Architect John Pawson talks to us about his latest project, an elegant sailing yacht named Baracuda designed in his signature minimalist style.
The work of renowned architect John Pawson is characterized by clean lines, airy proportions and an intelligent use of light. Known as the master of minimalism, his name is synonymous with gallery-like spaces, be it a private home for an art collector (Doris Saatchi is a client), a modern monastery (the opening of Novy Dvur Monastery in 2004 redefined the notion of a place of worship) or a fashionable boutique (several Calvin Klein flagship stores bear his signature). His latest project, a 50-meter sailing yacht named Baracuda, is no different.
Launched in November 2008, Baracuda was conceived by boat builder Perini Navi in collaboration with naval architect Ron Holland. Pawson was commissioned to design the living and entertaining areas on and below deck, where he created open spaces with no partitions, which, he says, “honoured the priorities of light, space and proportion which have shaped my work since the very beginning.” Exterior features that he implemented include painting the hull a dark metallic grey (“like the scales of a fish”) and hoisting an imperial purple sail (“evoking memories of Cleopatra”).
Rather than being cold or stark, Baracuda’s interiors are warm and rich in carefully considered materials. And rather than feeling overly urban, as could easily have been the case, there is a seamless relationship between inside and out that intimately connects the yacht to its ocean context.
Born in 1949 in Halifax, Yorkshire, Pawson was educated at Eton and was inspired to enrol at the Architecture Association, London, after visiting the studio of Japanese architect Shiro Kuramata in Tokyo. He founded his practice in 1981 and has steadfastly maintained a celebrated minimal aesthetic that transcends architectural trends.
As we take a photo tour of Baracuda, John Pawson talks to us about naval architecture and the fundamental design principles that inform his work.
If luxury were an object?
A Brancusi sculpture.
If luxury were a place?
My home in London or the Yorkshire Moors, where I grew up.
If luxury were a moment?
Just before dawn.
If luxury were a person?
I would say my wife, but to describe her as a luxury is to imply I could manage without her.
What are your priorities in designing a boat?
The great challenge with Baracuda was always to take the spatial principle that have shaped my work since the very beginning and apply them to the very different conditions of a 50-metre cruising yacht.
How would you define the John Pawson style?
I’m interested in making places with atmosphere, where people feel comfortable. The building blocks for this are very simple - space, surface, proportion and light.
Is the discipline of naval architecture easily compatible with your minimalist approach?
I think the dialogue between the two disciplines is a very creative one. It’s easy to assume that one is all about function and the other all about aesthetics, but of course that’s not the case at all. It’s interesting that people often use nautical vocabulary to describe my work – ‘ship-shape’, ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. One of my early clients was the writer Bruce Chatwin, whose father was in the Royal Navy. The tiny apartment I made for Bruce was as simple and spare as a ship’s cabin, because that’s how he wanted to live.
What are some of the specific challenges of boat design?
Some of the challenges are very specific, like dealing with the reality of life out on the ocean, where the orientation of the walls and floor planes is not fixed, with implications for the design of every element of the spatial environment. And then there is the broader programmatic challenge of allowing two distinct communities – the owners and their guests on the one hand, and the crew on the other - and two different patterns of life to coexist comfortably.
What can you tell us of your experience designing Baracuda?
A project is only ever as good as the client. With the best sort of client, the flow of knowledge, experience and creative input is always in both directions and I certainly learned a great deal here – indeed I continue to learn, since we embarked on other projects together, while the yacht was still work in progress.
The brief for Baracuda evolved over a series of conversations, but two key decisions were made very early on - to paint the hull a dark metallic grey like the scales of a fish and to break with convention and have an imperial purple sail, inevitably evoking memories of Cleopatra:
‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold:
Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that
The winds were lovesick with them.’
Anthony & Cleopatra, William Shakespeare
The relationship between outside and in is key to yacht design. How did you approach this on Baracuda?
This is a defining relationship for any piece of architecture – indeed any spatial arrangement, however modest. What I wanted to achieve here was a sense of spatial fluidity. The main deck is designed as open living space, with no partitions, to keep a much clearer visual field than is conventionally the case. The seamlessness of the transition from main salon to aft-cockpit is reflected in the very subtle change in the detailing of the joints between the floor and ceiling timbers, from slivers of pale maple to fine lines of white silicone. The long viewing corridor from the aft-cockpit, through the salon and the wheelhouse to the foredeck beyond also helps with the sense of connectedness.
What can you tell us about the furniture you chose for Baracuda?
The client was very clear that she wanted to mix bespoke pieces with classic designs – even going so far as to acquire an original Jean E. Puiforcat tea and coffee set. This decision to put together an anthology of pieces was critical to the outcome. I value seamlessness in architecture, but seamlessness is sometimes confused with the homogeneity of a gesamtkunstwerk, which can feel very uncomfortable. With everything finished and the furniture installed, you can really appreciate the impact of the forms and patina of these older pieces. They are part of what gives these spaces atmosphere and authenticity.
Once you had designed Baracuda, how involved were you in its realization?
The commitment certainly doesn’t stop when the design is worked out. The project architects, Mark Treharne and Valerie Chomarat, worked very closely with the Perini team and the various consultants and fabricators, making regular visits to the shipyard throughout the construction period.
What is your favourite part of Baracuda?
I love the parchment wall covering in the stairwell. It’s visually very quiet, but when you look closely, you see all the tiny variations in colour, pattern and texture. That sort of richness appeals to me very much. And its effect on the character of a space can be profound.
What is your personal experience of sailing and boats?
I remember going sailing with my parents in St Mawes in Cornwall, when I was six - I have a vague recollection that I was taken out by Uffa Fox, but I may be confusing two stories. More recently I went out in a dinghy in Sag Harbor, with Sarah Miller, the editor of Condé Nast Traveller, who is an accomplished sailor. Up until last month these isolated experiences – along with getting hit on the head by the boom on my brother-in-law’s boat – were the sum of it. But a few weeks ago, I was on board Baracuda for the St Barths Bucket Regatta. It was great to see how the design works in racing conditions, when the decks pitch by up to 26 degrees.
Is there someone in the area of boat design whose work you admire?
Luca Brenta, with whom we worked on another yacht project - the B60 sloop.
So far you have only worked on the interiors and decks of yachts. What would you like to do with the exterior of a boat?
I’m always interested in work which takes me outside of familiar territory. It forces you to think about everything again.