Throughout his career, John Pawson has defined and redefined minimalism. He is as close to a household name as a designer gets — even those who might not know his name will conjure in their mind’s eye the monastic aesthetic he has cultivated when prompted to think about sleek, modern spaces. Pawson is renowned for being able to create an architecture of almost nothing. The self-taught Londoner has been guided by sensibilities trained and perfected over four decades of innovative practice. He works with light, with the simplicity of proportion, and with the clarity of space. Both rigorous and enjoyable, his buildings, spaces, and objects — from houses to abbeys and wineries, from fashion boutiques to art galleries and stage sets, and from furniture to home accessories — all share the same values. They are carefully calibrated to capture the most essential, and beautiful, qualities of light, mass, volume, and surface, and they communicate a sense of containment, even suspension.
Pawson was born in 1949 in Halifax, West Yorkshire. The youngest of five siblings, and the only boy, he grew up in a wealthy family that owned a large textile business. Following his schooling at Eton, he set out on an extended journey through Europe, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Australia, Fiji, Hawaii, and the United States. Upon his return, Pawson worked for the family company until 1973, when he relocated to Japan to teach English, explore the culture, enjoy the social life, and, for a while, work as a photographer documenting Formula One races for a Japanese agency.
While in Japan, Pawson befriended Tokyo architect Shiro Kuramata. He was particularly drawn to Kuramata’s talent, as he pointed out in our interview, for taking “the everyday and transfiguring it into something that was new to our eyes, but familiar to our minds.” Pawson spent much time in the Japanese architect’s studio intensely studying his work through drawings and building visits. It was Kuramata who advised Pawson to apply to the Architectural Association in London, where he eventually attended classes from 1979 to 1981 but from which he never received a degree. Instead, after a short collaboration with Italian architect Claudio Silvestrin and two AA professors, Crispin Osborne and John Andrews, Pawson established his own company in 1981.
A new Phaidon monograph, John Pawson: Making Life Simpler, highlights some of the architect’s most acclaimed built projects: the Design Museum in London (2016); Palmgren House in Drevviken, Sweden (2013); Lake Crossing at Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London (2006); the new Abbey of Our Lady of Nový Dvůr in Bohemia, Czech Republic (2004), the Calvin Klein flagship store on Madison Avenue in New York (1995), and Neuendorf House in Mallorca, Spain (1989) among others. I spoke to John Pawson over Zoom between New York and the architect’s country house, Home Farm in Oxfordshire, about 100 miles northwest of London. We discussed his upbringing in Yorkshire, how to measure good architecture, his friendship with Shiro Kuramata, employing silence as a language, and being competitive only with himself, not with others.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You once noted, “I try to design spaces in which people would feel good.” What are some of the objectives that guide you in this pursuit?
- John Pawson
Oh gosh, there are so many! As architects, we use everything we can to produce buildings — how we deal with light, materials, scale, proportions, and so on. I am trying to create an atmosphere. When I succeed, you see a physical reaction when people walk in; they sort of expel the air and react in ways that I interpret as a positive sign. What I try is to make places calm and clear, yet exciting. I am not sure if that’s a contradiction. These spaces are exhilarating for people to be in. And I noticed that people do look around and question how these qualities are achieved.
Little is apparent in photographs; in reality, these spaces feel differently. They have a real physical effect on people. Architecture is when you feel something special. If you are not affected when you walk into a building, then I don’t think it is architecture. At least that’s a good measure of what architecture is: It must have an atmosphere. It does not need to be grand like a cathedral — it could be something very modest — but it has to have a physical effect on you.
Do you think your places feel differently because the sources of your inspiration are different? Your upbringing and being largely self-educated are unusual. These must be the reasons for the difference you are talking about, right?
Well, I started practicing quite late, and I started studying, really, when I was already 30. But I had traveled widely. I had seen Mies van der Rohe’s work and I’d been to Japan, where I saw the first tea house, the Katsura Imperial Villa, and the temples. I’d visited the Shaker communities and the Pyramids and I’d traveled around India and Australia. So, I had a background of exploring exemplary buildings, including many places in Halifax, Yorkshire, where I was born, particularly industrial buildings built very solidly from Yorkstone — the floors, the walls, the ceiling, the roof tiles. These buildings have a very homogenous feel.
Perhaps the biggest influence came from my mother. My grandparents were Methodist Nonconformists; they did not believe in ornaments. The chapels they went to were very unadorned and simple. And even though my mother came from a wealthy family, she eschewed the wealth. She liked to live modestly. She liked simple things and was a strong example to me. My father, on the other hand, liked a good life. I suppose I inherited something from both of them. [Laughs.]
You have said, “I try to design calm, simple spaces where you could do whatever you want.” Yet, in reality, your spaces require quite a bit of discipline. Would you agree?
Isn’t that true in life, in general? You have to have a certain discipline no matter how undisciplined you may be. There is a degree of conformity that you need to follow. In any case, the spaces I make are for people. There is no architecture without people.
Of course, there are monuments. But even then, they are built for people to visit them. I design places for people. What they do there is up to them. Sure, to live as I do, requires a bit of effort. Keeping things in order is a daily ritual. I am now sitting inside my wife’s library but, personally, I don’t like books out.
I can tell she is not a minimalist.
Neither are my three children, who are all grown up and no longer live with us. But we all share this house, what we call Home Farm on the northern edge of the Cotswolds, about 100 miles northwest of London. Well, they are all very kind and allow me to do my architecture in the house.
Your friend Deyan Sudjic called you an architectural fundamentalist. What do you think he meant?
I guess he meant I try to get to the essence of anything or to the heart of whatever it is. In the case of a home, it is about just having what you need to make it warm, inviting and comfortable for your family…safe, and protective, and not having anything extraneous that you don’t really need. That’s fundamental. This attitude, I think, allows you to enjoy everything that you are doing in the house. Whether it is eating, looking out the window, or working.
Shiro Kuramata, whom you met in 1974 in Japan, was an important mentor for you. Was it meeting him at the age of 25 that really awakened your interest in architecture for the first time?
I don’t think that’s entirely true. Something must have appealed to me about architecture early on, as a teenager or even as a child. Again, growing up in Halifax, a town made up of mainly 18th-century buildings that had avoided being modernized. So, it did not have the 1960s and 70s destruction in pursuit of modernity, which a neighbouring town, Bradford, did. There was something handsome and civic about that. Then I was introduced to Domus magazine when I was 19 and I saw Kuramata’s work in it.
By then I already knew the work of Mies and I had singled him out as the only one who really appealed to me. I was really surprised to see Kuramata’s work, because this was the year when Mies died and here was a living architect who was doing work that also appealed to me. There was no one else who I really liked on the same level. A few years later, when I lived in Japan, I happened to be in a bookstore in Tokyo and I saw a monograph of his work. I was quite surprised. It was a total chance and all the work was in it. Then I was able to find his address and introduce myself.
His work was quite diverse, ranging from minimalist to exuberant, particularly during his collaboration with the Memphis Group. What was it that attracted you to his work? And what were some of the key lessons that you learned from him and how did they influence your life and work?
He had the most fertile imagination. He said he was influenced by movies, such as the films of [Andrei] Tarkovsky. I kept telling him how much I loved his architecture and interiors and he kept saying that I would eventually learn to love his furniture too. It wasn’t that I couldn’t appreciate his furniture, but its romanticism didn’t resonate with me. He told me to be less stoic, which he thought my work was.
I miss him. I just hung out with him. Every time there was an opening of one of his shops, restaurants, or buildings, I would go along with him to the opening party. And usually there would be people like Issey Miyaki, Masayuki Kurokawa, his brother Kisho Kurokawa, and Arata Isozaki. In Tokyo society, if you are introduced by an artist, you get to meet other artists on that level. In the case of Kuramata, that meant I would meet artists at the highest level. They all presumed that I was on their level; otherwise, I would not be with Kuramata. But I was just a 25-year-old boy. [Laughs.]
It’s interesting that you were only influenced by parts of his projects, not a complete body of work.
Because, in a way, I was already formed by the time I met him. I was formed by growing up in Yorkshire — by its treeless landscapes and industrial buildings. Of course, anything that was still coming my way broadened my vocabulary and views, but it didn’t change how I felt about things. I didn’t feel that I had to be more poetic, more colourful, or whatever. What I admired most was his talent to take the everyday and transfigure it into something that seemed at once new and familiar. I learned so much from him and I was influenced by his desire to do everything, to be a sculptor and an artist. Don’t all architects want that — to be artists? Some of us, anyway.
When you describe your work, you use such words and phrases as “pleasure, permanence, clarity, simplicity, clean, pure, quietly monumental, imprecise, timeless, unornamented, and architecture of almost nothing”. And during this conversation, you mentioned words like “atmosphere, protected, warm, and welcoming”. How else would you define your work and what kind of architecture do you try to achieve?
Well, I would like to say “timeless,” because you try to design something that will not date. But, of course, that’s impossible. One of the reasons for trying to keep it as simple as possible is to keep it from being dated, but no matter how simple your work is, someone will always identify the time when it was done. The point is not to be distracting, so you can really enjoy the space.
Of course, one of the pejorative terms that people use is “empty,” But my work is not empty, even if you’ve got nothing in it. It is never the case because you always have the light and that changes all day. You could easily do a book on 365 days in a room because just the light changing will keep it interesting. There is an extraordinary subtlety. The reflections you see on walls are never exactly the same: If you pay attention, it is a remarkable dance of light and shadow. I see rooms as containers for these visual feasts, really. Not only do I enjoy them, but I also study these subtleties all the time, to learn from them. It is a laboratory for me. It keeps me relaxed and happy.
You once said, “Silence is a language.” Could you elaborate on that?
Did I really say that? The thing about these interviews is that they get translated or even interpreted and then they somehow sound more poetic. I can’t remember saying that. This takes me back to the time when we finished the Abbey of Nový Dvůr in the Czech Republic and they invited me to stay for a week with them as a monk. I slept in their dormitory and went to their eight prayers every day. And, of course, they don’t talk. So, I had a week of silence. It was amazing. There are none of the distractions of life outside the cloister. It was very special – and certainly, silence is a language. And as far as my own work, it is definitely not noisy. I hope.
Apart from creating architecture, you design furniture, lamps, home accessories, and so on. How did it start?
Early on, I realized that we needed a sort of control over the things that go inside the architecture. Donald Judd, of course, talked extensively about how to place his works in space. The same is with furniture. Every object and its placement are really important. So, from the beginning, we were preoccupied with that. And then, in the 1990s, we were asked to design a kitchen. Then we did knives and cups. At the time, we were working on the monastery and I thought it would be nice to design tableware, glassware, and silverware for the refectory. At mealtimes, the monks sit on one side of each table; they don’t talk and they each have their own glass, bowl, cutlery, and napkin.
Hans Wegner’s Y Chair has always been a benchmark for me. But it has become very popular. And when people look at your work and see Hans Wegner’s chairs, they say, “Well, that’s Hans Wegner’s chairs.” Rather than recognizing your interiors. So, I thought it was time to design our own chairs.
One thing we haven’t done is jewellery. When I worked for Sheikh Saud, a Qatari prince, he had the most fantastic collection of jewellery from the last 6,000 years. He had jewels that predate any known building and other incredible pieces and artifacts, such as a makeup container for Tutankhamun, which I was able to handle. Anyway, all of these objects are now a part of my architecture.
You have said you are very obsessive about architecture.
Well, I am obsessive by nature. For a long while my parents thought I was not as obsessive about working. I didn’t become obsessive about working until I found architecture. So, the first 30 or so years were not as industrious as they are now. Now I am very competitive, but not with other people, I am competitive only with myself.
My children are also obsessive about what they do. All three are involved in music and are successful. They also share my exhilaration for experiencing architecture and they enjoyed living in my architecture. Early on they would even skateboard in the house. Actually, we were the most popular house on the block. There was nothing to break because it was empty. And the parents of the other children thought either we were moving out or we just moved in. [Laughs.]
Portrait, top of page, by Gilbert McCarragher from John Pawson: Making Life Simpler
Upon the release of a new monograph by Phaidon, we catch up with the quintessential minimalist.