Minimalism to the max

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John Pawson's book Minimum (Phaidon Press, pounds 60) is a lovely thing to behold. It has, however, sent itself up gloriously, if unintentionally, as reviewer after reviewer has wondered why such a big and expensive book should be necessary to explain "a concept which is rooted in the pursuit of simplicity, as applied to architecture, art and design".

Well, as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously said, "Less is More". Which is more or less true in the sense that much great architecture is truly to be found in buildings that are simple, and which mass, proportion, texture and the play of light are more important elements than surface decoration, applied ornament and outright gimmickry.

Pawson is greatly fond of medieval Cistercian monasteries, which are indeed among the most beautiful and moving of all buildings. Spiritually and psychologically, however, they occupy a very different space from contemporary Minimal interiors designed by the talented Mr Pawson. Where Cistercian monasteries and their communities were truly aesthetic (the silent Trappists are Cistercian; the order was founded by St Robert in 1098), with monks taking a vow of poverty, clients of today's Minimalist architects are rarely less than wealthy. A typical client is a cultured, middle-aged divorcee in the throes of a life crisis. This is resolved by chucking out all worldly possessions acquired up to that point and trading them in for a handsomely and expensively crafted Minimalist house, a Zen-like living space in which walls free from skirting-boards and cornices are made of lovingly polished plaster, floors are constructed from the finest timbers, washbasins are hewn from solid stone or marble. Any clutter (dread word) is hidden from view in deep cupboards that appear to be nothing more and nothing less than a part of chaste corridor walls.

If done well, and architects like John Pawson and his former partner Claudio Silvestrin would not wish to do otherwise, the results are coolly seductive. But Minimalism done on the cheap looks shoddy and nothing more; no amount of white paint can make up for solid materials. Minimal interiors take maximum effort to design and build, and a generous purse. That the style has become seriously fashionable and popular should not be in doubt. Pawson has designed the new Bond Street flagship of Jigsaw, the high-street fashion chain.

What this means is that Minimalism is beginning to get maximum exposure and soon enough, as it invades the fluorescent-lit aisles of Do-It-All and B & Q, we will start wanting more than less as less truly becomes a bore. In fact, such a situation would be rather sad, because architecture is rarely improved by icing, and the most inspiring buildings - from the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico to Bankside and Battersea Power stations via medieval cathedrals (and Cistercian abbeys) - are as simple as they are magnificent.

Perhaps to make his point more effectively and more faithfully, John Pawson might have written a haiku-like poem on the subject of Minimalism, had it printed on exquisite paper and contained in a tiny cardboard box. A haiku is, of course, a Japanese three-part poem of 17 syllables arranged in lines of five, seven and five words. Flourishing between the 17th and 19th centuries, and re-emerging as a Modernist literary form in our own century, the haiku is universally held to be a model of literary compression.

John Pawson will be speaking at the Royal Institute of British Architects at 6.30pm on 22 October. Michael Craig Martin, the artist, will be in the chair.