Any colour as long as it's white: the razor-edged, glacially cool world of John Pawson

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The Independent Online

John Pawson gives good void. He is British architecture's Mr Minimal, an architectural clone of Henry Ford who will supply buildings - and particularly interiors - in any colour, so long as it's white.

That's the one-liner. But if Pawson's architecture seems more virtual than actual, his work remains of note. He is an obdurately singular visionary. His take on minimalism is clinical, producing a kind of razor-edged, glacially cool perfection in which anything irregular - a human being, say, or a muddy gumboot - seems odd, if not surreal.

Pawson, a 53-year-old modernist, delivers rigorous essays in the less-is-more zone. And yet his visions carry a peculiarly classical vibe, too, in their search for order. He's a kind of modern architectural Plato, driven by key archetypes: white cubes and oblongs.

He is not one of the gang. He doesn't wear black and attempt to look mysterious. And his architecture certainly doesn't rock because it doesn't contain the kind of brilliant detail found in some of Richard Rogers's buildings; nor does it possess an ounce of the colourful, extravert derring-do that has become a trademark of Will Alsop, creator of the inverted-L Peckham Library. Pawson makes architectural statements, but they're murmured. On the other hand, where most architects might imagine they're in control of the forms they create, Pawson really is.

And he always has been. Pawson is full-on posh - an old Etonian whose wealthy Methodist-industrialist father was horrified at the thought of a son who wanted to become an architect. An architect, said his father, was somebody one employed. So, in a sense, Pawson can be said to have achieved his career the hard way. It's no small thing to ignore such a decisive parental put-down and enrol at the Architectural Association in London. And all that after working at his family's textile mill, and spending four years in Japan, where he flirted with Buddhism.

His ready-made social and artistic network ensured that, from the outset of his practice in 1981, he could depend on notable commissions which, through the years, have included an apartment for Bruce Chatwin, the novelist, and Calvin Klein's flagship Manhattan emporium. And coming soon, his masterpiece: the Cistercian Monastery at Novy Dvur in the Czech Republic.

The word glitzy can certainly be attached to his client list. For example: the Pond House in Long Island for Martha Stewart, the American lifestyle guru; and a Biarritz guesthouse and pool for Karl Lagerfeld. And that is just a small sample.

There is something Zen-like at the root of his designs - and something radical, too, compared to other masters of the White Stuff, such as Dixon Jones, creators of the National Portrait Gallery extension; and it is radical enough to push imaginative young British practices such as Tonkin Liu into new manipulations of pure surfaces and light.

His minimalism extends into most aspects of his life. It is reported that he once served dinner to friends which consisted of a joint of beef set absolutely in the middle of the table on the only available plate, along with a single carving knife.

It sounds eminently likely. There was no hint about dessert; presumably, four white sugar cubes arranged symmetrically on a plate. He is not just a sought-after building designer. He has also been a highly successful property developer, starting in 1972 with a renovated two-up-two-down in Hull, bought for £250. He says that he got into it because he knew that he would never make significant amounts of money as an architect. That may be less true today. Mr Minimal turns out to be a rather maximal presence, after all.

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