by Vatsala SethiMay 21, 2023
Whatever the actual inspirations behind minimalist aesthetics—Zen philosophy, paintings by Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian, Mies van der Rohe’s mantra "less is more," or abstract sculptures by Donald Judd and Carl Andre—we seem to be perpetually attracted to the idea of wanting to simplify our lives, primarily by reducing the overwhelming visual clatter of modern chaos all around, whether in urban or suburban settings. Many contemporary architects claim their devotion to putting things in order but one stands out—London-based John Pawson has built a career in creating architecture of almost nothing. His disciplined buildings, spaces, and objects—abbeys, churches, wineries, hotels, chapels, fashion boutiques, art galleries, houses, apartments, stage sets, furniture, home décor, and accessories—all share the same values. They are carefully designed to capture the most essential and beautiful qualities of light, mass, volume, surface, and a sense of containment, even suspension. Tracing the architect’s efforts in this endeavour is the focus of a new book: John Pawson: Making Life Simpler.
Eloquently written by Deyan Sudjic and published by PHAIDON, the book’s every page is designed like a work of art. Many spreads are dominated by white areas. Rarely you will see more than a single image per page, although there are almost no pages without any images. The book has a cinematographic quality. It unfolds quite beautifully. Yet, none of the projects are fully explained; many are represented by a single image, abstractly framed, taken out of context, with a focus on just one particular aspect or element. What we learn are stories behind original inspirations, client relationships, how this or that job came about, and the complexities of various design decisions. We eagerly follow the streams of stories and images pulled from different sources. The key here is the book’s sequence. Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” This is true here. In his introduction, accompanied by 19 full-page images, each described in detail and sending the reader to different geographies and time periods, the author tells us that the architect’s Instagram account has more than 400,000 followers. This fact is perhaps a giveaway for how the book itself is structured and should be explored. Stories and images seem to co-exist freely in their own self-contentment.
Apart from one three-dimensional rendering and a photo of an architectural model, there are no plans, drawings, or representations of any kind. In addition to photos of exteriors and interiors of Pawson’s own projects, there are shots of Barcelona Pavilion, abstracted photos of Pawson’s architectural details, pics of the interiors where he lived, portraits of those who influenced him, scans of handwritten notes by the likes of Calvin Klein and Karl Lagerfeld, documentation of site visits, images of historical buildings, and a reproduction of a 16th century painting. There are also photos of works by Donald Judd and his spaces in Marfa, Texas, where the sculptor experimented with architecture, art, and landscape. Although the author knows the architect quite intimately for decades—he commissioned him to design an installation at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2002, curated his monographic show at London’s Design Museum in 2010, and they travelled together on many occasions in North America and Europe—and quotes him extensively throughout the book, surprisingly, there is no one-on-one interview that could shed light on so many more aspects of Pawson’s work. There is no project chronology either. But again, chronology is not what this book is about. Many projects are not dated and appear to support a particular point in the text. Just like in all of the architect’s works, the focus here is on being highly selective.
However, quite unusually for architectural monographs, several dozens of pages are devoted to the architect’s upbringing. This section is fascinating and it includes photos of his parents who “came from families with a history rooted in Yorkshire’s textile industries.” At one point, the Pawsons owned the family textile business which numbered 500 employees; they manufactured clothing in three factories.
John was born in 1949. The family lived on the edge of Halifax in West Yorkshire in a grand stone Gothic house with oak-paneled interiors. There was a garden and, naturally, a gardener and housekeeper, a couple that lived in the property’s cottage. The family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle and regularly went on vacations either to Cornwall on England’s southwestern tip by a charter plane or to France. Both of his parents were previously married, each with two daughters, John’s four older half-sisters. This part of the book tells us about his studies at Eton followed by envious journeys that took him to Europe, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Australia, Fiji, Hawaii, and both coasts of the US. Upon his return he worked for several years for his family’s company until its closure in 1973 (due to increased competition). We are also told about his father’s never realised dream of becoming an architect.
Still, throughout this chapter, in which details are shared about John’s active social and party life in London, there is hardly any mention of the youngster’s interest in architecture. It was also in 1973 that Pawson decided to devote himself to Zen Buddhism as practiced in Japan. He ventured to a training monastery on the Sea of Japan. But after staying in a communal space on a tight tatami mat where he had to sleep, eat, and meditate after waking up at 3:30 in the morning and feeding primarily on rice and pickles, the very first night was his last. He urgently needed to find an alternative way to spend his time in Japan. The acquaintances he made back in London helped him to get a much more appropriate occupation—he started teaching English at Nagoya’s University of Commerce. He also worked as a photographer on assignments for a Japanese agency, documenting Formula One races.
In 1974 one of Pawson’s frequent trips to Tokyo brought him to a bookshop where he came across a monograph on the work of Shiro Kuramata who was trained as a cabinet maker and was one of the founding members of the Italian design collaborative Memphis Group. In that book, Pawson recognised some of the work he had previously seen published in Domus. The originality of “Kuramata’s great gift was in the ability to take the everyday and transfigure it into something that was new to our eyes, but familiar to our minds.” He went straight to Kuramata’s office in Tokyo and soon moved from Nagoya to Tokyo where he set out to learn from the Japanese master as much as possible, even though no one at the office seemed to know what exactly was John’s role there. Nevertheless, he spent most of his time in the studio watching Kuramata at work and studying at his library. One of the lessons was how to achieve a shadow-gap junction between walls and floor. This particular detail has become one of Pawson’s own trademarks.
The project that gave John Pawson his professional recognition was a large flagship store for Calvin Klein on the corner of Madison Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan. The three-story space—a serene abstraction made up of austere lines, planes, and frameless portals in several shades of white—was masterfully inserted into the base of a renovated Greek Revival building distinctive for its massive double-height ionic pilasters. The spaces between them were glazed with single sheets of glass, each nine meters (34 feet) tall and 3.5 meters (12 feet) wide to contrast quite strikingly the historical exterior with the ultra-modern airy interior. The space opened in 1995 and immediately became a must-see attraction, at a time when hardly anything exciting was being built in New York apart from a few restaurants and galleries. At least a few years will pass before innovative projects will start getting built in the city slowed down by a prolonged recession. The space attracted a great deal of interest from architects, the fashion industry, the press, and, of course, clients. The architect’s career was relaunched. Sudjic describes in detail how Pawson met Klein two years earlier and how their relationship led to a number of other projects, including big stores in Seoul and Tokyo.
Back in the introduction, the author tells us that Pawson “is not licensed to be professionally recognised as an architect in the technical sense.” The designer never completed his studies at London’s Architectural Association where he went at the advice of his mentor Shiro Kuramata, straight after coming back from Japan in 1978. Yet, we are also reminded that even such greats as Jean Prouvé and Luis Barragán did not have architectural degrees either. Being largely self-taught and well-traveled John Pawson built a distinguished career in his own unique way, guided by sensitivities acquired and perfected in working with light, simplicity of proportion, and clarity of space over four decades of practice, and, of course, with the help of his staff—two dozen of devotees most of whom are, in fact, licensed architects.
The images and descriptions of two works, a dwelling and a church—Life House in Wales for philosopher Alain de Botton and Abbey of Our Lady of Nový Dvůr in Bohemia—are presented in alternate order in the middle of Pawson’s and Sudjic’s almost 300-page album. They illustrate the architect’s capacity to be able to design very different spaces by relying on similar materials and techniques. The former is a place to be lived in and to feel calm and at peace, whereas the latter is a sacred vessel with a spiritual atmosphere. Achieving these distinctions architecturally requires a combination of talent, experience, and skills all revealed in a unique life-long journey; John Pawson: Making Life Simpler invites us to relive it and be inspired by its protagonist’s oeuvre.