Review: John Pawson: Plain Space @ Design Museum

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Sackler Crossing at Kew Gardens.

There’s a slight whiff of incestuousness in the decision to give British minimalist architecture John Pawson a retrospective at the Design Museum: he is the man charged with designing the interior of the museum’s new home, the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington. Rowan Moore goes one further, suggesting that Pawson is but the latest in a line of chums chosen by museum director Deyan Sudjic, a telling example of the insular “mateyness” of British architecture.

Pawson has the kind of academic history that would make an architecture student wince. After years spent travelling, including formative experiences teaching English and hanging around architectural practices in Asia, he fetched up at the Architectural Association in his late-twenties, only to flunk out. When career oblivion beckoned, Pawson instead went to work for Shiro Kuramata, before a house built for Hester van Royen led to early buzz. When a Calvin Klein store in New York was siezed upon by Trappist monks in the Czech Republic, who commissioned him to build the Novy Dvur monastery, his reputation as the father of a very particular minimalism was assured.It’s an aesthetic well-realised in the centrepiece of this show: a purpose-built room, described by Pawson as a “little temple”, that showcases (if an active word can be used to describe such austerity) the architect’s characteristic style/

Beyond the temple, the show collects together huge photographs, detailed models, and other resources that hint at Pawson’s reductive process. The scale models are impressive, and often large; the practice builds them big enough so that cameras can be placed within and used to test out in advance the interplay of light and shadow. Much emphasis is given, appropriately, to Novy Dvur, while the architect’s key London project so far, the Sackler Crossing at Kew, is also well represented.

That aside, the show focuses mainly on Pawson’s breadwinning work, i.e., elegantly minimal houses for the moneyed classes who hope their lack of ostentation is read as a sign of wealth. Nice work if you can get it.

John Pawson: Plain Space, at the Design Museum, until 30th January 2011. Tickets between £5 and £8.50. An accompanying book by Alison Morris, and published by Phaidon is also available.

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