Driven by the pursuit of simplicity: John Pawson tells his story

salonemilano, john pawson

John Pawson - Ph. Gilbert Mc Carragher

Interview with the British architect, who on 18 April (11 am) will talk with critic and curator Dejan Sudjic in the “Drafting Futures” arena designed by Formafantasma 

At the Salone del Mobile.Milano 2024, he will be the protagonist of a long conversation with the author, curator and critic Deyan Sudjic - who is also, or rather, above all, a long-standing friend: the English architect John Pawson is one of the few contemporary architects who manages to find the essence of places. His more than 40-year career has earned him the title of master of modern minimalism. We met him for a preview to talk about his vision, his passions and his relationship with Milan and the Salone. 

What is your relationship with the definition of “minimalist” that is often given to you? What does minimalism mean to you?

The instinct to categorise is a very natural one. I am perfectly content to be labeled a minimalist, even though I think it is a word that is often misunderstood and misused. I have always been driven by the pursuit of simplicity – the quest for what I have characterised as the minimum, which is the quality an object or space has when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction. I’ve always responded to quiet spaces, where the eye is free to travel uninterrupted.  

What are the degenerations of minimalism that you dislike?

I think that when minimalism becomes a style rather than a set of fundamental spatial principles, it tends to become - ironically - oddly fancy.  Authentic simplicity is very difficult to achieve, it’s not just about painting the walls white and having a signature chair or kitchen spout.  

I find it much more sensible and less superficial to use a word cloud to define an author. I found a question in Azure Magazine very apt, which I quote as follows. “When you describe your work, you use such words and phrases as ‘pleasure, permanence, clarity, simplicity, clean, pure, quietly monumental, imprecise, timeless, unornamented, and architecture of almost nothing’. And during this conversation, you mentioned words like ‘atmosphere, protected, warm, and welcoming”. How else would you define your work and what kind of architecture do you try to achieve?

For me the deepest experiences of ease and wellbeing derive from simplicity and clarity. I’ve never seen any contradiction between architectural minimalism and making places that are warm and inviting. I find profound comfort and pleasure in spaces where it’s all about the quality of the light, the proportions, and the surfaces. For me minimalism is not an abstract aesthetic, it’s about creating a physical environment and an atmosphere that allows me to live as I want to live. 

Another definition that intrigued me is the one about your “monastic style”. Can we say that your various church and monastery projects are the ones that most reflect your austere attitude?

I have never really thought of myself as austere. What could be more sensuous than a beautiful expanse of stone or timber, with nothing to distract from the experience of light, shadow, colour, texture, pattern and surface? I’m not interested in producing the architectural equivalent of a hair shirt.  The monks, clergy and congregations I have worked with over the past two decades have all come to me because they recognised the rich possibilities of what you make space for when you pare a physical environment back to its essentials. For them, obviously, this spatial freedom is the scope to focus on God – on things of the spirit. Each of these projects has been a huge privilege for me, not least because of the way all of them have allowed me to work with pure light and form at previously undreamt of scales. 

You traditionally described your portfolio as “everything from a spoon to a monastery”. Does the approach to the project remain the same?

I’ve always said that to me it’s all architecture. Everything I design derives from a consistent set of preoccupations about mass, volume, surface, proportion, junction, geometry, repetition, light and ritual. 

Spectrum, a publication released in 2017 and published by Phaidon, is a magnificent exploration of colour and light through photography. And then there is your highly followed Instagram account, which is an almost daily travelogue. What interests you about photography and what use does it have in your practice as an architect?

I think of my camera as a design tool. I use my lens as other people use a sketch book.  Architecture is, by its nature, very slow. Projects can take many years to complete. Photography, by contrast, is almost instant and I use it all the time, to record my observations and ideas. Instagram offers me a way to share this visual journal with a wider audience. I enjoy the discipline of selecting the daily image – editing and curating are essential aspects of the architectural process. 

What is your relationship with Milan and the Salone del Mobile.Milano?

I love the elegance and animation of Milan, which are part of what makes the Salone so unfailingly special. I generally find ease in stillness, but for these few days it’s wonderful to feel oneself part of it all – the energy of the place, the conversations, the gatherings of friends… 

6 April 2024