High praise for the reduction

British architect John Pawson

Shortly after the turn of the new millennium, John Pawson received a visit from a group of Czech Cistercian monks. The meeting took place at the home of the English architect, a converted Victorian townhouse in the Notting Hill district of London. With the radical reduction of the property a few years earlier, Pawson had established his reputation as a true minimalist.

The monastery in Novy Dvur is regarded as one of Pawson’s major works. © Jens Weber
The monastery in Novy Dvur is regarded as one of Pawson’s major works. © Jens Weber

The reason for the gathering was the renovation and expansion of a dilapidated baroque manor house in Bohemia, together with some adjoining farm buildings. The complex was intended to serve as a new monastery for the monks. One of the monks, who also happened to be an architect, was familiar with the work of Pawson, which at the time mostly consisted of the designing of Calvin Klein stores, and had therefore put his name forward for this project.

The monks were given a tour of the house, but at first seemed somewhat uncertain about trusting Pawson with the assignment – his house appeared rather austere in their eyes. However, the project was initiated and eventually came to represent what is still regarded as the magnum opus of John Pawson. It has become his life's work, as he has embarked on a series of extensions of the monastery. However, Novy Dvur is not the only religious building that Pawson has worked on. He has also renovated the Augsburger Moritz Church in Germany and the Basilica of the Archabbey of Pannonhalma in Hungary.

The monastery in Novy Dvur is regarded as one of Pawson’s major works. © Jens Weber
John Pawson’s house in London. © Jens Weber

Spatial concentration

In Pawson's creative language, there are a series of basic elements that run through all his work, regardless of whether he is dealing with a church, a house or the stage set for the Opéra Bastille in Paris - the use of simple Euclidean geometries, a reduction of architectural elements, the exclusive use of timeless materials such as wood, stone and concrete, plus a genuine focus on pure, abstract space.

Japanese culture has significantly shaped the work of Pawson. His interest in Buddhism led him to Tokyo in the early 1970s, where he came across a book by the architect Shiro Kuramata and subsequently spent some time in his office. The architectural philosophy of Kuramata, combining traditional Japanese design principles with contemporary architecture, had a major influence on Pawson.

Light plays a crucial role in many of his projects, whether it is natural light or artificial light. He designed the stairs in his house as a dramatic three-storey Jacob’s ladder. A side window, invisible from below, floods the stairwell with a gentle light whose intensity gradually increases the further up you go. At the top, the contours of the room seem to dissolve as the stairs merge with the profusion of light.

The monastery in Novy Dvur is regarded as one of Pawson’s major works. © Jens Weber
John Pawson in the Moritzkirche church that he renovated in Augsburg, Germany. © Orla Connolly

Whilst devising the stage for the "L'Anatomy de la Sensation" ballet in Paris, Pawson introduced simple, vertical surfaces to create a geometrical arrangement that he could constantly adjust to interact with the choreography. An important element is the use of different artificial light colours. By altering the light intensity, the surfaces form a striking contrast or can be merged with the surrounding space. In this way, Pawson uses very few resources to achieve a complex interplay of space, colour and light.

Architectural prayers

To ideally prepare himself for the task of designing the Novy Dvur monastery, Pawson spent some time living with the monks. He got up at 3am with them, he took part in prayers and he even followed the vow of silence. Discussions about the project took place in between, as the monks set about praying for a constructive dialogue and a successful result. The monastery was inaugurated in 2004 and a guesthouse was added five years later. Pawson also recently designed a new farm building for the complex. It seems that the monks had their prayers answered.

The monastery in Novy Dvur is regarded as one of Pawson’s major works. © Jens Weber
Pawson designed the stage set for the "L'Anatomy de la Sensation" ballet in Paris. © Richard Davies