Most of the books I’ve bought over the years lie on a table, sometimes for months, read or unread, before they find their way to the shelf. But there’s one, bought on impulse three years ago, that has never left the table. Every few weeks I pick it up and work through some of its pages, as if coming to them for the first time. In a short time this volume has become one of my favourites of all the hundreds of books in my library.
Its title is A visual inventory, and its author is a British architect, John Pawson. The format is very simple. Each facing spread shows two colour photographs, of buildings or landscapes or interiors, or details of each. Each picture is chosen carefully to echo its facing picture in some way, and each is given a subtext by Pawson, no more than two or three sentences, to explain what appealed to him about the image his camera reveals. (The publishers, Phaedon, have printed the images beautifully, on thickish matt cream paper, and have arranged the book’s sewn binding so that the leaves lie flat, encouraging the eye to move easily from recto to verso and back.)
John Pawson is not a household name, even though he’s practised as an architect across the globe for decades. The reasons are several. In general he works for private individuals or corporations, rather than designing public buildings that attract wide attention (an exception is his adaptation of the old Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington, London, which will open as the new home of the Design Museum in 2016). He seems to lack the egotism and self-promotion that is so depressing a characteristic of many international architects. On the contrary, he appears to be a modest, reflective man, uninterested in buffing his image.
A third reason for his lack of public profile is that his architectural style is famously minimalist. He prefers clean lines, plain and uncluttered – to such an extent that some have wondered how the purity of his buildings can possibly be protected against the muddle and mess of everyday life. His architecture makes no grand gestures, and he avoids the baroque exhibitionism of many of his contemporaries.
In his introduction to the book Pawson explains its genesis, and why photographs are so essential to him:
Part of the daily compulsion of photography is that it allows me to see what I saw over and over again … Since first acquiring a digital camera, I have accumulated over a quarter of a million image files. On the one hand, there is the attraction of photography’s speed and immediacy. Where the process of making a building is usually measured in years, an image can be captured in a fraction of a second. But more pressing for me is the sense that if you don’t record everything, moments slip away and are lost forever.
Photography, then, is a powerful part of the architect’s toolbox, used – not only by Pawson, but, he says, by all the other architects in his practice – to help generate and modify the plans for any new building. As for the images, more is always best:
Mine is a scattergun approach. When I take a picture, there is always a reason in my mind, but a camera, when it is used as freely as mine, is a tool for plurality, catching everything from previously undetected elements of repetition to unregistered details of narrative incident.
But you don’t need to treat the images in Pawson’s book as just the sketchbooks of an architect, prolegomena towards the construction of new buildings. They stand on their own, as observations of the world by an eye of quite exceptional sharpness. Take any two facing pages at random – there are about 140 pairs in all – and you notice immediately how effortlessly Pawson’s eye and brain have homed in on a colour, a surface, an assembly of shapes (usually all three) – and drawn suggestive parallels between two very different scenes. He has the unusual ability to spot the hidden features in what seems a straightforward image, and, conversely, to strip complex images down to their essentials.
Here’s a typical example, from p. 36-7. On the left, a close-up of a circuit board. As always, Pawson is interested in its materials: ‘laminating copper onto a non-conductive substrate’. The material supplies the colour but it’s the pattern that interests the camera: ‘the regularity of the grid and the mechanical exactness of the repetition’, which, however, ‘do not prepare the eye for the asymmetry of the design’. On the left, another repeating pattern, this time from a terracotta floor, a grid of squares with circles set precisely bisecting the sides of each one.
But there’s more to this diptych than just the theme of repeating geometries. The circuit board is contemporary and secular; the tiles were laid in the twelfth century, on the floor of a Cistercian abbey in France: Pawson suggests a contrast between the ‘straight line of the temporal world and the arc of the divine’. The board is a cool grey colour, on a black background; the tiles are a warm terracotta red. And, as so often in these images, the simplicity of the basic image is complicated by a counterpoint, a conflicting element. Here, the dark background of the circuit board is interrupted by two parallel bars of artificial yellow light; the tiles also show two vertical strips, but this time unmechanical, and aslant like a cross: a thin path of rough-cut golden-coloured stone, and a broader, equally variegated strip of bright sunlight.
Take another pair, from p.258-9. On the left an image that, as Pawson says in his note, takes the seeing eye a few moments to interpret as the spreading roots of a tree in a low sun, whose light spreads an even umber colour across all surfaces. On the left, a very different subject, a picture taken from a plane, above cloud level, with a setting sun and a criss-crossing grid of vapour trails, their tails expanding and fraying in the foreground (‘the elevated vantage point, in combination with the contemplative nature of solitary travel, has an impact on the way you look at things, even when you’re back on the ground’). The tree roots, ‘like corded veins on the back of the hand’, radiate from the tree, but irregularly and mainly unseen; without the raking sunlight even less would be visible. In the skyscape everything is visible, including the dying sun, but the trails are just as rough and crooked – though they seem to be converging on (rather than radiating from) a common destination across the cloud horizon.
From p.122-3, a pair of English buildings, a block of flats in West London and a mediaeval stone barn in rural Gloucestershire. Both are severely vertical, but what interests Pawson’s eye here is not so much the shape as the surface texture. The roof of the old barn has gathered a rich coating of moss, and under the tree the grey stone walls have also greened with lichen, so that the whole building seems to be losing its manufactured nature and reverting to native stone and tile. In the same way the flats, its lines and grids uniform and stark when first erected, have been modified and humanised by all kinds of accretion: aerials, satellite dishes (‘like moths’), nets, curtains and blinds. ‘… The windows with no visible curtains or blinds look oddly blank’. Nature, then, always finds ways of frustrating and subverting the pure and abstract intentions of architects, whose control over their creations are, at least in part, illusory.
Finally, on p. 238-9, the transforming power of shadow. A statue of the Greek sun god, Helios, in the Neues Museum, Berlin, is unseen, but a doubled shadow of it is cast on a wall. ‘From this perspective, the nobility and refinement of the Classical profile is lost. Instead the form appears hunched and slightly menacing.’ Opposite, a colonnade of the Palais Royale, Paris. The lucky camera catches images of hanging lamps on each of the columns, accentuating their receding rhythm – and the silhouette of a slightly sinister man in hat and coat emerging into the slanting light of the setting sun.
I think A visual inventory will stay on the table a while longer. Its images capture and detain you. But it’s a book that yields its meanings gradually. The pictures revolve in your memory. Together they form a rich thesaurus of visual ideas, not just for architects but for anyone interesting in delighting the eye.