John Pawson @ St Pauls Cathederal

John Pawson @ St Pauls Cathederal

The UK’s leading minimalist, John Pawson, and Swarovski Crystal Palace created a spectacular installation in the Geometric Staircase of St Paul’s Cathedral – to reveal a new perspective of this architectural masterpiece and the genius of Sir Christopher Wren.

“The cathedral is an immensely complex work of architecture and the temptation when you visit is to try to take in everything. This is about offering a spatial experience based around a single, sharply honed perspective. The form this experience takes is shaped by Wren’s own interest in creating scientific instruments out of buildings.”

At the foot of Wren’s elegant spiralling Geometric Staircase a concave Swarovski crystal menisus will sit on a much larger reflective hemisphere, with a spherical convex mirror suspended 23m above in the tower’s cupola.

John Pawson explains: “St Paul’s is one of the most recognisable buildings in the country. Inevitably it’s the grand architectural moves which everyone knows – the west elevation, the nave and the dome. In collaboration with Swarovski, I have been given the chance to turn the focus on a less familiar element – the Geometric Staircase – which is a detail, but also a complete architectural moment in its own right.”

Together, these optical elements will create an extraordinary composite image of the view up through the tower for visitors gathered round the hemisphere at the base, allowing them, as Pawson says, “to see beyond the level of the naked eye” and gain a perspective never before seen of one of Britain’s most iconic buildings.

Reflecting Wren’s desire that his buildings should incorporate scientific elements, ‘Perspectives’ uses the largest Swarovski lens ever manufactured to create a dramatic optical experience which depends on scientific subtlety, material simplicity and a complex combination of light, space and proportion to reflect an environment rich in history and beauty

For Swarovski, the collaboration marks a high point of its Crystal Palace project, an experimental design platform developed by Nadja Swarovski which allows world class designers to develop extraordinary work using the medium of crystal. In the past ten years, collaborations with the likes of Ron Arad, Zaha Hadid, Tom Dixon, Ross Lovegrove, Tord Boontje, Arik Levy and Yves Behar have resulted in a spectacular body of work which provides a snapshot of the most exciting and creative minds of the 21st century.

Nadja Swarovski, said … “It has been an inspirational and rewarding experience to work with John Pawson on such an illuminating project. A true visionary like Wren, John continuously pushes the boundaries of traditional architecture. His new and innovative use of crystal within this modest but magical design reflects Swarovski Crystal palace’s mission continually to evolve and to contribute to culture and design.”

The work is a fitting climax to a year of celebrations for St Paul’s, which was declared complete by Parliament exactly 300 years ago. The Reverend Canon Mark Oakley, Treasurer of St Paul’s Cathedral, said: “John Pawson invites us in this installation to observe the Geometric Staircase of the cathedral with a deepened focus. Like the spiritual life itself, here we are invited to look within in order to see out with greater clarity and wonder. We are delighted that Swarovski and the London Design Festival bring this meditative meniscus into St Paul’s to enrich our understanding of Wren’s work and to alert us to the fact that transformations often occur when we become more visually literate.”

London Design Festival

Now in its ninth year, the London Design Festival is established as the preeminent creative festival in the world. This year’s Festival will be the largest and most significant yet, with an expected 180 partners and almost 300 events celebrating the world’s creative capital and offering a range of projects across the city from St Paul’s Cathedral to the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Ben Evans, Director of the London Design Festival said: “The London Design Festival works in the greatest quality spaces London has to offer and you can’t get greater than St Paul’s Cathedral. The installation we have there by John Pawson complements and contrasts with the stunningly beautiful space that we’re using. It’s very special – unmissable from my point of view.”

Swarovski also sponsored the 5th “London Design Medal Dinner”, which was held on Monday 19th September in the Crypt of St Paul’s.

Previous winners of the medal include Zaha Hadid (2007), Marc Newson (2008), Sir Paul Smith (2009), and Thomas Heatherwick (2010).

John Pawson Q&A
October 10, 2011

How were you commissioned to create a piece for St Paul’s?

London Design Festival got together with St Paul’s and, because it’s the 300th anniversary of its completion and there is a tradition of doing installations in the Cathedral, it was decided that they’d commission a piece to showcase the architecture, to be unveiled during LDF. I was lucky enough to be asked to design that piece.

What have you tried to achieve with the piece?

I was hesitant about creating an installation. I was hesitant about the word ‘installation’. St Paul’s is so extraordinary anyway that just to allow people the opportunity to go along and look at it in a different way seemed to me enough of an opportunity.
The architecture of St Paul’s is very rich. When you visit you are overwhelmed. It’s similar to when you go to a gallery. There is so much to see. So when I visit a museum, I tend to target one painting, but even then, by the time you’ve got through the rest of the activity and artwork, it can still be difficult to focus on that one thing.

Where will visitors see your piece?

I chose to design a piece for the Dean’s Staircase, because it’s not well known and yet it’s only the second example of a cantilevered staircase in Britain. Inigo Jones produced the first, the Tulip Stairs of the Queen’s House in Greenwich. In St Paul’s, Wren has designed an exquisite helix of cantilevered stone steps that rises up through the South West tower, also known as the Dean’s Staircase and the Geometric Stairs. The engineering that went into creating it is spectacular.
I wanted to create a piece to help people focus on the staircase, as a way of understanding the space. When you look up, you see the underside of the 88 stone steps. It’s 50ft up to the top and I wanted people to see how the light from the windows in the tower falls on the steps and how changes in the light through the day affect the space.

So, a highly polished mirror-finished steel hemisphere sits in the well at the foot of the staircase. The optical division of Swarovski, which has always made top-quality lenses for telescopes, made the largest commissionable meniscus lens which sits in the centre of the table, directly below a spherical convex mirror suspended in the tower’s cupola. Together these two optical devices create an extraordinary composite image of the view through the stairwell.
It’s hard to beat: a gorgeously simple piece. The tower, that is. So I wanted to create a simple piece to reflect the light and proportion of the tower.

What was Wren’s magic formula? What could he teach designers today?

Wren had intended to install a Zenith telescope in the tower at St Paul’s for the duration of the construction process to measure the Earth’s rotation. He knew as much about science and astronomy as he did about architecture. His magic formula was to match his understanding of science and astronomy with architecture and geometry. Wren was a polymath but to get where he got, he would also have needed a deep inner conviction, energy, charm and the communication skills to get it across. He would have put himself in the right place at the right time.

Have you got a design formula? Or philosophy?

Light, geometry, scale, proportion: all of these are essentials in my designs. You have to be uninhibited, but you also have to be sensitive to what’s appropriate.
I think I was about fourteen when I realised that architecture which makes you feel something is real architecture. But I was inhibited and I listened to other people who said I needed maths and science, which I wasn’t good at at school. So I didn’t start training to be an architect until I was 30. The one thing I started with was a passion for doing stuff. The designing bit is what I really love. But design is hard work – the proverbial 99% hard work and 1% inspiration.

You’ve also worked with Swarovski to create a set of gifts inspired by another example of Wren’s work

Wren was fantastically interested in everything around him. On 26 March 1667 at 4.00pm there was a dramatic hailstorm in London. Wren drew some of the hailstones and later presented the drawings at a lecture to members of the Royal Society.

Looking through the illustrations in the Royal Society’s archives, it struck us that the shape of these hailstones was remarkably similar to how diamonds are cut today. They fell in almost perfect condition and the regularity of the faceting is remarkable. Working with Swarovski, we’re using Wren’s illustrations to create a set of the hailstones in crystal.

Share your thoughts