumes the state of a ruin; an unused council gesture, dropped by its community and left vacant in communal space. Despite their unmaintained jaggedness; the early MUGAs of the Nineties stand out as brutal, yet beautiful social architecture. Thick, red lightning bolts zig-zag their way around one MUGA’s perimeter, tucked away in Whitechapel, as if wrapped in the sharp peaks of a heartbeat monitor, before its blue steel cage geometrically curls outwards like orange-peel.
Few examples of this mutant variety of the MUGA-as-public-sculpture remain due to increased requirements for these council owned spaces to be safe, vandal proof and accessible for all-ages. With mounting conditioning and constraints, MUGA design became standardized; rough edges were smoothed; sharp corners were rounded-off and concrete was substituted in favour of bouncy Bitumen Macadam and Polymeric, or closely-shaved synthetic grass. The new structures of chubby steel tubing, powder coated in standard colours now perch on tow-paths, stand erect in parks and street corners from Brixton to Bethnal Green. With inner-city real estate at a premium, is the MUGA merely the most space efficient way to tick a box on the community interaction and inclusion list? Lacking the design specificity of a tailor-made environment, the intended flexibility for use of the sites fails in the rigidity of their fabrication. With no ‘give’ or movement within the solid structure, the basketball is cannoned off the rim if the shot is even a millimetre off target. The thick wickets, welded to the cage, rid a wicket-keeper of his duties. In attempting to strike a balance and appease all of its requirements, the MUGA essentially satisfies none; it is reductive and restrictive.
The direct effects of these developments are not necessarily detrimental to the continuity and change of the sports. As a result of the malleability of the MUGAs’ users adopting and adapting to its structural environment, rules are loosed, bent, or altogether dropped; spawning bastard or mutant-sports that organically and creatively evolve as by-product of restrictive design.
The caged-boundaries of the MUGA rise up from where the out-of-bounds line should lie and as such, there is no ‘off’; only ‘on’. With the ball always active and in-play, games are untied from their stop-start formats and gain an unrelenting fluidity. The MUGA assumes the qualities of a three-dimensional pinball machine, or high-speed Sonic the Hedgehog dash; the ball a bullet echoing around a chain-link enclosure. Paradoxically, in enclosing the available playing space, the MUGA becomes a three-hundred-and-sixty degree, ‘never-ending’ arena. Games crossover and interweave; requiring a heightened awareness for one’s immediate surroundings due to the ever-present danger of a cricket ball, for example, being fired through a game of 3-on-3 basketball. The combination of all of these elements seems to inject the MUGA with an intense excitement and acceleration that is unattainable on the separate court, pitch or field.
The MUGA is by no means a utopian sanctuary of social discourse embedded within the city. Its games are physically rough, fouls are hard and the intrinsic multi-use nature of the space is a catalyst for disputes, as fiercely fought games overlap and collide into each other. Languages differ, but the MUGA operates by its own orally-established, transitory set of rules and codes. At Hackney Downs, the hyped and the humble, estate kids and city workers engage through sport, for the most part, irrespective of cultural and social differences. A transatlantic tailor, an up-and-coming MC, the editor of a highly-influential fashion magazine and the great-great-grandson of the Chief Commander of Ethiopia are a few of the many individuals who constitute an immeasurable, transient on-court community.
If the MUGA succeeds at one thing, it is that as a public space; it actually realises a promised potential for bringing together those from a vast range of diverse backgrounds. In some cases, these sites are far more than merely the caged-stage within which we spluttered over an introductory Mayfair Superking, honed the art of shooting spit through gapped-teeth and daubed spiky tags in Sharpie markers. They are inner-city estate amphitheatres, suburban arenas and hotbeds for social interaction through physical activity, intuitive adaptability and the subversive nature of youth.