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Running on empty

review

John Pawson: Themes and Projects By Deyan Sudjic et al. Phaidon, 2002. £19.95

Minimalism has been getting a rough ride recently - John Pawson, its best-known exponent, is at the sharp end of it. The root of the problem can be seen in the beautifully photographed, perfectly empty interiors in this book.

Interestingly, figures only occur in renderings of unbuilt projects, as if clients need to be able to imagine the scale and nature of space in the abstract, yet, when the projects are built, they are banished to the margins, soiling a perceived purity. Alexei Sayle has written a short story in which the wife of a Minimalist architect rents a flat which she stuffs full of cuddly animals and gewgaws as a reaction to the austerity and uninhabitability of her architect-husband's home.

Sayle's inspiration can be found in these pages.

The presentation of the book also reinforces the lifestyle message, which was so conspicuous in Pawson's ill-judged cookery book, Living & Eating. It is portable, accessible (lots of waffle about Zen, essence, monasteries, stillness and so on), well-produced and high quality; obviously meant for a wider market than most books reviewed in this magazine.

And this, in a way, is why I almost like it.

In our current pluralistic micro-moment it is easy to forget the sorry state of architecture in this country two decades ago. The choice was super-big PoMo, has-been corporate Modern, Meierist 'new' Modern, and Princely Barrett Homes vernacular. It was dire. Pawson was a breath of fresh air, even if we now forget that. It was his (and former partner Claudio Silvestrin's) work that the colour magazines fawned over, making architecture both news and fashion, and the media-friendly creature that it is today.

Pawson was among the first to introduce this new Minimalism into retail design and the Calvin Klein stores worldwide feature heavily here (pictured is the one in Paris, 2002). They show what a good job the architect did for the CK corporate image, using space, material and careful articulation.

Pawson is currently working on the corporate image of the Cistercians in Novy Dvur, Czech Republic, (and told me recently that the monks had been surprised when he showed them around his own London house, one whispering to another, 'Don't you think it's a bit severe for us?').

There are plenty of pictures here of private houses, which range from the superb to the absurdly precious (where the spaces seem to be pouting for the camera).We have become so used to images of this kind that they now have a real job to convince us. Considering the perfectionism of these shots, it is refreshing to see a number of schemes presented in model form and not the ubiquitous digital renderings.

This little book ends rather incongruously with a series of photographs of the Cistercian abbey of Le Thoronet; Pawson designed a recent Phaidon book on it featuring Lucien Hervé's powerful images. But these are not Hervé's photographs and, while fine, they sit uneasily after shots of Pawson's King's Cross offices. There could have been a Richard Wentworth moment of juxtaposition - but there wasn't.

Pawson's work is highly photogenic and genuinely popular. But in creating a book of de rigeur congratulatory essays and sumptuous shots of sun-kissed whiteness, the publisher satisfies neither architects (who may want plans and analyses) or the public (for whom this has too-few recipes and toosmall photographs). It is halfway between a monograph and the architect's best-selling minimum books, and looks cobbled together from existing images. Not particularly nice, but don't hold it against Pawson.

Edwin Heathcote is architecture correspondent for the Financial Times

Cabinets of Curiosities By Patrick Mauriès.Thames & Hudson,2002.

256pp. £39.95

Not quite John Pawson, this. Instead of his mission to exclude the world, to banish it from sight, Cabinets of Curiosities is about crowding as much of it as possible into a constricted space.The organised clutter of these cabinets (sometimes whole rooms) opens multiple vistas across space and time. Repositories for shells, minerals, scientific instruments, freaks of nature; variously classified, and usually housed in an ornate, elaborate manner; they reflect the state of knowledge at the time of their creation, with trophies from the very latest explorations. If the Kunst und Nataralienkammer at Halle, Germany, was still a live concern - a tiny portion of it is pictured - its owner would no doubt have contacted NASA for a sample from the moon.

From the earliest representation of such collections, a 1599 woodcut of Ferrante Imperato's private museum in Naples, to their legacy in the practice of 20th-century artists such as Joseph Cornell, this splendidly illustrated volume shows their often bizarre contents with panache. It is good to see a prominent credit for the picture researcher, Georgina Bruckner, as her resourcefulness has clearly been vital to the book's success.

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