A Place to Hang Your Hat

Architect and designer John Pawson remembers his friend, the writer Bruce Chatwin

I was studying at the Architectural Association in London when I first met Hester [van Royen], an art dealer who would become my first wife. She lived in the flat next to mine, and one day, when I was locked out, I had to climb across her balcony. I ended up doing her flat, knocking through the walls myself. She was renting the place and so of course the landlord kicked us out, but it was my first proper foray into architecture. Bruce Chatwin – who was friends with Hester – saw it and asked me to do his own tiny flat at the top of an old apartment block in Belgravia.

Bruce was quite specific. He wanted somewhere light and airy that he could lock up and leave, somewhere he could ‘hang his hat’, as he said. It was to be spacious and minimally appointed but the few possessions he brought with him were exquisite: a sofa made for the empress Marie-Louise; a birchwood table and stool, designed by Alvar Aalto; a hanging of parrot feathers from the back wall of a Peruvian sun temple – every object had a story. Whether it was exaggerated or even made up was irrelevant to me. He was a storyteller, and you treasured every moment you had with him.

Looking back, I’ve realised I’ve learned more from my clients than I’ve been able to give, and it’s especially true with Bruce. He was a great writer, of course, but he was also approachable and generous. He gave me a leg up when I was just starting out, and when he came to write about the flat I had designed for him, he articulated what it was I was trying to do. It gave me confidence. When I did the minimum, a lot of my ideas came from Bruce.

I miss him. When he fell ill he told everyone that he had an incredibly rare disease, caught from a dead whale on a beach in China. The reality of that disease, which took away so many people so quickly and suddenly, was too awful. You wanted to go along with his version…

As told to George Upton

This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Light Relief: John Pawson x Wästberg

Port speaks to architect and designer John Pawson and Marcus Wästberg, founder of lighting company Wästberg, about the unique, atmospheric qualities of candlelight

It is only very recently, in the last 100 years – a fraction of human existence – that we have really been able to control light. Despite the great advances of the industrial revolution, until the end of the 19th century vast modern cities would be plunged into darkness at night. Where now, looking down from the hills around Los Angeles or London, the city appears as a vast, twinkling beacon, illuminating the sky above it, then it would have sunk with the sunset into the dark, unseen. 

Given its ubiquity today, it is hard to imagine life without electric lighting, but for at least 400,000 years the only source of light other than the sun was fire, and only as candlelight for the past 5,00o years. And yet, while the effect of electric lighting on the development of humanity cannot be understated, as Marcus Wästberg – the founder of the lighting company that bares his name – states, we miss something in becoming estranged from fire. An essential source of warmth, communication and defence, as well as light, for our ancestors, fire has a certain quality – a colour and form and movement – that artificial light cannot replicate.

It was these ideas that led Wästberg to develop a series alongside his range of conventional lighting that was devoted to non-electric lights. Named Holocene, after the geological period running between 11,700 to 100 years ago – a period Wästberg describes as being when “man lived in harmony with nature – was careful with resources, and cherished fire,” the series has seen collaborations with designers Ilse Crawford, David Chipperfield and Jasper Morrison over the past ten years. Now Wästberg is launching the fourth product in the Holocene range: a sleek, stainless steel and aluminium oil lamp by the architect and designer John Pawson.

Pawson, who is known for his expressive, spiritual minimalism, is an appropriate collaborator for a project that seeks to rediscover the contemplative, mindful qualities of fire, and when Port travelled to meet Pawson and Wästberg at the designer’s Notting Hill home, the lamps were dotted around his paired-back living room, the flickering light animating the calm, off-white space. As the sun went down, leaving only the soft glow of the lamplight, Port spoke to Pawson and Wästberg about the atmospheric potential of the lamp, bringing non-electric lighting to the fore, and what using fire as a light source means in the 21st century.

Marcus Wästberg, left, and John Pawson, right

Where does the concept for Holocene come from?

Magnus: When I started Wästberg 10 years ago, one of the things that I really didn’t like in the lighting industry was how conservative companies were with technology – they were not thinking about how you can use new technologies to improve peoples lives, how you can solve their problems. At the same time, it was always about these new technologies – which is interesting but I think we have lost track of other, important things. Light used to be so much more to us than it is today – it used to scare animals away, keep us warm, bring us together, keep us safe. Candles and oil lamps have always been seen as an accessory, from a development, production and distribution point of view, but I wanted to take it more seriously with a solid, well thought through, well developed, well produced product using fire as a light source.

John: When you have a candle or a naked flame it creates an extraordinary atmosphere, very simply. In architecture you always talk about how there is no architecture without light, and how light is the single biggest thing in performing space. For a long time I thought that, like a fireplace, using fire as lighting was unnecessary, that it wasn’t functional, and therefore wasn’t minimal, but I’ve come to feel it’s a necessity. I mean, if you put a candle on the table or a small area, you get this very particular light. It changes the room, spatially, atmospherically. 

Magnus: It was important for this project to work with people who think a lot about how the lamp is going to be used, about who will be using it. It’s quite a rare approach. I didn’t know John before he started this project, but I knew his work, and that he would bring a serious approach to this kind of light source. 

Is there a difference in approach between your electric and non-electric lights?

Magnus: It’s kind of a mix between old fashioned product technology and methods, while using modern technology. Heavy craft is nice, of course, but not particularly feasible for large volumes – by combining processes like forging with computer milling you get the same richness, a solidness in the material. 

John: The steel that I usually buy is from Sweden, which is considered to be the best in Europe, and the manufacture of this is as good as it gets really. It’s important, as the simpler a form, the more important the quality of the manufacture is.

Your work is often described as spiritual, John, of being related to ideas of ritual and even worship. Did those ideas come to play in this design?

John: Well, I suppose about a quarter of my work has been religious buildings –  churches or monasteries – and light, and candle light specifically, is very important in those spaces. There’s a lot of consideration of that in their design, though I think about it subconsciously, the value of a naked flame. In this case it was just harnessing that quality of fire as a light source in the best possible way, and to maximise the atmosphere, the expression. Usually I try to think everything through too much, but this was rather serendipitous. I’m happy with it.

holocenefromwastberg.com

John Pawson: On Colour

The celebrated architect John Pawson, known for his monochromatic and minimalist buildings, reflects on his relationship with colour and a new photographic project, Spectrum

Colour is an attribute people don’t necessarily associate with my work. There is a longstanding presumption that it is all about whiteness. The truth is that it is impossible to talk about any architecture – including my own – without talking about colour. Le Corbusier described architecture as masses brought together in light. And as soon as you have light, you have colour. I have come to see that you can only really start to understand an architectural space when you have seen it in a range of light conditions, which means also experiencing the full range of its colour spectrum. As Goethe put it, “Colours and light… stand in the most intimate relation to each other”.

I am interested in the subtle but critical differences between what the lens and the eye can render. Where both are physically capable of absorbing light, each process the field of view in different ways. However sophisticated a lens, it doesn’t have the sensory capabilities of the eye. On the other hand, the camera does not rely on memory, but can commit the totality of what it does capture to plate, film or digital file. There is something pleasing in the fact that, in this one respect, photography is the more permanent art form, architecture’s enduring arrangements of stone, concrete and steel notwithstanding: the light composition is perpetually changing in a building, where the point of a photograph is to fix it. Reviewing a collection of images is a fascinating and revealing exercise. You see both what you saw at the time and what you missed. And you are reminded of what you perceived in the moment that has somehow eluded the permanence of the photographic record.

The brain has an instinct to sort and make associations, but it has consistent priorities for the ways in which it does this, typically according to narrative, subject and theme. Override these priorities and all manner of other connections are revealed. Set photographs next to one another on the grounds of colour only and you throw up intriguing new reflex relationships between apparently entirely disparate images. The brain naturally makes stories and connections – it is intrinsic to how we think creatively – so in the end it will always find threads to weave together.

In this way, what began as a simple project to use colour as a tool to edit and order a selection of photographs has become both a creative act in its own right and an invitation to engage.

This is an excerpt from Spectrum, published by Phaidon.

John Pawson: a Home for Design

John Pawson is a rebuke to the stereotype of minimalist architecture as icy and joyless. Now, at last, Britain might be warming to his work. We meet the architectural designer as he completes a spectacular home for London’s new Design Museum 

John wears cashmere jumper and striped cotton shirt BRUNELLO CUCINELLI
John wears cashmere jumper and striped cotton shirt BRUNELLO CUCINELLI

It’s a hot summer’s day in London, and the ground floor of John Pawson’s office in King’s Cross is ablaze with light. But the man himself keeps his desk downstairs, below street level.

“I let the others look out of the window,” he says cheerily. “I prefer to look at the blank wall.”

‘Perfect!’ I think. He has said something ‘minimalist’ before I have even had time to get out my notebook or recorder. This is John Pawson, you see – there are rules. Pawson is not Britain’s most famous architectural designer. However, he is its most famous minimalist architectural designer; indeed, famous for being minimalist. 

Inside John Pawson Notting Hill home, London
Inside John Pawson’s Notting Hill home, London

Interviews with him fall into a pattern. The author must feign trepidation, and ham up the expectation of Pawson being a chilly zealot, ready to pass judgement on their dress, their home, their timekeeping, because that’s what minimalists are like, right? This is a man who, according to legend, was thought to be a bit on the austere side by Cistercian monks. And then – surprise! – he turns out to be pleasant and un-supervillain-like.

“It always comes as a shock to me. People say to me ‘What’s the worst building that you know?’,” Pawson says when asked if this ever becomes tiresome. “I’m not interested in the negative. And how other people live, I just find fascinating. People expect a shaved head, wearing black…” Neither of which is true of Pawson, who repeatedly has to blow a stray lock of fair hair out of his eyes, and who is wearing a white shirt, open at the neck.  

Inside John Pawson’s Notting Hill home, London
Inside John Pawson’s Notting Hill home, London

Within architecture, where the minimalist mystique doesn’t have the same force, Pawson has a reputation for affability and charm, and he doesn’t disappoint: he’s easy-going, reflexively self-deprecating and drily witty, despite being horribly jet-lagged after a nightmare flight from Hokkaido in Japan. On the day of his departure, a typhoon hit, and he was stuck on the tarmac for six hours as the plane shook in the wind.

“Luckily for me they very kindly served drinks while we were waiting,” Pawson says. Considering the circumstances, serving drinks sounds like a given – it’s typical of Pawson’s graciousness to describe the act as “very kind”. 

Pawson was in Hokkaido for a job – a resort hotel. His 35-year career has always involved an element of jet-setting: his big breaks were designing the Cathay Pacific business class lounge at Norman Foster’s Chek Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong in 1998, and designing Calvin Klein’s flagship store in New York. But lately, the projects have been getting bigger. This includes his highest-profile work to date: the transformation of the former Commonwealth Institute in London’s Holland Park into a new home for the Design Museum. On a smaller scale, he is adapting a farmhouse in the Cotswolds into a new home for himself – an unusually significant job, as it was homes for himself, friends and family that founded his reputation. This is not yet on site, which he describes as “a sore point”. “It’s obviously taking much longer than any of our other projects, he says. “I can’t make my mind up.” The Design Museum is, by contrast, on the cusp of completion. 

Cable-knit cashmere jumper POLO RALPH LAUREN at MR PORTER Washed striped cotton shirt MARGARET HOWELL
Cable-knit cashmere jumper POLO RALPH LAUREN at MR PORTER Washed striped cotton shirt MARGARET HOWELL

Designed by Scottish firm RMJM and completed in 1962, the Commonwealth Institute was a much-loved local landmark with a distinctive finned copper roof. Although its original purpose had withered away in the 21st century, there was outcry when its demolition was proposed, and the intervention of the Design Museum in 2009 was widely welcomed as a way of saving an unusual outcropping of jet-age modernism.

Pawson isn’t concerned that his first major project in the UK is within someone else’s shell – instead, he sees opportunity.

“It’s always a problem in Britain finding a piece of clear land in the right location to build something new,” he says. “You get a better location in an existing building, and in a pretty spectacular building. We would never have been allowed to build in a park, or a roof that allows you such a sense of space. I was interested to see what could be done with the existing building. It’s a challenge in itself.” 

Inside John Pawson’s studio in King’s Cross, London
Inside John Pawson’s studio in King’s Cross, London

When the institute’s conversion was first put forward, there were some concerns that dividing its remarkably open interior into gallery spaces might dilute one of the special qualities of the building: its cavernous, open interior under that soaring copper paraboloid, which, as Pawson puts it, had a “Star Wars Galactic Convention feel”. He’s confident that the specialness has been preserved. The stairs now circle the central well of the building “like an open-cast mine”, and each of the three main exhibition spaces is visible wherever you are.

“Everything is sort of… there,” right in front of the visitor, Pawson says. “The roof is untouched, and it’s visible – in fact it’s slightly higher.”

Some souvenirs of the original institute are retained, for example a world map, marble floors and stained glass. The rest will be classic Pawson: all plain, unadorned materials, woods and white walls. Here, there’s a touch of minimalist concern – there will be a lot of visitors, of course, perhaps more than in any other Pawson environment. A lot of unwashed hands. “I didn’t want white anywhere you’d touch,” he says. “The public can’t touch any white, it’s out of reach. Just to be practical.” 

Study models and prototypes on a table in Pawson’s studio
Study models and prototypes on a table in Pawson’s studio

Pawson was born in Yorkshire, in 1949. When did his taste for minimalism develop? “I’ve always been obsessional,” he says, and attributes his liking for unadorned simplicity to his Methodist parents, and to the plain stone architecture of Halifax, his home town. He studied at the Architectural Association in the 1970s, and under Shiro Kuramata, the Japanese designer who fused minimalism with postmodernism. One of his earliest commissions was a small apartment interior for the travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin, who had visited a South Kensington flat Pawson had designed for Hester van Royen, Pawson’s first wife.

“I had turned a two-bedroom flat that she was renting into a one-bedroom flat, without permission,” he remembers, amused. “I was slightly economical with the information about what was happening… I just thought that the result would be so spectacular.

“I was driven by this terrible urge to just clear everything out, this spectacular Georgian 12ft-ceiling room with corniced ceiling and fireplace. Very nice, but of course there was nothing else, it wasn’t very practical but it was a very nice space,” he adds. “Bruce came around and got very excited, he said he felt freed.”  

The result was not just Chatwin’s small apartment, but also a famous essay, ‘A Place to Hang Your Hat’. It’s hard to imagine a greater compliment, or a better recommendation. 

Striped cotton shirt BRUNELLO CUCINELLI
Striped cotton shirt BRUNELLO CUCINELLI

“What’s nice about writing is that it describes places, I think, much better than photographs,” Pawson says. “I know most people only see my work through pictures, I do notice that when people walk into places that I’ve done, they change physically, they…” He straightens his shoulders and raises his head, looking up. “Bruce was a prime example of that. He went slightly bonkers, walking around and around.”

This sounds like an example of the peculiarity of minimalist architecture, the reason it is regarded with something close to superstition. It is held to have almost magical properties to elevate its inhabitants, but that comes with a perceived edge of moral castigation. (Don’t touch the white!

 

I must admit to being guilty of this myself, having written a novel in which the minimalist apartment of an obsessive modernist composer drives a flat-sitter insane. He finds this amusing.

“I don’t design what I do because I want to try and live the way it’s telling me to,” suggesting there’s no effort to control himself or anyone else. “It’s just how I want things. It’s a reflection of who I am and what I am, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like eating. I’m not an ascetic – it’s not asceticism, it’s aestheticism.” 

 

The story about the Cistercian monks finding the monastery he designed for them, in Novy Dvur in the Czech Republic in 2003, rather too austere is, it seems, at least partly a myth. In his re-telling, some monks found the exceptional quality of his building too extravagant, rather than too plain, when all they needed was four walls and a roof. Pawson, meanwhile, disclaims any connection between minimalism and godliness. 

“When it comes to the church, you do your best to get the proportion and the materials right, and you hope it becomes sacred,” he says. “You can only give the monks the best that you can do… It won’t turn a novice into a monk.” 

8-9-16-0005

8-9-16-0006

Nevertheless, there does seem to be some influence. Does Pawson have any belief in what’s called ‘architectural determinism’ – the power of a designed space to make you better, or worse, as a person? He did say that people stood up straighter when they walked into one of his buildings, after all…

These stark concrete stairs in Pawson’s studio are typical of his signature brand of minimalism
These stark concrete stairs in Pawson’s studio are typical of his signature brand of minimalism

“I’d say they relax, actually,” he says, gently. “You go somewhere and you feel good. That’s what I first noticed as a boy. It’s the difference between a building that’s just a building and architecture that’s special.”

This article is taken from PORT issue 19, out now.

Photography John Spinks
Styling Scott Stephenson