John Pawson: Plain Space


I was planning to start this review with a snarky whine that the John Pawson retrospective 'Plain Space' wasn't even remotely finished for the press preview, meaning that in order to write this article I had to make the journey to the Design Museum twice in two days. However, upon returning to the completed exhibition it became apparent that there are far more serious matters to be concerned with.

Let's start with the subject matter. It's clearly not John Pawson's fault that his back catalogue is the topic of a major autumn blockbuster at the Design Museum, (although one could argue that as he has been commissioned to build the new extension it is slightly predictable). Pawson's architecture has always been an art of the barely there. His design is a slither of polished stone and shafts of light. It's chapels and art galleries, private houses and closed collections; his name is a byword for expensive taste. The way his work has been treated, however, is so void of all personality, humanity and culture it has rendered the Design Museum an institution that is entirely out of step with contemporary discourse in architecture and architecture exhibitions.

The last five years has seen a sea change in approaches to architecture curating. DomusWeb published an essay on the topic by Carson Chan last week and this autumn's issue of LOG magazine directed by Tina Di Carlo is dedicating to curating architecture. The Venice Biennale of Architecture, directed by Sejima was a manifesto in the art of space. Both MOMA and London's V&A museum have commissioned 1:1 scale buildings in an effort to eliminate the layers of representation, create a critical and compelling narrative and captivate a mainstream audience.

Photography by Luke Hayes

If anyone was looking for evidence that using photographs and scale models in architectural exhibitions was passé and pointless, the Design Museum has provided it here. The purpose of the tens of models dotted around on plinths and tables, made lovingly from card or rich hardwoods, is hard to work out. The 1:20 model achieves so little, communicating just masses and scale from a perspective that is positively obstructive to anyone trying to interpret the space. They have their place when used cleverly or selectively but essentially the model and the vocabulary used to describe them is part of an abstract language learnt in architecture schools that is inaccessible to the public. To rely on scale models for a blockbuster show is at best unimaginative and worst reductive and elitist.

However it must be said that there was a concession to 21st century curatorial thinking. In pursuit of communicating the phenomenology that makes up much of the quality of a Pawson building, a 1:1 space was constructed in the exhibition. It's a strategy being deployed by some of the most interesting architecture galleries around today. Unlike these clever and thoughtful commissions, which generally resulted in spaces with a sense of individuality, using interesting materials to create rare or special spaces, John Pawson's 1:1 space was banal and confused.

The space was a white vaulted room furnished by two long wooden benches with a panel of misty white muslin at one end and a hazy white light at the entrance. Unfortunately it didn't have any sound insulation, so the calm white space just felt like another room in the calm, white gallery but slightly noisier. There is a sense that Pawson's tasteful minimalism should somehow speak for itself, that it doesn't have to justify its position or try to be understood. There were moments of intrigue in the film and the large-scale commissioned photography (no people, of course) was nicely done, but largely the exhibition just felt dated. There were huge chunks of various materials used in the building process laid out on the floor like a specification showcase at a cladding supplier.

It's a shame because Pawson's work, crafted for so many decades, has its roots in Japan, the buildings he works on are imbued with an almost mystical quality emerging from in his own religious beliefs, his rigorous training. He has a real obsession and dedication to building that is worth investigating and revealing. It's almost impressive that the exhibition has managed to eliminate everything interesting about what he does and replace it with a generic architecture-exhibition-by-numbers.

Perhaps it's possible to see this exhibition as a genuine attempt to document the work of one of the country's best-known architects. Maybe his relentless pursuit of quality could be a manifesto and inspiration for some younger architects. Or perhaps this kind of exhibition is exactly the kind that further alienates anyone with cultural curiosity from architecture.

There are so many fascinating people working in architecture today that are challenging the concept of the architect and questioning and reformulating what architecture really is and does in society. There are architects like Junya Ishigami working with a kind of minimalism that is more relevant and more exciting than anything on display here. There are people across the world turning design on its head, but instead of seeking them out, the Design Museum seems determined to restrict itself and its visitors to the architectural history of grey haired men with expensive clients.