One Architect's Uncluttered Perspective

John Pawson's book 'Minimum' gives maximum weight to simplicity

You look at the world far more selectively after a dip into John Pawson's absorbing book "Minimum." It wages quiet war on inessentials.

Impressive photographs and choosy words signal the message: Simplicity is all. Pawson characteristically observes that there are "50 different colors of white." The book cover itself is so minimal that one is tempted to don kid gloves when handling it.

To this British architect, whose work internationally includes art galleries, offices, shops, houses, and a London theater, simplicity is achieved when it becomes impossible to improve a thing by further subtraction.

He is not against complexity. Architecture by its very nature - take the private house for instance - embraces the complex. What he opposes is pointless complication: distraction, triviality - overdoing, overstating, and overdecorating.

Although modernists like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier are featured in his book, Pawson's "simplicity" is not at all just modernism. Not is it the oversimplification that results in a cold blandness, though it is clear from his own work, and his choice of others', that he does have a great fondness for large expanses of unadorned wall. "I love walls without things on them," he says.

He has a suspicion that dealing with the concrete elements of architecture - the bricks and mortar - is something of a cop-out. He feels he should be dealing with the intangibles.

In his lectures he sometimes shows buildings being blown up. What would the world be like without architecture? He has a yearning for both wilderness and desert. Coming from a Yorkshire Methodist background, he briefly tried to satisfy his sense of idealism and simplicity by becoming a Buddhist monk. He soon realized this was not for him. He did, however, live in Japan for four years, and his appreciation for the quality of spaces between solids is evocative of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Ironically, the one thing he found impossible to discover in modern Japan was remoteness.

"There is absolutely no way you can get to the countryside," he says. "You can't just go off the Dales." (His love of the Yorkshire dales and moors is expressed in a photograph in his book.)

Born in Yorkshire, Pawson came to architecture "late" - in his 30s. He never completed his college training. He never worked for another architect. He is his own man. Architecture for him "was never really a business or even a career," he says, "just a sort of passion." Although he has never had to seek out clients, at the outset (in the early 1980s) his dedication to "simplicity" was far from fashionable. But fashions change.

Although the shop he designed for Jigsaw on London's Bond Street still stands out unmistakably in its direct economy of form and lack of the decorative, he is less of a voice in the wilderness today. The director of a TV documentary about Pawson recently even informed him that he is "at his peak" - a notion Pawson clearly thinks laughable. Permanency is a primary aim, even when he is working on a clothing store, which might typically only be there for five years. (Among those he has done are the Calvin Klein shops in Manhattan, Tokyo, and Seoul.)

In "Minimum" (Phaidon Press, 271 pp., $95) he returns often to his dislike for consumerism (as well as "the obsessive weight of possessions"), and many of the illustrations are of buildings or landscapes that have survived the ravages of time because, you are almost persuaded to believe, of their simplicity quite as much as their sound, strong structures.

"Minimum" is not a small book, and it ranges widely from Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building to a Shaker staircase, from the Alhambra to a concrete chapel for Muslims, from the Roman amphitheater in Verona to a wall at Versailles.

Apparently, sculpture in public places does not appeal much to Pawson. And indeed the presence of people in buildings might almost seem an intrusion, so concentrated is he on architecture itself. But he makes an exception for the so-called minimal sculpture of American Don Judd. Judd's work, however - the line of giant concrete "boxes" in the Texas landscape, for instance - comes extremely close to architecture both in scale and in the way people experience it.

Conversely, Pawson's own work, and that of other architects he appreciates, brings architecture close to sculpture.

What his book makes clear is that plainness in architecture does not mean anonymity. A love of pure geometry, of perfectionism, of balance and repetition and uninterruption, emphatically does not rule out personal vision. Arguably, in fact, it only accentuates such vision.

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