What Does Pseudo-Georgian Architecture Mean To Britain?
Pablo Bronstein is not an architect. He is an artist out of Goldsmith’s whose work is dominated by architecture. He has long been known for his cynical, tongue-in-cheek pieces that either mock, reinvent, or generally sour architecture and its movements throughout history.
This quote from Bronstein effectively sums up his attitude to architecture, providing an insightful backdrop into his latest work:
“One thing I like about architecture is its attempt at aspiration, its desperation. I’m not excited by good-quality, decent, sophisticated buildings. I like buildings that want to be seen as better than they are.” –(from Sanctuary: Britain’s Artists and their Studios – pub. Thames and Hudson and quoted on the Tate website)
Bronstein’s latest exhibition is hosted at the RIBA, London, and features fifty new drawings by the artist of contemporary buildings in a ‘Georgian’ style. Bronstein’s drawings are hung alongside a selection of archival material from RIBA’s Drawings Collection, chosen by the artist himself.
For this exhibition, Bronstein sought to document Britain’s most pervasive kind of architecture, settling on what he calls “pseudo-Georgian”, the sort of home seen across the country, so common and ubiquitous that we barely even notice it. But what does it say of us, as a nation, that we have developed, and often live in, houses with stick-on bricks, sash windows and mansard roofs?
“We are reflected in the architecture we create,” Bronstein writes. “[This pseudo-Georgian theme] evokes almost effortlessly a rosy everlasting British prosperity.”
Aspiration is the keyword here, a subject that has preoccupied Bronstein since his childhood. The tastes of the middle-classes, with their chintz fabric and tasseled curtain ties, has always amused him, and this RIBA exhibition perhaps marks the culmination of that.
On this blog, we recently took a look at the Brutalist architectural movement of the mid-twentieth century. Along with the drawings, Bronstein’s show is accompanied by articles and covers from 1970s and 80s trade show magazines which chart the “rise of nostalgia as a byproduct of the backlash against brutalist housing estates”(The Guardian). Of course, this all reflects the Thatcher-era Conservative quest for affluence and its constant looking back to some kind of ‘better’ past which perhaps never really existed.
What is interesting about the “pseudo-Georgian”, as Bronstein puts it, is not just the contrast against Brutalism, but also the manner in which this rejection was handled. Just as Brutalist architecture has since been muffled by (often unsafe and substandard) cladding, so too has the flimsy building-work of the hastily constructed faux-Georgian properties across the UK.
These homes pervade largely because they can be so quickly erected at minimal cost (a blessing for profit-hungry developers), in the same way that led to the mid-century profusion of Brutalist architecture. As The Guardian remarks, “the general flimsiness can be hidden behind signifiers of permanence and solidity”.
It seems rather poignant that this show by Bronstein comes at a time when Brexit is unearthing the disparity between how Britain sees itself and what it really is. Perhaps this is deliberate. Regardless, the satire of architecture that, in itself, can be read as a pastiche, reveals the multitude of subtext behind the buildings we choose for our country. Whether we love or loathe the Conservatism that the pseudo-Georgian represents, Bronstein’s work prompts us to take a look at what it says about us as a nation in the midst of this era of uncertainty.