Modernist orthodoxy has taught us to be suspicious of architecture that uses illusion and theatrical gestures. The principles of structural honesty and truth to materials have proved stubbornly resilient. Pablo Bronstein has little truck with such puritanical objections. Perhaps, like the work of Gordon Matta-Clark – another famous architecture school drop-out turned artist – his project is a negation of modern architecture, or at least an attack on all it holds dear.
Bronstein has a refreshing enthusiasm for the kinds of things that most architects hate. He likes false facades and fake pediments, parody and pastiche. Consequently, his favourite periods of architecture include the stage-set urbanism of Regency London and 1980s postmodernism.
These are not the unlikely bedfellows they might at first appear. John Nash’s elaborate designs for the Prince Regent were a form of sham architecture, hiding speculative terrace housing behind grand porticos, false arcades and thin layers of icing-like stucco.
One such development was Carlton House Terrace in London, overlooking The Mall, and now home to the ICA and Bronstein’s latest exhibition Sketches for Regency Living. The show presents a series of pastiches of Georgian architecture and society – through films, furniture and performance – which contain an oblique commentary on more contemporary urban issues.
In the large ground-floor gallery, a vast, monochrome perspective of a classical building serves as a backdrop for a dancer who strikes a series of mannered, mock-Georgian poses. The painting itself is so large that you can stroll its length observing the perspective lines distort like a gigantic MC Escher illustration.
The dancer wears a contemporary riff on some foppish Regency outfit – designed by Mary Katrantzou – and appears to be performing fragments of a strange, wordless play. A short video piece elsewhere in the gallery shows another dancer slinking through the garden at the rear of the ICA, as if the building were inhabited by ghosts acting out their own social rituals.
Lining the gallery stairs are a series of pen and ink-wash facades entitled Designs For The Ornamentation of Middle Class Houses, which suggest a connection between Georgian pattern-book architecture and the 80s enthusiasm for DIY. The elevations grow steadily grander and more elaborate as you ascend to the first floor, like the rooms of a Georgian house, in fact.
As if to make this point, a large coloured section through an elaborate 18th-century house hangs in the first-floor gallery. Alongside it are renderings of urban monuments under construction. Bronstein depicts The Erection of Paternoster Square Column (2011) as an implausibly perilous event involving a massive timber framework and a network of winches and pulleys operated by an army of workmen. This fantastical event has no basis in fact however, and represents another collapsing of recent and historical architecture. The column was in fact constructed in the late 1990s and forms the centrepiece of William Whitfield’s neo-Georgian masterplan for Paternoster Square.
Two large-scale furniture pieces – an office bureau of grotesque proportions and an uncomfortable looking day-bed – are displayed alongside the paintings and we are invited to view their sham historicism on a continuum with the plundering of classical motifs by Georgian architects. One of them even reveals its MDF construction without shame.
Finally, there’s Terrace by Nash With An Attic Storey By Soane (2011), a painting that depicts the twin giants of 18th-century British architecture in an unlikely mash-up. Sir John Soane’s dark, obsessive interest in the architecture of antiquity is usually seen as the polar opposite of Nash’s shallow populism.
Provocatively, Bronstein seems to be on the side of the latter. No doubt he would go along with Oscar Wilde: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.” Bronstein’s love of architecture that tries hard to please – be it Regency Georgian or 80s postmodernism – reveals a perverse kind of truth behind such shameless dishonesty.
Pablo Bronstein: Sketches for Regency Living. ICA, London. Until 25 September