John Pawson discusses monks and life in Japan with AN after winning the Noguchi Award

"They're the perfect client"

John Pawson discusses monks and life in Japan with AN after winning the Noguchi Award

“I had seen this film by Tony Richardson about a monastery in the mountains. It was really beautiful watching Zen Buddhist monks meditating and practicing martial arts,” John Pawson told me. “I went to the monastery and they let me in. I spent one night there and that was quite enough.” Pawson is an architect from Britain. This month he was named as one of the winners of the 2017 Isamu Noguchi Award, alongside Japanese painter Hiroshi Senju.

The prize is issued by the Noguchi Museum, which can be found in Long Island City, Queens, and was set up by Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi. According to a press release, the award is given to individuals “who share Noguchi’s spirit of innovation, global consciousness, and commitment to East/West cultural exchange.” The Architect’s Newspaper spoke to Pawson who discussed his influences and what the award means to him.

“For me, Japan was a defining experience. I went when I was 24 and only started practicing when I was in my early 30s, which is quite late to become an architect,” Pawson said. He went to school at Eton but didn’t get the results he wanted. “I left and went on what you would now call on a gap year, traveling around Asia. I was never going to go to university or college. Then my father got a bit fed up with me wandering around the world and said there wouldn’t be any place for me in the company if I didn’t come back.”

Pawson’s father was in the textile industry and his parents’ taste influences his work. “Texture is a very important thing for me when designing, as well as, of course, key things such as quality of light, space, and proportion,” he said. “The texture of the materials you use are really important because they comprise the detail in which physical space is realized. My parents had a contradictory attitude towards things: Dad was always interested in identifying what was the best of everything, whether it be the finest wine or the best breed of dog or car. For my mother, however, modesty was very important and she enjoyed the simple and well made; representations of what was necessary but nothing more. I suppose I am a bit of both of those.”

Working with his father, however, didn’t work out. Pawson wanted to travel again, wooed by a certain Tony Richardson film on monks. “I thought, being rather childish, oh well, I will go out to Japan and I’ll be one of those guys. It was just that schoolboy thing where you thought you could be James Bond… or a Buddhist Monk.” Pawson lasted barely half a day at the monastery. “I had come straight from London in the beginning of January and it was cold… and they never explain anything! I was polishing floor for about three or four hours after which I was given a bowl of rice. The way you learn there, and indeed in Japan, is by example. Here, I would have been polishing the floor for a year and this didn’t square with my immediate path to enlightenment.”

Despite the setback to his goals of enlightenment, Pawson stayed in Japan, spending time in Nagoya in the Chūbu region of the country. There he met the esteemed late designer, Shiro Kuramata through renowned Japanese architect Masayuki Kurokawa, who acted as a translator. “The one thing I learned from Kuramata was how serious design is and what hard work it is and that you just have to keep going, banging away at it until you’ve cracked it.” Pawson’s Japanese wasn’t the best and Kuramata’s English was even worse. As a result, dialogue occurred through other means, such as sketching. “He loved touching and looking at things. I showed him a drawing and without commenting he took it over and started sketching.”

After four years, though, Pawson’s time in Japan had come to an end. “I didn’t learn Japanese properly, four years was the limit. Unless I was going to learn the language properly I was never going to settle down there… Kuramata told me to stop hanging around his studio and go and learn architecture myself. He thought I should be designing and doing my own architecture and not just studying his.”

Pawson then went to study at the Architectural Association in London upon Kuramata’s recommendation. This, too, didn’t go to plan and Pawson, 30, quit after two years. His design ethos, however, was beginning to flourish. “At the beginning, people always thought I would go mad,” he said. “For me, the underlying approach and way of thinking hasn’t changed, only the vocabulary has changed. In every project you learn something new and that colors how you approach your next work.”

Nineteen years after his first encounter with monks, Pawson found work with a group of Cistercian monks who were interested in him designing a monastery in the Czech Republic. “The Abbot of the monastery and three monks came to visit me in the office,” Pawson recounted. “It was quite tense as they were hoping that I would agree to do the monastery for them and I was tense thinking about if they would offer it to me or not. We both wanted the same thing!”

To quell the scenario, Pawson invited them to his London home for a cup of tea, only to end up offering them some Chablis, which he recalls, “they were very relieved to have.” More relaxed, the monks were intrigued by Pawson’s style, noting his stone floors and lack of soft furnishings. One of the monks asked: “don’t you think it’s a bit austere for us?” “I don’t know whether I laughed or cried,” Pawson said. “You can’t get more minimal than monks, they’re the perfect client.”

Pawson recognizes the cross-cultural impact in his life, particularly in the realm of design, something which falls between the crosshairs of the Noguchi Museum‘s mission. “What was so extraordinary about Noguchi is that he covered everything,” he said. “[Noguchi] was an architect, artist, designer, landscaper, and for somebody that bridged the American/Japanese gap, I think it’s extraordinary to be in any way associated with him.”

The Noguchi Award will be presented at the Noguchi Museum‘s Annual Benefit on May 16, 2017.