The simple expression of complex thought
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The simple expression of complex thought

10 Jan 2011

This year, the Design Museum in London will host the first major exhibition of the works of architect John Pawson. Sam Muir was there to preview this long-awaited retrospective.

On arrival at the Design Museum one is confronted by a screened aperture of a 1:1 scale installation central to the exhibition, the lighting lending the sparse white arch a sense of warmth at odds with its glacial iridescence. Inside the installation, this warmth is further asserted by untreated wooden benches that create an impression of a heavenly waiting room.

Before arriving at the installation’s entrance, Pawson’s keen appreciation of context and his relationship with materials are introduced via a series of large photographs of completed projects set alongside life-size examples of some of the materials used in their construction. The introductory text explains how Pawson seeks to avoid the "distraction of experimentation" by using traditional materials and describes his creative process whereby he investigates the site’s environment and the history of the surrounding area for inspiration.

"Everything is rendered with Pawson’s delightful economy of space and light."

The first image is of Baron House, commissioned by art director Fabien Baron. The simple, unobtrusive single-level structure is set within a beautiful expanse of green. Before the picture, large blocks of timber, stained with traditional Falun black paint, lie alongside a broad sheet of the corrugated zinc used for the roof. In keeping with his interest in context, the choice of Falun timber was made in line with "local vernacular models". It can be assumed then that the zinc was chosen for its contrasting qualities, or perhaps to achieve the effect of the roof appearing to shimmer when seen from a distance.

Next is the majestic swoop of the Sackler Crossing at Kew Gardens with its slabs of black granite paired with bronze. Deliberately set low, the bridge apears to floats over Kew’s main lake with Pawson’s trademark unobtrusive beauty. A nearby video installation takes the viewer on a sunny afternoon stroll along the crossing, which is interspersed with stills taken from a distance.

Clarity of space

Following the Sackler footage, a recording of the consecration of the church at the Novy Dvur monastery from September 2004 neatly takes us through to the next part of the exhbition. This details the process by which Pawson determines and realises his designs, using the Cistercian monastery as a case study. Preliminary drawings are displayed alongside early scale models while the accompanying text outlines a brief history of the commission, including quotes from Pawson and the monks themselves, offering their perspectives on the process. These serve to highlight the negotiation that took place throughout but also emphasise the mutual appreciation they shared; it is hard to imagine a more perfect marriage than the monk’s pursuit of austerity and Pawson’s desire for "clarity of space".

The show is completed by examples of current projects with photographs and a scattering of scale models followed by a collection of artefacts demonstrating his work outside of architecture, including simple kitchenware and a set design for the Royal Ballet. Naturally, everything is rendered with Pawson’s delightful economy of space and light.

The Design Museum will soon be move to the Parabola building on Kensington High Street, the former home of the Commonwealth Institute. The move is to be overseen by the man himself, with the combination of the simple grandeur of his design with the striking angles of the building promising quite a spectacle. Until then, a visit to this subtly immersive exhibition is well worth the trip.