British architect John Pawson was in town recently, conferring with a client about their new apartment in one of Richard Meier’s Perry Street towers and supporting another whose film was premiering at the Museum of Modern Art. He took time out for a coffee to talk about the upcoming show of his work at the London Design Museum opening on September 22, as well as his new home for the museum—announced last month—within the repurposed Commonwealth Institute, aka the Parabola Building, a swoopy 1962 white elephant designed by RMJM in West London. (Also going on the site is a controversial Rem Koolhaas-designed apartment building.)
Pawson beat out a list that included British familiars David Chipperfield, Haworth Tompkins, Caruso St. John Architects, Stanton Williams, Tony Fretton, and the Dutch firm Claus En Kaan Architecten. Director Deyan Sudjic, the author of several books on Pawson and a close friend (the architecture circle in the UK is pretty small and tight) said that in choosing Pawson he was sure to have an architect “who will bring out the best of this remarkable building.”
From Pawson’s description, the show Plain Space promises to be an architect’s architecture show that’s not academic, focusing on materials—no surprise considering the man favors four-inch-thick marble slabs for his kitchen counter and 45-foot single-plank floorboards in the parlor—and process. Plain Space will avoid show and tell through models and pre-occupancy photography in favor of a more immersive experience. “At my age, I had to ask myself, Why an exhibition now?” said Pawson. “Ten years ago, the reasons would have been more obvious, now it’s more like, What’s the point? For me, the answer was to make it something people will learn from, to make it something about space, to make it feel like you are walking into architecture, and to make it get across how architecture gets done.”
So there’s going to be a 1:1 scale installation. Pawson has done this before at an ill-fated Marks & Spencer department store in Gateshead, where he installed a two-story house imaginatively occupied by a celebrity footballer and avid M&S consumer. This time, he said, would be quite different, a room instead of a structure. He contemplated creating a chapel in the spirit of the monastery he has designed at Novy Dvur in the Czech Republic but rejected that as too prescriptive. “It will not necessarily be residential but it will be of that scale, almost like a ballet set. It’s not meant to be heavy or permanent,” he said, noting that he would reject any client request to duplicate the space. He also toyed with the idea of making it entirely of chalk—one of a collection of materials along with pumice and cast aluminum that he keeps on his desk for inspiration—that he admires for its depth and consistency, but in compressed blocks, as it’s used in places like Kent and Dover, it would be too heavy for the museum floors. The search continues.
The “room” will sit at the center of the exhibition where people can stop and take a break before proceeding to a section of gigantic commissioned portraits of four completed projects—a cricket pavilion in Oxford; creative director Fabien Baron’s house in rural Sweden, the Sackler crossing bridge in Kew Gardens, and Pawson’s own Notting Hill townhouse. Each photo-mural will measure ten feet by six feet and comprise 24 smaller images with the purpose of providing context, in some cases miles of it, and showcasing the building as part and parcel of its landscape.
This minimalist architect is a complete lush when it comes to sumptuous materials, and so an important part of the show will feature large chunks of them arrayed on five-foot square palettes. Recalling the famous materials show that Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron did for the Prada Foundation, there will be no mock-ups, however, because Pawson’s are so exacting that they are usually incorporated into the buildings themselves. Thirty process models and drawings (none made just for the show) will be on display along with correspondence from clients, among them Karl Lagerfeld and Bruce Chatwin, but the most fascinating will no doubt be the letters from the monks headed for the Czech monastery describing their design needs and desires.
A super-sustainable 5,000 square foot house in Treviso, Italy, gets the most complete treatment with a series of commissioned photographs—no grab shots here, just the highest-rez joints and details—documenting the house built of Marmorino plaster walls and white concrete roof panels from the first day of construction through the most current. The clients are an old established family accustomed to quality: Their forefathers commissioned not only Carlo Scarpa, but Palladio. “It’s not an everyday house,” admitted Pawson. Nor does it sound like it will be an ordinary show. Plain Space runs through January 30, 2011; John Pawson: Plain Space by Allison Morris will be published by Phaidon in September.