John Pawson has attempted an architecture whose power comes from exploring fundamental problems of space, proportion, light and materials, rather than allowing himself to be sidetracked by stylistic mannerisms. The self discipline of his work clearly marks Pawson's architecture as nothing to do with the whimsy, or the self referential obsessions of the mainstream in the 1980's. But it is not correct to assume that it is assertively 'modern' either. It has no social programme, only a personal one. It doesn't offer any utopian prescriptions, rather it is a reminder that architecture has always had an austere strand, eschewing applied ornament, and confusion, but which is not necessarily connected with the machine aesthetic.
Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in Pawson's work at Dean Clough, the redundant carpet mills that dominate his home town of Halifax. This heroic relic of the industrial revolution has been taken over by a series of different users, and Pawson, working initially for the Henry Moore Trust, helped to carve a sculpture gallery out of one old mill there, then to suggest a series of deft interventions in the complex as a whole to clear away some of the agglomeration of later additions.
The massive stone walls of the complex, its monumental ramps and vaults are allowed to speak for themselves. Pawson's work is close to invisible. He has buried his urbane architectural ego in the quality of the York stone and cast iron that is the essence of the building. In one sense Pawson's architecture is an exercise in control, in lifting the sense of oppression that comes from the clutter of things, and the visual chaos of superfluous complexity. It seeks to eliminate the distraction of awkward proportions and the constant irritation of the catch that does not function unobtrusively. In its place he offers the comfort of exactness, of small things done well.
Thus to Pawson, the way in which a wall meets a floor, or whether a door fits into a wall, flush or proud, are not mere details, but reflect fundamental questions. They are as much architecture as the planning of a sequence of rooms in a gallery, or the composition of a façade. For Pawson architectural reduction is a process that takes you through a mirror. You pass through the point at which a room is merely empty, and emerge out on the other side in that mirror world to discover richness in the subtle differences between five shades of white, and the sense of release that comes from allowing a wall to flow in space unencumbered by visual distractions.
There is that sense of mountain top clear vision, of seeing architecture that is in sharp focus, with no fudges, camouflage or obfuscation. By removing unnecessary elements - such as the lintel that comes from having doors that stop short of the ceiling, and the skirtings that blur the boundaries between vertical and horizontal, Pawson allows even humble spaces to acquire dignity and nobility.
His spaces have a sense of calm and release that can communicate their essential qualities even to those who have no sympathy or understanding for his ideas. And he is ready, when the opportunity presents itself, to employ the most sensuous of materials, white marble, polished oak, and cedarwood. Used with his restraint, they create out of the ordinary spaces, in even the most restricted contexts. Within a banal 1960s block, a Pawson designed apartment leaves its context behind, to give you a sense of space and light. With this vocabulary, even a modest gallery has the sense of calm and otherness that art needs. Pawson has an intensity and an apparent unwillingness to compromise with conventions that has made some people interpret his work as art rather than architecture. But architecture, of all the arts, is the one that most depends for its expressive power on rubbing up against the gritty constraints of every day life. And Pawson is anything but hermetic in his exploration of the physical qualities of materials. Though his work is often casually equated with the school of art that is known as minimalism, his objectives are architectural ones. They come from the clarity of thought of the Mies van der Rohe of the Barcelona Pavilion, from Shiro Kuramata, from Luis Barragan and from a number of other architects who have approached design as an issue of what to leave out, rather than what to put in.
Simplicity brings with it a certain monumentality. It accommodates the fundamental essence of architecture, compression and release, enclosure and transparency. Pawson's architecture appears unforced, and effortless, but simplicity is not easily achieved.