Interview with architect John Pawson
What have you actually achieved here?
2. June 2016 | Words: Jasmin Jouhar, Photography: Gilbert McCarragher
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 15 seconds
A cliché: “British understatement”. Proof of how true this cliché is: John Pawson. The London-based architect is renowned for calm, focused buildings that only reveal how much effort went into their making upon closer examination. He nurtures a pretty low-profile presence himself, too, albeit with a sprinkling of typically acerbic British wit. We spoke to him about concrete, his first Berlin venture and the 1242 door lever handle he has designed for FSB.
You have just converted a Berlin bunker into exhibition premises for the Désiré Feuerle Collection. What was the most difficult part of that project?
There wasn’t any one specific thing; what was most difficult was the sheer size of the building. It is really massive. We had to be careful in our planning decisions as a result, from a financial point of view. We had to address a lot of thought, for instance, to where we were going to cut holes in the walls. The walls are in reinforced concrete that’s almost seven foot thick. It takes a fortnight to drill a hole from one side to the other. A very costly undertaking indeed. Luckily, though, we didn’t need to make too many such openings. The routing through the house proved pretty straightforward.
What did you alter during conversion work?
I was clear from the start that we would leave the building as it was. I liked it. Its shape, its proportions, the concrete, that’s all marvellous, so monumentally solid. But it had to be cleaned, of course, and, most importantly, dried out. There’s a lot of water in the bunker, which is bad news for art. We put in white walls on the ground floor behind which heating and dehumidification equipment was installed. Lighting was also an issue. We finalised the lighting scheme and the positioning of the sculptures in close liaison with Désiré Feuerle.
The building has a very open ground plan for a bunker.
Yes, because it was built for machines and telecom systems in the first instance rather than for people. It’s also nice that there is one level above ground and another below. There are even windows in the ground-floor facade where you can see just how thick the walls actually are. But we have closed them up. Daylight would not have accorded with the mystical staging of the art.
Do you think it was a good idea to house a private art collection here?
Yes! I immediately fell in love with the building. And I found Désiré’s vision so unbelievable and bold. The first time I was here I could already envisage how the spaces would look once they had been cleaned up and fitted out with exhibits. Looking back, though, it occasionally astonishes me that we got it all done. If I had known …
Could you say a few words about your work with Désiré Feuerle, the planning process?
I’m very lucky with my clients in that they are interesting personalities from whom I can learn no end. I’m a better listener than I used to be. Maybe I’ve got more time and peace for that now. Each of our projects, be it a private house, a museum or a hotel, takes shape in close liaison with the ordering parties. They do, of course, expect us to come up with a tailor-made architectural vision for them. That’s why every project turns out differently, the client makes the difference. Désiré is really obsessed and passionate, he is driven by the sculptures and their history. Driven by collecting and exhibiting them.
And how did the cooperative venture with FSB come about? Did it happen in the course of the conversion project?
Yes. I was familiar with FSB, of course, and had already included their fittings in other projects. Désiré wanted something special for the collection, a signature piece. People are always asking me: What have you actually achieved here? We really did do a lot, but not much that you can see. The handle is a kind of landmark for the building. We revamped a vintage model for the design and produced it in in this truly beautiful bronze. The colour establishes a link with some of the Chinese objects.
What specifically made you select the Reich Form lever handle by Hans Poelzig for your revamp?
Because it has one of the simplest of shapes. Whilst being virtually devoid of frills, it is nevertheless soft, poetic even. I like holding it. There’s a sense of never wanting to let go. I think it was Gunnar Asplund who once said that the first encounter with a house is the moment when you place your hand on the front door handle.