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John Pawson's Visual Inventory

The architect’s ‘obsessive’ passion for the photography collected in his new book

 ‘I bought myself one of the little Kodak cameras that Kodak was selling at six francs and I noticed that by entrusting my emotions to a lens I was forgetting to have them pass through me – which was serious. So I abandoned the Kodak and picked up my pencil,’ said Le Corbusier in Le Corbusier: Un Film de Jacques Barsac (1987). Clearly John Pawson has no such qualms. While Corb’s brief flirtation with photography produced some 550 prints, Pawson has amassed over 250,000 images since acquiring a digital camera. This book presents 272 of them.

Conceived and nurtured in apartments and galleries, Pawson’s conscientious minimalism has brought him clients from Calvin Klein to Cistercian monks in the Czech Republic, with Martha Stewart along the way. The project at the Czech monastery (1999–2004) was something of a turning-point, and since then he has largely dispelled the aura of modishness that once surrounded him, which generated excellent copy for journalists and kept Sunday supplements in business but could make his work seem superficial.

Woodland Cemetery

Woodland Cemetery

Devoted to Pawson’s practice from 2006 to 2011,El Croquis 158 reveals an architect (now in his early 60s) of increasingly substantial achievements, particularly a number of new-build houses. Interviewed in El Croquis, Pawson considers the subject of ‘truth to materials’ and whether the enlarged scope of his current work can be squared with it. ‘You can’t build any more in solid stone or all wood, what you see is a skin’, he says, but he seems philosophical about it. Meanwhile he keeps reaching for his camera.

Pawson admits he is ‘obsessive’ and that photography is ‘a daily compulsion’, but if such a huge quantity of images are actually to be useful to him and his staff, they must be organised in some way. He says that ‘you never know when a picture capturing the texture of a wall in Syria in the midday sun might be just what you need to convey an idea to a client’, but we don’t learn how such photographs are filed. To make this book seem at all systematic – an ‘inventory’ not a miscellany – he presents pairs of related images on 136 spreads.

Pawson Office

Pawson Office

They begin with the camera pointing towards the base of two curving walls: Peter Zumthor’s larch-shingled St Benedict Chapel in Graubünden and Eero Saarinen’s red-brick Kresge Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In terms of function, form and contrast of materials these two sit well together, but some spreads offer only a visual rhyme. The slope of the abbey roof at Le Thoronet in Provence echoes the slope of a huge sand dune on the facing page, creating a well-composed spread for the art editor but not one that reflects any deeper connections. More satisfying is the juxtaposition of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire with Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery, where the ruins of the former accentuate the cryptic and fragmentary character of Scarpa’s funerary complex.

If this book had a different structure, it might be more like the inventory it wants to be. Above all it is an inventory of light, as it flares in a doorway at Le Thoronet, seeps around the edges of a window blind, or casts intricate shadows on unadorned walls. But Pawson’s scrutiny of the way light animates the world is hardly separable from his focus on materials, texture and the passage of time, all of which are palpable in these often resonant shots. Lush moss completely covers the roof of an old Cotswolds barn; a piece of red sandstone in a Utah canyon sports a black coat of lava; and a brass plate on a threshold is pitted and worn.

Pawson House

Pawson House

Interwoven with souvenirs of international travel are a number of shots chez Pawson, where we glimpse his suitably minimalist art collection. It must be pleasant to live with a Donald Judd aluminium wall piece, a Dan Flavin light work and Carl Andre’s copper cubes. And as the sun irradiates Andre’s cubes, it reminds us that such clear-cut minimalist forms often encourage some surprisingly complex perceptions, which Pawson clearly enjoys.

A Visual Inventory includes such venerated sites as Asplund and Lewerentz’s Woodland Cemetery and the temple of Angkor Wat, but Pawson is equally attentive to the vernacular and everyday. He says his approach is ‘scattergun’ and, in Le Corbusier’s terms, presumably only a minority of his 250,000 images have been deeply felt and analysed by him and not just ‘entrusted to a lens’. But while drawing with pen or pencil still occupies the moral high ground, isn’t it possible to examine the world with a comparable disciplined attention when using a camera – both at the time of taking the photograph and studying it afterwards? For many people who purchase A Visual Inventory, it may be just another ornament to a well-furnished room, but it does raise this deeper question.

A Visual Inventory

Author: John Pawson

Publishers: Phaidon

Price: £29.95

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