"Very Bad Ideas of Extreme Classicism…"
An Interview with Pablo Bronstein
Whether he adorns the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt with opulent steel scaffolding or creates absurd designs for fireplaces—Pablo Bronstein skillfully plays with elements in a variety of styles and epochs. A lovingly restored Georgian house in the London neighborhood of Bethnal Green serves him as studio, office, and showroom for an array of furniture and works of art that inspire him and join to form a visionary environment. This is where Ossian Ward paid him a visit.
||Despite having only studied architecture for two months, over the last decade Pablo Bronstein (born 1977 in Buenos Aires, Argentina and now based in London) has been making art that combines his love of historical architectural styles—from Roman antiquity and the Baroque to neo-classicism and Georgian vernacular—with outdated and seemingly incompatible postmodern designs, arguably creating a wholly original form of extravagantly monstrous and fantastical grandeur. Playful line drawings imitate the precision and verisimilitude favored by architectural draftsmen such as Piranesi or Ruskin, but Bronstein’s new-fangled extensions and incongruous additions make them surreal and outlandish. His sculptural interventions in galleries also blur scale and time, while his forays into dance and performance activate space through similar leaps from the classical to the modern. Bronstein has been included in the 2006 Tate Triennial and Performa 2007; he’s had solo shows at the Metropolitan Museum in 2009 and will, very shortly, take over the ICA in London. An entire floor in the Deutsche Bank Towers is dedicated to his drawings.
You’ve become well-known for your mash-ups of architectural styles and period features, which were a defining aspect of postmodernism, of course—one of your predominant themes. Are we still too close historically to take postmodernism seriously?
I keep changing my mind about it. When I was at art school ten years ago and I started doing these PoMo drawings, there was a huge vogue for Bauhausy retro-Modernism, and so what I was doing felt quite rebellious. Now, postmodernism is becoming coolly unfashionable again. 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.
Picking out odd features or anachronistic decorations—is that how you look at existing buildings?
I’m definitely interested in the provincial and the low-grade versions of things. When I redesign something I start by playing around with motifs, maybe taking away the 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?
Are you ever worried that you might be considered a "young fogey" by focusing on all these unfashionable historical styles?
It’s funny, because the curators at the Metropolitan Museum were very worried about me being seen as a decorator to Fifth Avenue, so we scrapped all the gold frames from my show there and made it look very modern. If I only did old-fashioned-looking drawings, then maybe it would be more of a problem.
Tell me about that show "Pablo Bronstein at the Met"…
It was an exploration of the Metropolitan in all its museological splendor at the end of the nineteenth century. It was about a moment of extreme optimism. The museum almost became the client somehow; in this case I was unashamedly sycophantic.
But in some cases do you end up critiquing an institution or a "client"?
I guess it can lead to an ambiguous political statement. For instance, I made these drawings for Manifesta 8 called Islamic Culture in Southern Spain—1000 Years of Celebration. They were designs for this really awful Expo celebrating Islamic culture through camels, pyramids, palm trees, and all this bullshit, meant as a rebellion against the Manifesta’s political theme of the year, which was The Region of Murcia in dialogue with North Africa.
In what spirit did you do the work for Deutsche Bank?
There were two bodies of work done specifically for the bank. One was a series of fireplace proposals, A Collection of 24 Novel Designs for Fireplaces in the Style of Extremely Provincial Classicism, that wasn’t done with the bank in mind; they’re just very bad ideas of extreme classicism, as if someone had gotten hold of Piranesi or Thomas Hope and ran wild.
The second piece does relate specifically to the famous Towers of Deutsche Bank’s Group Head Office in Frankfurt, but how so?
Again, I had the idea of creating the bank as the client. I made a seemingly endless selection of presentation drawings on the computer—almost in arbitrary repetition—showing how these Towers could look if a steel structure was placed on the outside, protecting the towers on the inside. It was an architectural joke on the early nineteenth-century functional steel structures that led into glass skyscrapers with these large additions on the outside becoming purely ornamental decorations.
You’re also reversing or toying with the Adolf Loos notion that "All ornament is a crime" …
Absolutely, and it’s taken to a scale that is bombastic enough for it to look crude and embarrassing. In a way, the drawings look very postmodern, because they’re so overblown.
Are you into grand architectural fantasy and folly, like Étienne Louis Boullée?
I come and go with it because a lot of that seems a bit bloodless; I prefer the earthiness and obscurantism of English Georgian architects. The work I’m making for Konsthall Charlottenborg in Denmark, however, is about full-on French neo-classicism. It’s an exploration of urine. I think it’s significant that we spend a considerable portion of our lives urinating on buildings. They get pissed on and they also have piss inside them. I mean, every building has to deal with urine and we’ve built our modern society in order to get rid of waste in one way or another. This big dark box I’m building in the center of the gallery is basically a neoclassical latrine surrounded by an open drain. I’m going to try and 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.
Your work has become much more performative in recent years. Tell me about how you got into dance in the first place?
I’ve always liked ballet, but it was Catherine Wood who first asked me to choreograph something for the Tate Triennial as an extension of the installations I’d been making that pushed people around spaces in a certain way. There’s no immediate relationship between the drawings and the performances, but there’s always a symbol of authority, a bit like the client or the central viewpoint within the drawings: a hand or a voice that tells people where to go or how to do things—a sense of an ordered, centralized focus.
Then you’re the choreographer of the performances, much in the way you take on the role of master architect in the drawings?
Yes, I often stand in front of the dancers like a conductor or play the king figure and seat myself in the perfect position to watch [as he did at Performa 07 for Plaza Minuet in the lobby of Deutsche Bank New York].
Do you know what each dancer should be doing; can you choreograph all their gestures?
Yes, within reason, but not with the more complicated works, such as the production of Phèdra we staged in Turin  that lasted about an hour and was pretty much full-on ballet. In that situation, I could loosely say how many spins I wanted, but not how their left leg should be. That was something I needed help with.
But you are fascinated by one very specific gesture, sprezzatura, which has become your keyword…
The word was coined by Baldassare Castiglione in 1505 for a manual that taught up-and-coming courtiers to behave elegantly and aristocratically at court. The idea was that even though you might be doing an awful lot of physical straining or bowing, you should always appear absolutely effortless and sophisticated, rather than sweaty or hunched. The gesture of sprezzatura was quickly adopted by painting and sculpture, as it was linked to classical antiquity. You can find it throughout Western art from The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel to traces of it in the hands of the Mona Lisa.
It’s both an actual gesture and a form of etiquette?
In the eighteenth century, sprezzatura became associated with effeminacy and dandyism, so there’s a limp-wristedness or a contained flop to it that we can only get close to through classical ballet or very camp behavior. I briefly took adult ballet lessons and they’re now very keen that the hands be masculine and butch.
Does the word have any bearing on architecture?
Not exactly, but you could definitely say that some buildings have sprezzatura. For example, the double scroll of Rococo or the lines evoked by Baroque architecture are absolutely sprezzatura.
Are the staged performances going to continue?
There’s going to be a retrospective of all the dance pieces I’ve done at Tramway in Glasgow and then at the ICA at the end of September, but another idea I have is to link these things more closely. So I’ve designed a theater for the Migros Museum on this hill outside Zurich that will be the setting for the performance of a Baroque aria, but in miniature. There will be one singer on her own stage, two musicians in the pit, and an audience of five on the balcony—so it’s a really condensed, claustrophobic experience.
Sketches for Regency Living
9 June–25 September 2011
Institute of Contemporary Arts
The Mall, London, SW1Y 5AH