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Spatial clarity: John Pawson at the Design Museum

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At the Design Museum, John Pawson’s luxuriantly sparse designs are pulled apart to expose their simple elements and complex tectonics, says Daniel Rosbottom

John Pawson: Plain Space, Design Museum, London SE1 2YD, until 30 January 2011

The Design Museum’s exhibition, John Pawson: Plain Space, begins at home, with Pawson’s own house. When his first house was published in 1994, it felt radical in its material and spatial clarity. Going beyond banishing skirtings and cornices, the project hollowed out its Victorian host, inhabiting the shell with restructured spaces of whiteness. Domesticating the visual language of the gallery, the interiors described a version of modernism turned in on itself, a hermetic space of luxuriant sparseness.

The world caught up and the series of international house projects that followed demonstrate the honed modernity that became a universal expression of understated privilege.

Surprisingly, instead of the abstracted forms and spaces, hewn from lumps of exquisitely raw material, that one might expect to emerge from Pawson’s design process, the models of these houses are generally small; well-made but fairly ordinary assemblies of cardboard. In fact, the table on which they stand offers a far more evocative embodiment of the qualities associated with his work. It is beautifully simple and extraordinarily long. Made from continuous 13m planks of Douglas fir, the table had to be craned into the museum – a fitting signifier for the effort and resource that must regularly be expended by Pawson’s office to achieve the calm presence of the projects.

Also on the table are books cataloguing the work and letters mounted under Perspex, fragments of correspondence with important clients. These reveal something of the world Pawson inhabits, in an occasionally amusing way, such as Karl Lagerfeld’s letter questioning the functionality of a hedged tennis court. Had visitors been able to handle them, they would have enriched the exhibition’s domesticity. Instead, they introduce a peculiarly art-historical tone that, when placed alongside quotes from Pawson and contemporaries, gives a strange sense
of him as a historical figure. This seems, ultimately, a distraction.

The table’s themes are played out through the presentation of a number of completed works and projects in progress, the latter shown through models of varying scales. The result is rather even, with a few highlights including a beautiful little chapel for a house in the Veneto.

The other half of the gallery is given to four completed projects, collectively filling one wall. Each is described with a large photograph, a short text and two material samples, arranged on palettes in the middle of the floor.

One of these projects is the Sackler Crossing at Kew Gardens in London – a wonderful bridge that could be considered the scaled-up equivalent of those domestic objects. Its deck of granite ‘sleepers’, interlaced rhythmically with bronze uprights, creates a sophisticated system. This simple, precise tectonic dialogue is eloquently captured in photographs. However, the attempt to materialise it by dismembering its components into samples is less successful. This problem is exacerbated in the other three buildings, where relationships become more complex. Consequently, the materials become further distanced from the bridge.

The role and structuring of materials in Pawson’s work seems fertile territory for critical reflection, and intriguingly, both instances showing construction demonstrate significant artifice. A film of the Stone House in Milan shows thin tiles being assembled on to a prefabricated frame, while construction photographs of the Nový Dvůr cloister also describes a more pragmatic attitude to tectonics than one might imagine.

This observation is, perhaps, responded to in the inhabited centrepiece of the show. Originally conceived as being carved from chalk, the final result is little more than a 1:1 version of the models outside. Yet, standing beneath its glowing vault and breathing in the resinous scent of its broad timber boards and benches, that seems irrelevant. While in places this exhibition says too much, and in others not enough, its threads are drawn into a single strand within this beautiful, simple room, which demonstrates that, beyond material, the power of Pawson’s architecture is ultimately spatial and experiential.

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