“The minimum could be defined as the perfection that an artifact achieves when it is not possible to improve it by subtraction.
This is the quality that an object has when every component, every detail and every junction have been reduced or condensed to the essentials.”
These few words synthesize precisely the work and career of John Pawson, well known British architect who is dedicating his life to the infinite research of the perfection through subtraction and sublime details.
He was born in Halifax, Yorkshire in 1949 and had the chance to attend the prestigious school of Eton. After graduation, he started working in the family textile business, but soon he decided to undertake a travel in Japan, in his mid-twenties.
In Tokyo, he visited the studio of the Japanese architect and designer Shiro Kuramata and he fell in love with architecture and in particular with the space control, typical of the Japanese culture. This first imprinting remains evident in all his works, as much as his personal research for the minimum, for the emptiness of spaces, just fulfilled with the human presence.
After this intense and brief experience, he returned in England and enrolled to the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, (which he never finished) to establish his own practice in 1981.
About his design process, we can find commune themes in continuity amongst all his works:
– the importance of mass, that permits to feel protected in a solid artificial environment;
– the light (the counterpoint of mass) and how it touches the space;
– the structure, that needs to be the simplest and the most effective possible;
– the ritual, seen as a human being fulfilling a private interior space, without nothing else but himself;
– landscape, or how a building interacts in the environment in which it is built and designed;
– the principle of order and hierarchy between spaces, materials and functions;
– the repetition, seen as a simplification of architecture, but not for that an impoverishment of it;
– the dialogue between volumes, or proportions;
– the essence of a space;
– the expression of an idea conceived from a sketch.
Each of these themes is a suggestion of the architect’s mind in a particular moment of his life, which underlies in a profound and mostly unconscious way, to come out in the right moment.
When John Pawson talks about the dialogue between volumes, he is talking about the juxtaposition of them with the correct proportions. But proportions derive from what the architect sees and studies in his life. We could venture that proportions are in some way experience. And on the experience of space, John Pawson reveals himself as a fine expert.
The starting point with his same words is “how I want to live in a physical space“. To mention an example, one of his first projects was his flat in London in 1981, van Royen Apartment. When the writer Bruce Chatwin visited the flat, he remained wondered by the experience, so that he wrote an essay on it, where he described the feeling of being in a space where the eye could travel freely, without obstacles, dominating and controlling all the environment in the easiest way possible. At the end, he commissionated Pawson an apartment for himself with the same essence of it.
Regardless of the scale of a project, the design process always starts with the intention of achieving a complete expression of the thinking. Sometimes the idea sounds fantastic but it could end in a poor result against reality. Pawson is able to reach the right balance, the right compromise, without losing the purpose of the best experience in the minimum, in the essential.
The research of simplicity of John Pawson’s architecture is confirmed in every project, such as Sackler Crossing, and incredible double curved line (vertically and horizontally) transformed into an astonishing bridge with only two materials, bronze for the vertical parts and granite for the horizontal ones.
We can find the same dualism of materials also in the Cricket Pavilion of the School of Oxford, in which the dialogue is between the vertical parts in wood and two horizontal lines of white marble.
In the project for his own house, he wanted to redraw the relationship between the inside and the outside space, reinterpreting the concept of boundary. The kitchen passes through the glass of the door window to finish in the patio in an elegant and unexpected way. The material is the same, but the experience changes once overpassed the threshold.
“I am used to take pictures of my house almost every day, capturing different lights and weather conditions as well as patterns of views. For me it’s a way of understanding the impact of every design decision.[…] Photography is very much about remembering.”
From these few words, it’s clear how the lesson Alvar Aalto left on lights and materials is important, fully accepted and understood by John Pawson. We can also say that it’s absolutely limpid the bond between his architecture and the Modern Movement of Mies Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. The small Cricket Pavilion is a definitive ode to his masters.
His architecture is the medium to clash ourselves against our inner human condition through contemplation. The space and the minimum in the space permit to focus only on the presence of the human being inside a void and it’s just enough to reach a brief equilibrium of peace.
– John Pawson, Minimum, Phaidon Press, London, 2006, pp. 272
– John Pawson, El Croquis 158
– John Pawson – Plain Space, Lecture at AA School of Architecture, 12 October 2010
– John Pawson – Minimum, Lecture at AA School of Architecture, 12 November 1996
– Alison Morris, John Pawson: Plain Space, Phaidon Press, London, pp. 240