Pablo Bronstein mashes up the ICA

Tragic Stage, Pablo Bronstein at the ICA Tragic Stage, Pablo Bronstein at the ICA - © Photo Steve White, courtesy the artist and Herald Street Gallery
Posted: Fri Jun 10 2011

Architectural provocateur Pablo Bronstein has helped reshape the regency rooms of the ICA. We meet the ultimate artist-in-residence

Pablo Bronstein is taking over the venerable old Institute of Contemporary Arts this summer with his 'Sketches for Regency Living', in which he adds his own postmodern flourishes to the elegant features of John Nash's terraces that line the Mall. Culminating in a retrospective of Bronstein's choreographed dance and ballet performances at the end of September 2011 (all heavily influenced by architecture), he's also collaborated with 6a Architects to restore and embellish the ceilings and walls of the ICA's neoclassical rooms, as well as constructing a period set within the theatre. Time Out visited Bronstein at his Georgian home in Bethnal Green which also serves as a studio, office and repository for various pieces of furniture and art that influence his tastes and interests, although World of Interiors has just been round so we weren't allowed to take his picture…

Am I disturbing you at work?

'I'm etching a Piranesi-inspired cafetière for the limited-edition print that accompanies my ICA show. It's basically an accumulation of architectural ruins that forms this eighteenth-century coffee pot.'

You have become well known for your architectural mash-ups, but are we still too close, historically, to take postmodernism seriously?

'It's a generational thing. I think we don't feel that guilty about it, or at least I feel liberatingly naughty about referencing postmodernism, but I keep changing my mind about it. I'm doing this book about low-end neo-Georgian vernacular, the garbage that uses Georgian styling just to get through planning permission. There was a wave of it before that really repulsive property developer's retro modern - which Shoreditch is full of - but at least we've got about five years distance from it.'

Do you mean the style of Prince Charles's Dorset new town, Poundbury?

'No, that's far too-high end, I'm not talking about Quinlan Terry or even architect-built buildings. This is absolute high-street rubbish - yellow-brick structures loosely applied with a stock catalogue of developer's ornaments that do exactly what they need to for the least possible money. It's an unsung superstar that's taken over our lives - although maybe “superstar” is a contradiction. I'm definitely interested in the provincial and the low-grade version of things.'

Picking out odd features or anachronistic decorations - is that how you look at existing buildings?

'When I redesign something I start by playing around with motifs, maybe taking away its sense of scale. Often I roleplay: if I was a bumbling, provincial, seventeenth-century architect or a really shitty developer, how would I design this? There's a series of 65 drawings in this show showing neo-classical housing options, like a manual, going from the very poor to the fairly well-off that compare what it was like living in Georgian times to now.

Also at the ICA are these new pieces of metamorphic furniture that transform from one object to another…

'Yes, two console tables turn into a bed and a big cabinet that becomes an office. They are constantly activated as an ongoing performance but were actually based on two pieces of Georgian furniture here in my studio: one is a triple fold-over tea table, which turns into a game table with a cupboard underneath. I took them as a starting point and pushed them somewhere more difficult, grandiose and embarrassing, because much of this metamorphic furniture was found in very grand houses where they were obviously more interested in the ideas than in the need to have all these different functions for one object.'

Like they were for showing off at a dinner party?

'Exactly, although my pieces will be built out of plywood rather than mahogany or aged pine, because then they would start to look like those pieces of antique furniture that are tarted up to make them look old. My first job after leaving college was working in a furniture shop for rock stars, or people that were too rich to care whether what they were buying was legitimately old or not, they just wanted a fancy baroque bed.'

Did you study architecture?

'I studied it at the Bartlett School for a couple of months but was told I didn't have the patience, which is true, because most of my drawings are done in a day or over a week. I do get asked to teach architecture now, mostly because I draw and because there's this vague fashion for postmodernism in architecture at the moment. When I was at art school ten years ago and I started doing these post-modernist drawings there was a huge vogue for Bauhaus, retro-modernism and this felt quite rebellious. Now it's become cooly unfashionable again.'

Are you also into grand architectural fantasy and folly?

'I prefer the earthiness and obscurantism of English Georgian architects. However, I've made a work for Konsthall Charlottenborg in Denmark, called 'Pissoir', which is about full-on French neo-classicism. It's an exploration of urine. We spend a considerable portion of our lives urinating on buildings. They get pissed on and they also have piss inside them - we've built our modern society in order to get rid of waste in one way or another. This big dark box I've built in the centre of the gallery is basically a latrine surrounded by an open drain. I'm going to try to get the director Mark Sladen to take his morning piss in it once a day. We can only do it in Scandinavia because they don't have the same health and safety laws.'

You were born in Argentina, but your work feels very British.

'It's hard to say if I feel British or Argentinean, but I'm definitely a Londoner. I grew up here, which conditions you to liking pretty bad buildings, because there are lots of them here.'

Wasn't that the idea behind your 2006 guided coach trips at the Frieze Art Fair, 'Tours of London Postmodern Architecture'?

'Yes. Canary Wharf is a really depressing building, but there are some good ones, like No 1 Poultry. I wanted to take all the collectors to the roof and the formal gardens there, but I wasn't allowed to let them leave the bus, for fear that they wouldn't make it back to the fair.'

Pablo Bronstein: 'Sketches for Regency Living' is at the ICA until September 25 2011