Featured in
Issue 148

Life in Architecture

The first in an occasional series in which an artist, curator or writer discusses the buildings and environments that have most influenced them

BY Pablo Bronstein in Critic's Guides | 01 JUN 12

'The Cocteau Hour', a spread from the May 1992 issue of World of Interiors, featuring work by Oriel Harwood and Mark Brazier-Jones. Photograph: Edward Park

In my well-versed creation myth, I have convinced myself over time that I was already interested in the low-end Postmodern office blocks and yellow Georgian-style housing that I passed as I walked home from school in Neasden, northwest London, in the early 1990s. I certainly spent too much time looking at these unremarkable buildings, but consciously liking them took a more tortuous path. Boring developer-architecture featured little in my box of toys; instead I amassed a formidable collection of rubbery Smurf huts. I don’t know why, but I had thought it was plausible that a toy version of Gargamel’s Castle was likely to exist in a shop somewhere. This was abetted by a casual conversation with my friend Sapna in which she swore she owned it already and would bring it to school to show me. Every toy shop in London was scoured to no avail, and I spent a month or so waiting for Sapna to bring it in. She later admitted she was lying, did not own one, hadn’t even seen one, and so cemented my longstanding association between architecture and evil. Snake Mountain, Skeletor’s lair, was next on my list of wants. It was a hollow, deep-purple, vacuum-moulded plastic mound with a tinny microphone and a glowing throne inside. As I always took the side of the baddies in cartoons, my preference for their large stone structures was formed. Goodies live in blandly sunny democratic white citadels, whereas real architecture is where the evil stepmother stares at herself in the mirror and cackles.

I can only assume that my early love of camp architecture was fed by a remote memory of my grandmother’s lugubrious and magnificent house in Buenos Aires. A large fin de siècle house in the gout Anglais, it had been decorated in the early 1950s and was carefully mothball-padded in its glorious past, with its mediaeval boiler, enormous stained-glass panels painted with birds, Chinese bronzes, ‘French’ furniture and chandeliers reflected in walls of aged mirrors. Back home in Neasden, I drew and built models of palaces and castles. The peasant huts below the medieval walls were of no interest at the time. Neasden was to be escaped from, not eulogised.

A little later, the Victorian semi-detached houses in the imperceptibly posher London suburb of Willesden Green began to catch my attention. Melrose Avenue, a winding road near Gladstone Park, was studded with vulgar bricolaged Victoriana, each property bearing a set of cement motifs slightly different from the others. My friend Paul lived on this street, and it was an unusual oval window in his entrance porch that established a Proustian evocation of buildings from my past, bringing in the early feelings that went with them. It was by looking out of this oval window that I found fragments of other times in other buildings relegated to memory. The rare feeling of being lost somewhere between the present and the past in architecture is both delicious and sad.

It is hard to describe how gothically erotic St Mary le Strand makes me feel, inside and out.

My first attempts at architectural evocation in 3D involved going to the Laura Ashley section of the homeware shop Homebase to spend my pennies on green polyester curtain tassels that I was convinced would transform my bedroom into Versailles, and me into Louis XIV. I think it was at this time that, as we pulled up in the car to the newly opened Whiteleys shopping centre, I told my left-wing academic parents that I wanted to be a yuppie. I was so unschooled in taste that when I imagined a yuppie I had three things in my head: shadows cast by Venetian blinds, exposed brick stripped of the woodchip paper that I had thought intrinsic to all walls, and an oversized Bakelite telephone. The yuppie phase was short-lived, however, and I was returned to the right path by frequent visits to National Trust houses. The garden of the 19th-century Italianate mansion Cliveden, in Buckinghamshire, particularly stayed with me, and augmented the effect the magazine World of Interiors was having on my brain. I remember a photo shoot in it from May 1992 titled ‘The Cocteau Hour’, featuring work by Oriel Harwood and Mark Brazier-Jones, which seemed to represent to me the way I was put together on the inside. The advert for Cadbury’s Flake, of a woman eating a chocolate bar in her bath while the water overflowed, had pretty much the same effect, along with the interiors in the films of Jean Cocteau and Peter Greenaway.

In a misplaced attempt at feeling more contemporary, I made myself like modern architecture. I thought it would help when applying to architecture school, though I didn’t really like it very much beyond Denys Lasdun and Peter Softley’s National Theatre (built in 1977), or Richard Rogers’s Lloyds building (1986). Attempting to fill sketchbooks that would demonstrate to my university interviewer my love of the profession, I went round London drawing churches designed by Christopher Wren. After a few pages of faithful plodding sketches, I got bored and developed a sort of synthetic Cubism of architecture, with weird angles and juxtapositions. In my interview for the Bartlett School of Architecture I showed these drawings and said that they were ‘deconstructivism’, as I was aware of Zaha Hadid’s 1994 Vitra Fire Station in Germany, and thought that my Juan Gris-style crayon renditions of St Clement Danes were practically the same thing.

A Gothic bookcase form the book Gentell Household Furniture, 1765, a reprint of a furniture pattern book owned by Pablo Bronstein. Courtesy Pablo Bronstein

It turns out I was no architect. I lasted three weeks at the Bartlett – long enough to know that I had no patience to sit through a lecture on the strength of a concrete bar or the importance of a traffic island. Instead, I visited St Mary le Strand in the centre of London (which was designed by James Gibbs). It is hard to describe how gothically erotic that building makes me feel, inside and out. A kind lady in mauve arranging dry flowers saw me sketching and offered me the keys so that I could come back and finish the drawing later. I refused them. I didn’t want to have to be well-behaved and pretend to believe in God in my baroque palace – I wanted to be depraved. My favourite architect at the time was the Italian Francesco Borromini. He was my idol, and a depraved architect; his twisted forms shafting each other skywards, pushing your eye up to spurt out at the top of the roof light in the dome. I hated student digs; the finger-rubbed landlord magnolia, the wooden Formica, the mildewed carpet. I remember posing to myself at the window in front of a lurid sunset over Cricklewood, trying to capture some reflection from my Cliveden fantasies.

While on my MA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths, I worked in a shop – that shall remain nameless – as a faker of antique furniture. Newly carved French beds would make their way from Thailand to a basement in Shoreditch where I would lacquer on a patina of age. Inspired, I made a piece of furniture by joining two bits of tat I had acquired as a student, and commissioned a very fancy carved finial for the crest at huge expense. It was to be a magnificent Henry III-style cabinet in a distressed Dove Grey. My boyfriend tactfully broke it to me that the finial was exactly the same shape as an Italian restaurant pepper-grinder. The effect was shattered. It is very hard to design furniture, and I have developed an enormous admiration for good honest ‘brown’ pieces of the early Georgian or Queen Anne periods. The reason I like it so much is that, from the era of Charles II to George II, furniture has common characteristics but does not abide by meticulous sets of rules as it does later in the 18th century. (It is a little like the English language before Dr Johnson’s dictionary.) Similarly charming is the architecture of this period, particularly the attempted sophistication, the ad hoc nature , the naiveté – with the legacy of the amateur and the master mason still visible, and the variations of form still arbitrary. Later Georgian architecture has, for me, the joy not of a rather thin elegance or of having attained a formula, but the more acquired pleasure of rendering visible the underlying financial gain intended. The developers of the late-Georgian period packaged up people’s dreams and gave them as little of it for their money as they could get away with. Standardization in architecture – whether it be late Georgian, Brutalist housing or yellow brick Barratt Homes – is pleasurable in irony, but little else.

Printing is ultimately responsible for the commodification of architectural taste. In plate-book images for developers or craftsmen, architectural techniques can be standardized according to cost or method, and glamorous ideal architecture can also inspire the wealthy patron. As I mature away from the grandiose, I prefer the cheaper middle-class versions. My favourite design hack of the 18th century, the appropriately named Batty Langley, produced catalogues of gothic for your fireplace and Turkish for your garden shed. Postmodern architecture is an heir to the Georgian. Pasted-on style is the cheapest way of differentiating between steel buildings. Much like William and Mary architecture, yuppie or ‘classic’ Postmodern buildings are desperate to seduce us with their fun and colourful witticisms and to make us see (albeit for commercial and far-from-innocent political ends) the aesthetic grimness of life under the old Labour glc. The whiff of tragedy surrounding these looming architectural slappers dressed up for a Saturday night is a reflection of their intentions and becomes more and more apparent as time passes.

Pablo Bronstein is an artist. His solo show ‘Hell in Its Heyday’ is on view at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, UK, from 6 October to 2 January 2022. An accompanying book is published by Walther König. He lives in London and Deal, Kent.