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the quiet revolutionary

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Self-promotion is not uncommon among big-name architects from big-name practices, but for Terry Pawson it's his buildings, not his ego, that matter - although he would like to see more of his projects actually come to fruition

Terry Pawson's hope is that 'people will feel strongly about my work' - nothing, he says, could be worse than indifference. The house he has just completed for himself and his family in Wimbledon (the subject of this week's building study, starting on page 26) is certainly a strongly-felt and highly personal work - as architects' houses tend to be. It has been some years in planning and construction (being put on the backburner from time to time as other jobs took priority) and Pawson is glad to see it completed. But he has little time to relax and enjoy the new house.

At the beginning of 2001 Pawson launched his new practice, after 15 years in partnership with Keith Williams (19862000). The two men met at the Kingston School of Architecture. After graduation, Pawson worked for a time in Italy - an important phase of his life, he says: 'I was interested in the Italian Rationalist tradition and had the time to see a lot of buildings.

And my interest in urban design inevitably received a boost from having the opportunity to visit and study a lot of historic towns.'

Pawson and Williams met up again in the mid-1980s when both were working in the office of Terry Farrell, then engaged on big London projects such as Alban Gate and Embankment Place. They eventually decided to make the break and Pawson Williams was formed.

Terry Pawson is not keen to dwell on the Pawson Williams years. The break, when it came, was amicable but certainly final - you get the impression that it could well have come sooner and that the interests of the two partners were diverging rapidly. In terms of built work, Pawson Williams did not achieve the success of other 1980s creations such as Troughton McAslan, Allies & Morrison and Lifschutz Davidson, but its professional reputation was strong.

Terry Pawson's name is certainly known internationally. In the past year he has been shortlisted for such projects as the Swiss National Museum in Zurich (where Peter Zumthor chaired the jury), the extension to the Schiller Museum (won by David Chipperfield), the Hesse Parliament in Wiesbaden and the Brandhorst Museum in Munich. In the UK, his name figures less frequently on shortlists. 'It's the British agenda, ' he says. 'Here, they want to know about your turnover and finances rather than about the quality of your work. There is a prejudice in Britain against smaller practices - you need to have done projects of a particular type to be shortlisted for them.

It's a no-win situation.'

The largest project that Terry Pawson Architects (with a staff of eight people) has in hand is the extension to the Museum and Art Gallery in Cheltenham. The scheme has been running for some time - and started rather bigger than it is now. A recent change of political control on the local council brought the worry that it might be further cut or even scrapped, but the new Lib Dem administration has lined up behind it. So have the local civic society and the regional office of English Heritage (though, since the demolition of some listed houses is involved, final approval rests with EH at national level and the secretary of state, who could call in the plans to a public inquiry).

The scheme extends the existing late Victorian museum building, creating new galleries, stores, a cafe and other spaces.

Cheltenham, Pawson admits, 'is not a place that's known for its receptiveness to Modern architecture'. So he is pleasantly surprised by the support that he has had from local people.

The issue of context loomed large in the project. Cheltenham is still very much a Regency and Victorian town - the image of Modern architecture is negative, thanks to a small number of 1960s eyesores. Pawson's thinking about the project was informed by his earlier work for the Natural History Museum, but that had no external expression.

At Cheltenham he has chosen Corten steel as a cladding - 'it's a powerful material - I wanted a sense of honesty in the building, in the Arts and Crafts tradition, ' he says. (Cheltenham has an outstanding collection of Arts and Crafts furniture and decorative arts. ) Pawson has lived in Wimbledon for some years, so that moving his office close to home (it is currently in Merton High Street) seemed a natural move. He has acquired a site, at present a redundant garage, close to the centre of Wimbledon and his plan is to build new offices there. A new church hall, also in Wimbledon, is nearing completion - Pawson's wife is a minister of religion. 'It's very good for the office to work on a wide range of projects, large and small, ' he says.

Terry Pawson is a quiet and even reticent man, whose modest persona comes as a pleasant surprise in a profession full of relentless self-promoters. He is also disarmingly honest when it comes to discussion of his sources and inspirations.

'Like most architects, I often resort to my library, ' he says. 'I find that some books are consulted quite often.' Soane and Stirling are probably his greatest heroes, but Ando and Kahn are also architects whose work has inspired him. Alvaro Siza and Rafael Moneo are others who he admits to studying closely.

Like many of his generation, Pawson is unashamedly anxious to get more work actually built. He is preoccupied with the nature of materials, with the process of construction - rather than innovative structures in the High-tech mould - and with the crafting of buildings; all these concerns are apparent in the Wimbledon house.

Pawson may be the quiet man of British architecture but one thing is certain: he feels strongly about what he does, and it shows.

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