Little Buddha

John Pawson’s belief that less is more determines his approach to an architectural design project. Clare Melhuish asks him about his recent work for Jigsaw

Last September John Pawson’s fortunes seemed set to rocket sky-high with the wildly hyped opening of the store he designed for Calvin Klein in New York. Being appointed to design a new flagship store for Jigsaw in Bond Street, London, is rather less glamorous, but nevertheless Pawson says he’s flattered that it came to him. And when the shop opens on 17 March architecture watchers will have plenty to say about Jigsaw’s conversion from the wacky baroque style of Nigel Coates, the architect of its Knightsbridge shop, to the other extreme of Pawson’s pure-as-driven-snow simplicity.

In fact, Pawson’s architecture is capable of its own particular kind of quirkiness. His office in central London evokes an impressive discipline of uniformity and the apparent absence of hierarchical distinctions. White space and big windows enhance the atmosphere of calm, studious dedication to the task in hand.

Pawson’s London office is manned by ten people, and he has two international branch offices, in the shape of Enzo in New York, and Alejandro in Barcelona. But he never really intended to open an office: “I don’t see the point of having an office and doing jobs for the sake of it”, he says. He believes it’s only necessary to realise two or three houses in a lifetime – an “Erik Asplund or a Sigurd Lewerentz,” he proffers tellingly – and prefers working on a small scale because of the “human contact”, which you lose when working with a committee on larger projects. In these times of single-minded commercialism and fast-track construction, where nobody has time to think, and where it’s always quantity rather than quality that counts, this is a refreshing approach. But how do you survive? Well, “you can live more simply” Pawson says – a statement which leads you to assume his privileged background has allowed him more artistic freedom than most architects probably enjoy.

Pawson was brought up in an old manor house in Halifax in the north of England. His father ran a successful clothing design and manufacturing business. His parents were Methodists, and his mother wanted John to go to Africa as a missionary. She was “all for modesty and not showing things”, says Pawson, while his father “always wanted the best”. John was sent to Eton College, where, as a teenager, he indulged his passion for architecture in a subscription to Domus. But, having left school and spent some time in India and Australia, he returned to Halifax to join the family business for seven years, during which time he designed a new collection and a showroom and studio in London which he had persuaded his father to open.

In the end, he says, the business was “too well-established to change direction.” He left his job, a broken engagement and the country for Japan, dreaming of becoming a Buddhist monk. After a night in a mountain monastery he abandoned the idea and settled down to teaching English and developing his interest in Japanese architecture of the sixteenth century. He met the architect Shiro Kurumata, whose work he had admired in Domus while at school, which encouraged him to return to England and study at the Architectural Association.

In the early Eighties he left without qualifying, because he was already getting work. Since then he has realised a number of galleries and flats for wealthy, high-profile clients, which attracted attention in the society and architectural press because of the apparent extreme absence of content. Between 1987 and 1989, while in partnership with Claudio Silvestrin, Pawson also produced the Japanese restaurant Wakaba, and the smart cakeshop Canelle, which challenged the usual rules of retail design by turning anonymous blank faces of obscured glass to the street. In 1991 he designed the RKRK clothes shop, which, conversely, seemed to have no frontage at all, the street facade being made of a single panel of clear glass with a full-height door set into it, revealing the entire contents of the interior to the outside world.

Bruce Chatwin, in his foreword to the Gustavo Gilli monograph on Pawson (1992), sets the work in the tradition of “voluntary poverty”, where the state of “emptiness” is perceived as actually rich and full. But others interpret it as an obsessive, didactic minimalism which is incapable either of accommodating normal life or of developing in architectural terms, and has only achieved a kind of fashionable notoriety. It does indeed seem somewhat ironic that an architect who believes in a near-monastic ideal of simple living should have produced most of his work for society’s wealthy consumer elite, including a fashion king such as Calvin Klein.

Pawson doesn’t like the term “minimalism”, which he says people either associate with the “Seventies art movement or with an idea of buildings and interiors which are somehow easy to do, when in fact they are not”. He also objects to the idea that it is just a fashion. In his new book, Minimum, which will be published by Phaidon Press in September, he traces the ancient idea of simplicity and purity in architecture as a frame for life. In that sense, he argues, his work is rooted in a long historical tradition. He also maintains that, within the parameters of his own development, it bears witness to a continuous progression of a particular idea towards an extreme. At the beginning, he says, this presents itself as a question of abstraction, but it gradually emerges as “a question of balance, getting everything right”, and discovering how to do that takes time and learning. “You take things out, but you also put things back”, he explains, building up a richness of carefully chosen light, space, proportion, form and materials which he and others maintain is not austere, but sensuous and even hedonistic.

On the subject of fashion, he admits that it seems a contradiction that someone like him, who left the fashion world because he found it too frivolous and transient, should work for someone like Calvin Klein or Jigsaw. On the other hand, “everyone has two sides”, he comments wryly, and he acknowledges that he enjoys “beautiful fabrics and the colours of clothes and how they can change our personal looks”. But from a design point of view, it is the way that people move about when they shop, and the way things are displayed and lit, rather than the objects themselves, that he finds interesting. His clients share his interests – Klein, with his enthusiasm for Barragan, adobe, New Mexico and travelling light, and Jigsaw with its concern for producing simple, wearable clothes.

Pawson is currently facing the biggest challenge of his career so far – the move from working with an existing structure to starting from scratch with a new building. Following the sad demise of a scheme for a hillside house in Dublin, comprising three linked pavilions, he is now working on a house in Los Angeles and a domestic extension in Philadelphia. Whereas in interior architecture, he explains, the aim is always to get the maximum out of what you’ve been given, and to make it as comfortable as possible, the problem with building from nothing is that you have to identify the ideal, and “that makes it much more challenging.”

However, if he can pull it off it should give his admirers the proof they need that Pawson’s love affair with the minimum can really produce great architecture.

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