John Pawson ‘Plain Space’ Design Museum

In his 10 principles of design, Dieter Rams calls for “less design but better”, echoing a recurring motif in Modernism. Like Jill Sander in fashion, Brian Eno in music, and Jonathan Ive in design, John Pawson values simple, beautiful things.

Establishing his architectural practice in 1981, Pawson, now 61, has been given a retrospective of sorts at the Design Museum which charts nearly 30 of reductive minimalism. Pawson a self-proclaimed modernist has passionately adhered to Ram’s principles, running against the grain of voguish post-modern theory. Originally from Yorkshire, Pawson is a fan of plain speaking; embellishment is not really his thing. He has become the go-to architect for the international jet-set for all things minimal. He has designed galleries, apartments, shops and the “commission of a lifetime” Nvoy Dvur Monastery in Bohemia, Czech Republic, to which a large amount of the survey has been given over.

Hosting architectural exhibitions is notoriously difficult. Plain Space brings together photographs, models and materials that contextualize Pawson’s practice. If you’ve never visited Nvoy Dvur, it’s difficult to get a picture of it free from misreading and assumptions. Writing about a building that you’ve never visited is also subject to projections; a building serves a very immediate function, but also is host to collective aspirations. Nvoy Dvur has been beautifully photographed, and as such circulates as much through these images and the various layers of mediated responses. How much of what one responds to is the building, or the various layers framing?

The Cistercian monks famously commissioned Pawson to build Nvoy Dvur on seeing his flagship Calvin Klein store in New York through a magazine, comparing the sleek till points and shelving units to altars. With the commission, Pawson fulfilled one of the great pre-occupations of modernism, implementing reductive formal principles while reflecting a shift from the external towards an interest in internal psychological states. Modernists such as Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg were effectively proto-monks while Rothko designed his chapel; these tendencies, although diverse, were structured around an intense interest in the spiritual, replacing older diverse religious iconography with a universal language for the spiritual.

Simplicity for the modernists was a form of protest, like the protestant reformers before them. They attacked the old authoritative voice of the past by simplifying its complex codes. Decoration for the modernists was like Latin to the Protestants, the language of deceit and disguise.

The ascetic aspirations of modernists such as Le Corbusier are well documented. Pawson’s Nvoy Dvur owes much to Le Corbusier’s L’unité d’habitation in Marseille. The  building proclaims economy and austerity as a guiding principle, enforcing a strict ban on personalizing apartments. Le Corbusier wanted to “de-clutter” the world, and by furnishing the every need of its inhabitants, tried to create his own utopia in a suburb of Marseille.

Pawson’s projects are unified through simplicity of means. He belongs to a heritage of designers and makers who use reductive means as a turn away from a culture of excess. Emerging at a time when the modernist agenda was in deep crisis, Pawson remained resolute in his ambitions. It was a time when minimalism could be re-invigorated outside of the dominant cultural discourse. Pawson could re-claim it from the over-heated debates of Modernism.

In Pawson’s hands minimalism is something warmer and more human. Simplicity, as John Maeda notes, is the language of being found, while complexity is the language of being lost. The white walls of Nvoy Dvur are a container for the aspirations of the monastic lifestyle, a belief system developed from a humanist belief in simplicity. It is something that ties the monks of Bohemia to the patron of a Pawson-designed apartment, a collective acknowledgment of the transitory, ephemeral nature of existence.

Nvoy Dvur will provide the monks for the rest of their lives with living quarters, a library, a chapel and a work space; it is a building that functions as a city. A work in progress, Pawson will extend the site as the monk’s raise more money. In an era of global travel Nvoy Dvur represents a moment of stasis, creating an umbilical link between the landscape and the monks — Pawson achieves this through his use of local materials and large, generous windows that open up the building to its environment. It is in his use of light that Pawson recalls James Turrell, and it is no surprise that Pawson recalls the great American minimalists as he speaking an international and universal language devoid of any vernacular detail.

Plain Space makes a compelling case for Pawson’s ability as a thorough and serious architect. With Nvoy Dvur he has created a monument of lasting significance that does much to boost his reputation. He is an architect who divides opinion but along with people as diverse as Ive, Sander and Eno, he has retained a belief in the humanist qualities of minimal design.

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