British architect John Pawson and philosopher Alain de Botton, whose latest project, Living Architecture, aims to change the public perception of contemporary architecture

'I'd love to design a school': John Pawson talks to Alain de Botton

John Pawson's major works include the Nový Dvůr monastery in the Czech Republic, a serpentine bridge at Kew Gardens and numerous domestic commissions including a flat for Bruce Chatwin. He has just been announced as the architect chosen to redesign the old Commonwealth Building in Kensington as a new location for London's Design Museum and is the subject of a solo show, Plain Space, at the Museum's current location near Tower Bridge. He spoke to the philosopher Alain de Botton, the main figurehead behind Living Architecture, at a special event at the Museum on 8 October. 


Alain de Botton: It’s a huge pleasure to be here with you John. What I like about your architecture is that it makes you want to live a certain way. It’s trying to direct you. Its also an invitation to a way of life. It’s a reminder of a calm that we all need. Are you happy with the show?

John Pawson: I’m never happy. I think that’s the burden of being a perfectionist. Or being an imperfectionist. My nature calls for things to be bigger/smaller/better. I always take criticism seriously. You want everyone to understand it. Being from Yorkshire its always been take it or leave it for me. I’ve never thought I’ve needed to explain what I was doing because I’ve always done it for myself. But now it is opened up to a wider audience you somehow want everyone to be happy. Logically you know that’s not possible.


AdB: I wanted to talk a little about your background. Was architecture something in the home?

JP: Well, Dad was always building. He always had plans on the table whether it was for a new rose garden or a green house. Looking back he built the most expensive green house per square metre ever designed.


AdB: Do you remember enjoying the architectural features?

JP: There was always something being done to the house, but I always liked the company of the joiner and the painter.


AdB: What did you do for A-levels?

JP: I think I’m one of the rare people to have two Spanish and two French O’levels. When I first took A-levels I got an ‘O’ grade. I always wanted to be an architect but at school they said ‘you need maths’ and you need to read books.


AdB: From what age did you feel the urge to be an architect?

JP: It wasn’t to be an architect but it was an interest in architecture. I suppose from being a teenager. I remember feeling different going into a space and wondering why one space felt different to another.


AdB: You speak about not being good at maths. You don’t have all the kit that architects have. What did you do when you finished school because it wasn’t the traditional architectural trajectory.

JP: In the ‘60s it wasn’t the case that 100% went to University. And certainly not with two a-levels. I went off to India and travelled overland. I’d been away for about 2 years and my father said if I ditn’t come back there wouldn’t be a place for me in the family business. I then worked for my father for six years. It was a long process of agreeing to go into the business then that not working and me going to Japan and teaching.


AdB: Was the assumption that you would take over the business?

JP: I think he would have liked me to. I think he was made to take over the business. Actually I think he’d have liked to have been an architect.


AdB: And your father let you go eventually.

JP: I wasn’t sacked I suppose, but there certainly wasn’t a job, which I suppose is the same thing?


AdB: And why Japan?

JP: I was aleady interested in 16th century Japanese architecture. I decided on Japan because I was watching a Tony Richardson documentary about a Buddhist temple where they were practising marshal arts. And it all seemed so beautiful and perfect. I thought if I go to Japan and become a Buddhist monk everything will be fine. I can’t believe how much of a school boy I must have been at 24.


AdeB: And do you think that many of the things that you are interested in now you first idtenified in Japan?

JP: I don’t think so. Japan, or certainly that 16th century culture, was one of the things that strengthened my belief in what I was doing. I think a lot of stuff came before that. The industrial architecture in Halifax, all those functional mills. Trees and landscapes and Cistercian monasteries.


AdB: Why do you think people have the tastes they do?

JP: I just don’t know. When I was nervous about tonight. They said it’ll be fine, they’ll be on your side. I’m still waiting for someone to jump up and say ‘it’s not my taste’. There was a brilliant South African photographer who came to photograph our house for the Independent newspaper. Showing them round he kept saying ‘I don’t know how anyone can live like this’. He said it about five times. Every room we went into.


AdB: What are the comments that tend to drive you craziest, or bore you the most?

JP: People do still say ‘when are you moving in’.


AdB: When people identify a certain feature of your work it’s the tenacity with which you cared about certain aesthetic atmospheres from earliest examples of your work. Why do you think you should have locked on to these themes.

JP: I think I’m a bit easier now. At the beginning there was only ever one way of doing it. One material for the floor and if you didn’t like it it was tough.


AdB: At what point do you decide, for example, that it has to be timber floor of a certain width?

JP: It’s a case of analysing something that was easy to conjure up. Dad always loved real quality. He could feel cloth and tell the composition from the weight of it. Something must have rubbed off on me. To somehow always know what the parameters are.


AdB: Which are the architects who continue to have inspiration for you?

JP: Mies van der Rohe is obviously the star for me. Finding somebody where everything they’ve done is exquisite is wonderful to find.


AdB: The ‘exquisite’ Mies van der Rohe is not the van der Rohe that most architecture students would lock on to. That is a side of him that is not really mentioned - that he was in a sense of very fine craftsmanship. Did you feel unusual locking on to that aspect?

JP: I wouldn’t know what other architects were thinking.


AdB: Because you kept away from them?

JP: Well I had a very short time at architecture school.


AdB: Did you enjoy the AA?

JP: They’ve got two resident psychiatrists which gives you an idea of how tough it is.


AdB: The schemes that you were submitting then – these are post-Japan – would they be recognisable to us today as John Pawson works?

JP: There was a stone bath that they didn’t get at all. Presenting finished things didn’t work, you had to show the process.


AdB: Did you feel a fish out of water there?

JP: Yes but there were plenty of us like that. And I went there to expand my knowledge about architecture. I didn’t have a plan – there’s never been a plan. I had thought creating and designing something was for somebody else. I didn’t realise you could do it yourself.


AdB: So you were at the AA aged 30, you had no plan for your future and no idea you could be an architect.

JP: No. I didn’t think that way. I was just enjoying the moment doing what I wanted to do. It had taken 30 years to actually get to London. I’d never lived in a metropolis so I was ticking my own boxes.


AdB: What was your first commission?

JP: One of the great supports was my girlfriend Hester was able to help while I was at the AA. I did her flat. She didn’t actually know I was doing it, but she did see that knocking a few walls down was a benefit. And then I did her office at work and then her boss, Leslie Waddington, thought he’d have an office like hers and then he opened a new gallery. Doing a big gallery was quite something. And working for Leslie was great. He was a trusting and quite experienced person. And what’s great is that one thing tends to lead to another. Hester introduced me to Bruce Chatwin, so I did his flat. So I was very very lucky.


AdB: Is it just luck? Because it strikes me that during your career you’ve worked with an impressive list of clients who are high up in the arts or business. It’s your capacity to develop relationships with these people which is really quite special. Do you recognise that?

JP: Looking back what is extraordinary is how much I learnt from them. I think all sorts of things, either about business or art or restraint. You say relationships are it but what I was saying earlier was that I have a capacity for losing friends as well. Leslie still says to me ‘well I have no problem with your architecture’.


AdB: Give us a sense of a client/Pawson bust up.

JP: They’re always small things. With Leslie I lowered the ceiling in his house in Chelsea so that I got rid of a very shallow beam, but it meant the whole floor was four inches lower. And he went in on a day that it was dark and it wasn’t painted. So the whole space did look different. He said to the plasterer ‘what do you think of the height?’ and the plasterer said ‘well I don’t like it’. So of course instead of thinking that was fine I slightly took umbridge and it all blew up. I can’t remember exactly, but there was quite a lot of shouting.


AdB: Shouting?!

JP: We’re firey characters and I probably thought I shouldn’t be talked to like that. Now of course I’m very hardened. The biggest thing I regret was really really childish was that Leslie had been going on about the money which is a thing for most people. So when I got a cheque for him in part-payment – well, for me it was part, for him it was full - I returned the cheque saying that he obviously needed the money more than I did. Which was so patently not true. I could still do with that money now.


AdB: In your maturer form, if a client says ‘I’d like a bit of carpet here’ what would you say?

JP: Well, that would be an extreme case. People tend to come to us because they have certain expectations.


AdB: They don’t have floral rugs?

JP: Of course you do get the odd person whose whole goal is to persuade you to do what you wouldn’t normally do. So there might be somebody who might propose that but it would be just a trial.


AdB: The interesting thing that has happened in the last two years of your career is that you’ve discovered some new materials. Bronze made an appearance, corrugated steel made an appearance. How did these materials enter your palette?

JP: I think if an architect’s lucky he gets to do different types of commissions. If you get to do a monastery you get pushed very strongly to design things you’ve never designed before. That’s what happens. It’s the same with materials. If you are designing a footbridge over water then you want to use metal or you’d be well-advised to use bronze/aluminium alloy. It’s a logical process. You start with the assignment but you work out what materials you need. Obviously there are very few things you need ebony for. Bronze you need, you need granite. Onyx, glass or crinkly tin.


AdB: What building forms and materials still excite you that you’d like to experiment with? Would you like to design a hospital or a school?

JP: I’d love to design a school. It’s going to be very nice to do a public building in central London. One of the difficulties for the work is that it has so little access, its either private or the monastery which is iscolated.


AdB: Does your practice enter competitions regularly for large public schemes? Why not?

JP: I was quite happy with that relationship with meeting people who wanted us to work for them. Occasionally we did. Interestingly, doing the competition for the Design Museum, I was amazed by the sense of camaraderie and team spirit and the way it focussed the office. In a way they were much more excited by the idea of the competition whereas for me I like getting straight into the real thing.


AdB: So might you do a bit more of that?

JP: I think so yes. And the only way you’d get to do a school is to do a competition.


AdB: What do you feel about the budget around a building? Do you see it as an exciting parameter around an idea that could be a creative thing, or do you simply see it as a bit of a bore?

JP: There is a misconception about the budget. The monastery, for example. It was a huge challenge to produce that kind of architecture on their budget. And there have been houses like the house we lived in in Tokyo was done for £250,000. It’s a lot of money but the problem with building is that whatever you’re doing its expensive. It’s the nature of building.


AdB: What did the experience with the monks in the monastery teach you?

JP: Resilience. We do have very a strong ethos in the office of never giving up, it doesn’t matter what happens we’re not going to be the ones to give in. We’ve got through some pretty difficult times.


AdB: What were the low points with the monks?

JP: There are 80 guys, hugely focussed, with a lot of spare time on their hands. Spare time to tell me individually what each one wants for their desk or the height of the hook for their cowl. Which is all good stuff but you’ve got to sift through it. But the great thing about them is that they have this faith: that it is going to be done, and they’re going to find the money. Because ten years ago they found enough money to buy the site, then enough money to hire people.


AdB: What about your own family as clients? What have you learnt from them?

JP: Yes I think people don’t realise that when you’re designing a house for yourself there are three other clients. You wish that critics could see the children growing up in the house. It’s the children that actually benefit from having the clarity and space and not having a lot of stuff. It allows rooms not to be specifically for one thing. They could rollerblade or skateboard in the kitchen in and out of the kitchen and garden. And now of course they are grown up and their friends can come and feel comfortable. In fact too comfortable.


AdB: Are their tastes mirroring yours? Do they continue to live in those kinds of spaces?

JP: Well, Ben’s room at university isn’t quite like…I wouldn’t say it’s Pawsonesque. Well it’s his Pawsonesque.


AdB: You present the fact that you’ve done quite a lot of domestic architecture as just a coincidence but is there something perhaps deeper in that you have a particular interest in how people live day to day. The household objects you’ve designed with enormous thought: the knives and forks, the pots and pans, there’s something about the way we live our daily lives that particularly intrigues you.

JP: When you do get together with architects they say ‘I can’t be doing with doing more than one house’ or I must get off doing houses, because it’s not bankrupting me but its very expensive’ I’ve never understood either the economics or the fact you wouldn’t want to do them. To me understanding what goes on inside a house or designing spaces that people occupy, whether it’s domestic or…the monks is also residetntial, Cathay Pacific, shops. Shops are simple.

There’s a slight gender anxiety here isn’t there, the idea of the domestic being the female and the male architect wants to get on to a tower quite quickly. Have you ever felt that division? Between the domestic and the civic? I don’t get that gender thing. I’m sure I’m very in touch with my feminine side. I think it’s the same when people say for children having a blind with fairy tales on or things like that. I always feel it’s more for the adults. Why should children have to have all that pattern and colour. We all need something to make us feel good. Why do you feel you have a particular need for calm? Are you by nature a very anxious and angry person? Or are you like your buildings? Are your buildings what you aspire to be, or what you are? I’m definitely very scrambled. I’m not very clear thinking so I do like a bit of order and I do like clear spaces, so in a way they help me. I think its trying to do things for myself. I think that’s how it started – trying to make spaces for myself that I felt comfortable in and other people like that. So the drive is to build those kinds of spaces. A certain type of person? Because you do divide taste. Some feel an incredible attraction to your spaces and for others it just doesn’t do it for them. Perhaps those that do get it are those that share some of your needs for calm. That’s assuming that you’re looking at the rooms in that way. To me the proof in a way is that earlier I was upstairs there was a woman with her very small daughter, and clearly the daughter was just delighted to be in the exhibition, especially when she went into the one:one space. She didn’t know why, but I just presume she felt good. I build these things in that way. There are certain people who feel in some ways that the work is implying a superior moral virtue and of course its nothing like that. I’m not suggesting that everyone should live without stuff. I always feel that your works stands slightly outside the architectural mainstream. I can’t help wonder what you think of the architectural mainstream. What does someone like Zaha HAdid – how does she strike you and how does her work affect you? I think we’re in Chatham House rules. Obviously I know Zaha and I know her work and I admire it and people doing that kind of thing. She is a master. I love it. It’s like people saying ‘I imagine you don’t like Baroque’ – of course you do. You like good Baroque. You like good modern architecture. Are there any parts of the architecture scene that you just think I don’t get this, it’s rea;;u not for me? I’m sure but there are so many good things…