"I would like to be super-minimalistic" - Interview with architect John Pawson

Architect John Pawson © Orla Connolly

The architekt John Pawson works for 30 years according to the approach of minimalism. Now, for the first time in Germany, the museum Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich shows his works until May.

Artsation: Do you still like the work you did 30 years ago?

John Pawson: I became an architect because I appreciate the slowness and longevity of the profession. It is something very permanent. My family was in the textile business, making fashion for women. I found the rapid turnaround of seasons and collections strange. Fashion is constantly changing. The cycles of architecture tend to be more measured. A pair of trousers from the 1970s might seem hopelessly dated, but a well-designed apartment of the same decade will probably still feel aesthetically comfortable.

There are repetitions in architecture too…

In fashion you have to design something new every six months. You have your timetable; there is pressure.

John Pawson's house, London, 1999 © Jens Weber

You used to work as a designer in your father's fashion company when you were only 19 years old…

It didn’t really work out. When I finished school, I travelled for a year, through India, Australia, Iraq and Afghanistan. After that I started working for my father. He thought I was very much grown up and I wasn’t old enough to realise how young I was. It is similar today, only now I don't understand how old I am. I look at this exhibition and think: Oh my God, 30 years.

Before you became an architect, there were plans for you to become a monk?

My mother had plans for me that were not commercial. She didn’t want me to become a businessman. In her dreams she saw me as a missionary in an African village. She was a very modest woman and wished for me to do something low-key, something nobody would know about. I was interested in the most extreme forms of things, so I made the decision to become a Zen Buddhist monk in Japan, which was not at all what she had in mind.

That did not happen, however…

I was greeted very warmly at the monastery, and ordered to clean the temple floor. I was supposed to have a bowl of rice at 4 in the morning. It was a hard night for a middle class English schoolboy and I left the very next day.

We all live in a state of contradiction. We want to create order and feel liberated from the weight of too many possessions, but at the same time we love to accumulate things.

Your architecture is famous for its clarity and purity. Did you seek out those qualities when you were younger?

In my mind, everybody feels this need. We all live in a state of contradiction. We want to create order and feel liberated from the weight of too many possessions, but at the same time we love to accumulate things. We want to travel and be alone at the same time. We want to be successful and earn more money, but we also want to turn our backs on the corporate world. But it’s true, I felt the desire for simplicity you are talking about early on. When I was six years old, I went on a seaside trip to Blackpool. On the way back, I realised I had lost my set of pens. I was shocked and swore to myself never to get so attached to things again.

This is probably easier to do for a bourgeois boy who has everything, than for a child from a more humble background, don't you think?

Yes, certainly. When I lost or broke something, I was always told to not bother about it, because it is relationships that matter and it is much harder to fix them once they are broken. I often question why I am the way I am – but I think I was born this way.

Your parents were Methodists…

My grandparents were strict Methodists - no alcohol, no work at weekends and two church services on Sundays, morning and evening. This is nothing for monks! They pray seven times a day, sometimes more often. I once spent a week in the monastery, sharing their routine and it was wonderful. It gives you a certain rhythm. My parents were raised as Methodists, but they did not bring us children up in the faith. My mother, especially, always had this idea of simplicity. She liked straightforward things.

For your father, it was more about perfection and quality…

In some ways he was the opposite of my mother.

Do you seek perfection as an architect?

Perfection has many negative aspects. The monks would say that only God is perfect. You cannot depend on perfection, or else you will never be satisfied. I chose a profession that requires seriously hard work. And I try to achieve something that is perfect, or at least as perfect as it gets. I am lucky to have people who help me achieve this, because I am far from perfect. I am not a very patient person - physically or mentally. I am bad at drawing and find it hard to concentrate for any length of time. I’m good at repetitive tasks, however. I tend to develop obsessive patterns of behaviour. I wrote all of the invitations for an exhibition in London by hand, for example.

My approach goes beyond minimalism. At the same time, I would actually like it to be more minimalistic - super-minimalistic.

What is the task you set yourself in architecture?

I want to create spaces where people feel comfortable. They might not know what lies behind this feeling of comfort, but they experience its physical appeal. I want them to understand my approach.

It is a minimalistic approach…

You can call it minimalistic. I would say my approach is more than that. At the same time, I would actually like it to be more minimalistic - super-minimalistic. My instinct is always to shed, but still requires constant discipline to keep life clear of unnecessary things.

Do you live by this commitment to clarity and purity?

I am not an ascetic. I may live simply for someone from the middle-class, living in a big city, but I am under no illusions about how my life compares with that of people from other parts of the world. The only constants I could not manage without are my work and my family.

Beside public and commercial buildings you also build many private homes these days. Do the clients have to adjust themselves to you?

I do not want to convert anybody. I have never tried to do that. But you have to understand that I never planned to become an architect. When I started working, it was really just for myself and I still do that a little bit today. If I didn’t get any more projects that would be a shame, but designing architecture for myself is what makes me happy. I used to believe that there is only one way and I think you need a bit of that attitude to make progress. But I was so convinced of my way of working that I had trouble with clients. That is not a good idea at the beginning of your career.

How do you get to know your clients? Do you go into their homes and try to understand their lives?

I have done, but only to make the client feel comfortable. I once went to a sauna with someone I had only just met - the first time I took my clothes off in front of a client. But to be honest, architecture is architecture. I create spaces. If you tell me that you read Shakespeare, then that is interesting but it won't influence the room I design for you. Most people want the same things. They want to feel safe, inspired and connected. They need space to sleep, to eat, a kitchen and a bathroom.

Martyrs Pavillon, St. Edward's School, Oxford, 2009 © Jens Weber