Words by Mr Mansel Fletcher
The British architect Mr John Pawson is recalling his earliest architectural memories over breakfast in his kitchen in West London's Notting Hill. "As children we used to go to Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey, Cistercian monastic ruins in Yorkshire. I noticed something - the great thing about architecture is that you respond to it physically, it makes you feel good." The early spring sunshine that's falling through the glass wall that separates the kitchen from the garden underlines the master of modern minimalism's point.
It's not about asceticism, there's just a pleasure in seemingly empty spaces. It's difficult not to accumulate stuff and it's a full time job keeping what you have to a minimum, but there are benefits
The 62-year-old is sitting on a chair by Mr Hans Wegner, at a wooden table of his own design, and eating from simple Wedgwood china. It's an expression of the taste that he developed in his teens. "By the time I was 18 I'd ordered some Mies van der Rohe chairs and Poul Kjærholm furniture," he remembers. "I was reading domus and a Danish magazine called mobilia that was amazingly purist and had everything that I liked in it."
However, it was the friendship he formed in his twenties with Japanese designer Mr Shiro Kuramata that took Mr Pawson from appreciation to action. He explains, "His work was the first physical manifestation of what I had in my head. He was the one who persuaded me to go to architecture school." So after a brief stint studying at London's Architectural Association School of Architecture Mr Pawson went into practice, starting with his then-girlfriend's apartment, swiftly followed by the West End art gallery where she worked. His designs were shocking for their purity and quickly attracted attention - not least that of the famous British author Mr Bruce Chatwin, who wrote an essay about Mr Pawson's apartment.
Reassuringly, the architect has consoling words for men who set more store by their possessions than the nomadic Mr Chatwin: "It's not about asceticism, there's just a pleasure in seemingly empty spaces. It's difficult not to accumulate stuff and it's a full-time job keeping what you have to a minimum, but there are benefits." Mr Pawson's wish to resist the lure of material possessions is, he says, something that's been with him since childhood. "I've hated having to worry about material things ever since [as a child] I lost those Parker pens on Blackpool beach, when I vowed not to be attached to things any longer."
Mr Pawson takes a similarly unsentimental approach to his clothes. "I'm often on building sites," he says. "I like not to have to worry about clothes, not to have to think. I like simple rugged things. Catherine [his wife] is always trying to get me into a blue shirt, but I find that when I look down I prefer to see white." However, after years of only wearing pale grey cable-knit sweaters, his outfits are not entirely unchanging. "Now I'm also wearing brown cashmere sweaters and I'm wearing black jeans, too," he says. Given that his work is defined by the use of beautiful materials, Mr Pawson's "simple rugged things", while unfussy, are hardly basic, as he explains: "I've got a collection of Loro Piana pullovers - a crew-neck pullover is a convenient bit of kit. Paul Smith is a good bet for shirts and I get my socks there - I like long black socks; I don't like to see hairy legs."
Baron House, Skåne, Sweden, 2005
The sloping surrounds conceal this design, whose elements borrow the local vernacular, from the nearby road, yet even when visible its clean white lines appear to recede into the expansive sky
Martyrs Pavilion, Oxford, England, 2009
Raised on a mound to maximise views and with its linear marble base imitating the field's chalk creases, this design serves as a public landmark, yet adheres to the functionality of a classic British cricket pavilion
Abbey of Our Lady of Nový Dvur, Bohemia, Czech Republic, 2004
This sparse monastery, the first built in the country since the Velvet Revolution, dovetails with the monks' asceticism: "An absence of visual and functional distraction supports the goal of monastic life," Mr Pawson says
Pawson House, London, England, 1999
With the 19th-century townhouse's façade untouched, Mr Pawson's design instead guts the interior. Space is maximised, while a slot running the length of the ceiling permits light to inundate the triple-height staircase
For anyone keen to understand Mr Pawson's view of the world he has just published an inspiring new book, A Visual Inventory. It's a collection of beautiful photographs, taken from the 250,000 images he's shot over the past decade. "It's my sketchbook, I use the camera to record anything that catches my eye," he explains. "Rather than what I see, it's how I see." One of the things the book reveals is how many wonderful places Mr Pawson gets to visit. From Bavarian barns to Arizona air bases via Ethiopian churches and Swiss modernist villas, the reader is taken on a remarkable architectural tour.
Some of the shots from the book are appearing in a retrospective show of Mr Pawson's work at the recently opened Architekturmuseum in Munich, Germany. The boot is on the other foot in West London, where he's currently carving a new home for Britain's Design Museum out of a striking 1960s-era building, which will house the work of other architects and designers. "It's incredible to have a building with that much space in the middle of a park [Holland Park] in central London," he enthuses. "The roof soars 16m above the top floor so it's an exciting interior space."
The medieval monasteries that originally inspired Mr Pawson gave him an understanding of the way buildings can affect a person, which has informed all his projects, from fashion stores to a modern-day monastery. As he explains, "When it's architecture there's an excitement, an atmosphere, something special. The rest is just building."
A Visual Inventory by John Pawson is published by Phaidon. phaidon.com
John Pawson, an exhibition at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Architekturmuseum, Munich continues until the 20 May