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Life House

Sleeps 6

Life House has been designed by John Pawson as a place for calm and reflection. Located in mid Wales, near the town of Llanbister, it is a timeless example of architectural simplicity and beauty based on the concept of a retreat, where serenity, contemplation and restoration are foremost.

About The Architecture

Architect – John Pawson

John Pawson was born in 1949 in Halifax, Yorkshire. After a period in the family textile business he lived for a number of years in Japan, moving to Tokyo towards the end of his stay, where he visited the studio of Japanese architect and designer Shiro Kuramata. Following his return to England, he enrolled at the Architectural Association in London, leaving to establish his own practice in 1981.

From the outset, Pawson’s work has focused on ways of approaching fundamental problems of space, proportion, light and materials – themes he also explored in his book Minimum, which examines the notion of simplicity in art, architecture and design across a variety of historical and cultural contexts. Early commissions included homes for the writer Bruce Chatwin, opera director Pierre Audi and collector Doris Lockhart Saatchi, together with art galleries in London, Dublin and New York.


Life House has been designed to both take advantage of the surrounding landscape and to promote wellbeing in body and mind. Its remote location means it feels a near-monastic retreat, ideal for periods of contemplation. Each of its three bedrooms is dedicated to a different way to achieve serenity, through literature, music or bathing.

Carefully placed to work in harmony with the rolling hills in which it is set, Life House is a series of ‘rooms’ set along two long corridors, at right angles to one another, which culminate in two separate and unique contemplation spaces, one semi-submerged in the ground, the other set in the wider landscape. The indoor contemplation chamber, where guests can sit, lie, think, listen and be in touch with the elements, has a roof panel that retracts to reveal the sky or even to let in the weather, bringing the outdoors inside.

The house has been constructed from over 80,000 handmade Danish bricks, and the combination of polished terrazzo floors, white brick walls and light Douglas fir timber ceilings, doors and furniture, has created a peaceful and calming space ideal for escaping the demands of modern life.

The bedrooms have been carefully designed to promote a sense of relaxation and immersion in life’s true pleasures. One bedroom has a library of specially bound books selected by Living Architecture and John Pawson. The second bedroom incorporates a state-of-the-art valve Hi-Fi and a CD library curated by Caius Pawson, owner of British independent record label Young Turks (whose roster of acts includes The XX, FKA Twigs, SBTRKT and Jamie XX). The third is focused on bathing, with picture windows that look out over the wider Welsh landscape.

The communal areas fit seamlessly into one space – kitchen, dining and living room all join to provide a comfortable and convivial experience; the living space being accented and warmed by a beautiful, tiled, wood burning stove.


  • Completed 2016
  • Footprint 257sqm
  • Plot – approximately 4 acres
  • Brick construction under a zinc roof
  • Douglas Fir timber furniture and ceilings
  • Polished terrazzo floor

Contents of the house

The interiors have been created in conjunction with the architect, with the majority of the furniture and lighting designed specifically for the house.

Kitchen and dining room

Sofa, dining and coffee table – designed by John Pawson and fabricated by Benchmark Furniture  

Bianco Carrara Honed marble provided by Salvatori (Italy)

Kitchen – designed by John Pawson and fabricated by Advance Joinery
Stainless steel by Millimetre Limited

Kitchen Island and dining table light – designed by John Pawson. Sleeve manufactured by Wonder Glass

Dining Chairs – designed by Hans Wegner (PP240) and supplied by PP Mobler GB

Rug – Annapuma, supplied by The Rug Company

Large sheepskin pouffe -  by Aellson

TV – Samsung Serif, designed by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec

Table lights – designed by Shiro Kuramata, SE 106 K-series  

Wall hooks – designed by John Pawson

Fire Irons – fabricated by Black Country Metal Works

Wood burning Stove – designed by Dick van Hoff. Tilestove (BIG) supplied by Big Fire

Log Basket – by Hilary Burns, supplied by The New Craftsmen

Artwork – by Hamish Fulton

Lighting throughout the house – designed and supplied by Viabizzuno


Furniture – designed by John Pawson and fabricated by Advance Joinery

Library – selected by Alain de Botton with book binding by Blissetts

Desk chairs – designed by Hans Wegner (PP240) and supplied by PP Mobler GB

CDs – selected by Caius Pawson

Audio system – by Icon Audio

Waste baskets – by Hilary Burns, supplied by The New Craftsmen

Brick room

Welsh slate inscription – hand carved by Caitriona Cartwright

Pony skin throws and cushions – by Aellson

Outdoor space

A secondary external contemplation space can be found through the door at the end of the corridor. This seating area, with integrated carved welsh slate stone, reflects the exact dimensions of the internal contemplation room. Here one can sit and reflect, whilst taking in the wonderful views across the valley.

The making of Life House - a short essay by Steve Rose (2014)

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

John Pawson talks of a recent trip to Seville he took with his wife, Catherine. He was busy at work all day before the flight, and had no time to go home and pack. "So I asked Catherine if she'd throw some things into our suitcase. She brought my shoes, but no shirts. So I had this wonderful time where I only had the shirt that I had on, and washed it every day. There was a real sense of freedom."

Living with less: It can be both disempowering and liberating. It is the poorest who have the least, but it can be the richest, too. To be without possessions could point to a material deficiency or a spiritual abundance. Beyond the basic necessities, after all, what is all the other stuff for? Does it, as Thoreau believed, get in the way of "the essential facts of life?"

In Walden, Thoreau's account of two years spent living in a self-built, one-room cabin in the Massachusetts forest, the writer piously and poetically argues the case for "Spartan-like" living:

"Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward… None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty."

Thoreau did without alcohol, meat, caffeine, tobacco, humour, excess or "sensuality". He even considered doormats to be an extravagance. That Thoreau was less isolated or spiritually motivated than he made out (Walden was only about 20 minutes' walk from his family home, and he maintained a relatively active social life throughout his "isolation"), matters less than the fact that we find this fantasy of simple, frugal living as compelling as he did.

In the modern era, while much of the world's population lives in genuine deprivation, living with less has become something of a lifestyle trend in more affluent nations, fuelled by concerns over consumerism, environmental impact, the bustling pace of life, and spiritual vacancy. It is the subject of books, documentaries, motivational lectures. That this movement has co-opted the term "minimalism" -- originally coined to describe an artistic school of thought -- can be unhelpful. Especially if you are John Pawson.

If there's one word people associate with Pawson it is "minimalism". And though Pawson is certainly an advocate of living with less clutter (or at least more places to hide it), his design philosophy owes as much to minimalist currents of modern art and architecture. In that sense of the word, minimalism is a logical destination of the modernist movement. It is a stripping away of extraneous detail, and a championing of purity of form and meaning -- as much a moral aspiration as an aesthetic one. In his landmark 1910 lecture and essay Ornament And Crime, Adolf Loos declared: "I have discovered the following truth and present it to the world: cultural evolution is equivalent to the removal of Ornament from articles in daily use." The modernist masters all took up the crusade in their own ways, not least Le Corbusier ("We have acquired a taste for fresh air and clear daylight") and Mies van der Rohe ("less is more"). Nobody gives you more "less" than Pawson, you could says, although one could equally cite as influences artists like Carl Andre, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, the latter of whom described his art as "the simple expression of complex thought."

Pawson, himself, is less theoretical about his own approach; more minimal, you could say: "The main thing is that people feel good. It's a visceral feeling. I get a lot of pleasure from clarity, and clear spaces that make you feel calmer. People tend to notice."

The minimalist tag can be a millstone, but Pawson wears it as lightly as a linen holiday shirt. Not that he hasn't put in a great deal of effort to get where he is now, or that it is possible to achieve such simplicity in design with a certain amount of "complex thought".

A key to Pawson's success has been his consistency of approach and execution. He set off down the minimalist path long before it became fashionable, and he has stuck to it, steadily, organically refining his design identity. That's only how it looks in retrospect, he argues: "I never really had a career path. I never mapped anything out. I never even thought I'd become an architect. It was just a hobby to begin with."

He was interested in buildings and spaces before he knew what architecture was: "At an early age I learned there might be a difference between good architecture and 'buildings'. It gave me pleasure to be in a nice place, a nice atmosphere, a nice room, but I never thought I personally would be able to create those. At school they tell you you've got to read books, you've got to do maths, not that you could be an architect."

He gravitated towards design none the less. Having worked in the family textile business, and studied at Eton, Pawson spent a four years in Japan in his 20s, including a formative few months "hanging around" the studio of renowned designer Shiro Kuramata, who helped to bring Japan's own minimalist tradition into a modern context. "Eventually," says Pawson, "Kuramata got fed up with me and said, 'Why don't you go and study and do it yourself?' So I did."

Back in London, Pawson enrolled at the prestigious Architectural Association, aged 30, but felt out of step with the high-tech and postmodern currents of the 1980s. "The fact that you couldn't show too many working drawings for a white box was a handicap for the teachers to understand where things were coming from." He did not graduate.

Pawson's first project was the small London apartment he shared with his then-girlfriend, art dealer Hester van Royen. People would visit, fall in love with Pawson's aesthetic, and ask him to do something similar for them. Like the writer Bruce Chatwin, a personal friend. "Very rarely -- perhaps never in England -- have I walked into a room and thought, 'This is what I would have,'" Chatwin wrote. "I then went into a room designed by a young architect called John Pawson, and knew at once, 'This is what I definitely want.'" True to his word, Chatwin commissioned Pawson to remodel his tiny London pied à terre in 1982.

Pawson's practice grew organically. "The houses were designed around the way I wanted to live," he says. "It was always a 'take it or leave it' thing. I didn't have to sell them or try and appeal to other people." As his recognition has grown, his client list has assumed a Who's Who? quality: hotelier Ian Schrager, Martha Stewart, art editor Fabien Baron, and fashion designer Calvin Klein, for whom Pawson design his flagship store in New York, in 1995.

Pawson's works have expanded in scale and into the public sphere, as with his refurbishment of London's Design Museum (formerly the Commonwealth Institute, designed by RMJM which opened in 1962) and his elegant Sackler Crossing across the lake in Kew Gardens. He has also done many retail and gallery spaces, remodelled churches, and designed everything from homeware to stage sets to yachts.

It is quite a journey minimalism has made: from Thoreau in his Spartan cabin in the woods to the luxurious homes of wealthy elite. Has the term been stretched to the point of meaninglessness? Are these two contradictory definitions of minimalism, or two sides of the same coin?

Of particular relevance is the Christian monastic tradition, and specifically the Cistercian Order, founded in 11th century France. In their practice, the Cistercians referred back to the tenets of St Benedict, who set out definitive precepts for monastic life in the early 6th century, based on humility, community, prayer and work. In their design, however, the Cistercians were quietly radical. They were the master builders of the Middle Ages. Cistercian architecture stood on the shoulders of the preceding Gothic era, to some extent, but it stripped away the frills, the gaudiness and the gargoyles. As St Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian Order, famously put it, "There must be no decoration, only proportion" -- the better to avoid ostentation and distraction, and to focus monks' attentions on prayer and study. The result was some of the most stirring and technically sophisticated architecture of the era: sparse, clear, simple, utilitarian, free of superfluous ornament or imagery, built to awe and to last.

It is no surprise that early modernists were drawn to Cistercian architecture. When designing his feted (Dominican) monastery of La Tourette in the 1950s, Le Corbusier was advised by the monks to visit the 12th century Le Thoronet Abbey, in Provence -- one the Cistercians' greatest achievements. It affected him deeply. Seeing Le Thoronet must have been like seeing his own "new architecture" realised 800 years before he'd conceived it. "Light and shade are the loudspeakers of this architecture of truth, tranquility and strength. Nothing further could add to it,” he wrote. Le Corbusier modelled La Tourette's organisational plan on Le Thoronet, and also sought to emulate its austere refinement, its masterful control of surface and natural light, and its sublime dignity.

Le Thoronet is John Pawson's favourite building in the world, he says. The son of Methodists, Pawson was exposed to religious architecture from a young age. He recalls visiting the ruins of Cistercian abbeys in Yorkshire in his youth, such as Fountains and Rievaulx. He has visited and studied Le Thoronet extensively. In 2006, he mounted an exhibition at the abbey: Leçons du Thoronet, consisting of 14 annotated viewpoints around the site and a book, in which he communicated his own appreciation of the abbey's architectural principles. "You learn how they went about it," Pawson says. "It's about the way the sunlight falls on the stone at different times of day, and how the buildings respond to the landscape."

Pawson has also had the opportunity to apply his learnings from Le Thoronet in concrete form. In the early 1990s, he was commissioned to design a new Cistercian monastery: the Abbey of Our Lady of Novy Dvur, in the Czech Republic. When Pawson asked the monks why they had invited him, they replied, "We saw your Calvin Klein store." They saw it in photographs, he hastens to add -- Cistercian monks do not tend to shop on Madison Avenue.

To Pawson, there's no contradiction in designing a Catholic monastery for one client and a temple to consumerism for another. "People somehow felt it devalued the work I'd done on the monastery but they're all buildings," he says. "The fact that [Calvin] was selling clothes and making money was irrelevant. For the monks, it was a space they thought was nice. They saw what I'd done and could recognise that that sort of atmosphere might suit a church or monastery. They thought the tables would make a good altar! The monks loved what I'd done for Calvin, and Calvin loved the monastery."

Pawson is suspicious about terms like "monastic" being applied to his house designs: "It's a shorthand, isn't it? Cistercian monastic architecture was built on a set of rules worked out by St Bernard: simplicity, nothing more than you need, preferably without curves (which, of course, I've already broken), use of light, and materials that will last. The monks themselves don't have possessions apart from the odd piece like a watch. But if you have a house which has beautiful light and clarity and very few possessions in it, and this is a place where you can just sit and think, or read and enjoy cooking and gathering with friends that doesn't mean you have to pray in it, or be closer to God."

Be that as it may, that combination of qualities was remarkably close to what Alain de Botton, Living Architecture's creative director, was seeking from Pawson.

De Botton's take on Pawson's work is somewhat different: "In a way, there's 'posh Pawson' and 'monastery Pawson'," says de Botton. "And we were very clear from the first that we wanted 'monastery Pawson'. Our feeling was that 'monastery Pawson' was trapped inside 'posh Pawson', and that we wanted to realise him at the level of a house such as his normal clients would never do."

De Botton and Pawson have known each other for decades. One of Pawson's first projects was a guest toilet in the London home of de Botton's father, Gilbert. "It was a beautiful limestone cube where there was ostensibly a loo, but you really had to search to find it," de Botton recalls. "It was a loo where you didn't know where the seat was and you didn't know where the light switch was, so most people had to be given instructions on how to operate this room. Both my father and John seemed to quite enjoy this."

Pawson also built a small workspace at de Botton senior's house in Provence. He and Alain stayed in touch, and would bump into each other now and then. Naturally, when Living Architecture began to take shape as an institution in 2010, Pawson's name was one of the first to spring to mind says de Botton: "I think he joked, 'I'm too expensive for you,' the first time I brought it up. But we always thought, 'One day…'"

It was also a question of finding the right site, de Botton continues: "We knew we wanted to find a very bleak spot for him. I think his architecture works best against bleakness. I can imagine it would look horribly twee in rolling countryside. The more unrefined the outside is, the more the interior has a chance to stand out. We needed something rather brutal."

They eventually found it. In Wales. By then, five years on, Living Architecture was entering a new phase. They had become a more established brand and a more experienced operation that was keen to avoid repeating itself. They were seeking to cast the net further afield, having built successful properties in more accessible (from London) or familiar holiday locations in England, including Suffolk, Norfolk, Kent and central London. They were also prepared to take bigger risks. Grayson Perry and FAT's House For Essex was one such bold venture; Peter Zumthor's ongoing project in Devon extended Living Architecture's range westwards, so Wales seemed like a way of "connecting the dots", as Mark Robinson, Living Architecture's director, puts it.

Robinson was leading the search for a suitable site. It started along the more tourist-friendly south Wales coast -- Cardiff, the Mumbles, St Davids -- but they were also drawn inland, to the more isolated, emptier regions around the Brecon Beacons National Park. "It wasn't like we were looking for a particular spot," says Robinson. "More just finding something that appealed: a unique landscape, somewhere that has its own identity."

Robinson and de Botton both had in mind a wild, windswept sort of place. They found it in the heart of Powys -- amidst a landscape of sheep farms, gentle valleys and gorse-covered hills. It is one of the least densely populated areas of Britain. The nearest village, Llanbister, is two miles away, and has just one pub and a small shop. The nearest train station is five miles away. There would be commercial impacts to such isolation, but the dividend was rugged splendour.

From the outset, De Botton and Robinson had in mind the notion of a Welsh "retreat" -- not simply a nice house for a weekend break but a place where guests might be able to put the clutter of their everyday lives to one side, in every sense, and take time to contemplate, to reconnect with what Thoreau would have called "the essential facts of life", whether that be themselves as individuals, their fellow guests, the fulfilment of unhurried domestic activity, or the natural landscape.

A holiday home could lend itself to being a temporary Walden, de Botton suggests: "It's really the idea that familiar objects keep us anchored to who we are. That's why people like them. They like the sense of stability. But sometimes, by stripping those things away, you can look at your life from a different angle. You can reconsider things. You are freed by not having anything staring back at you, as it were, so some things become easier to see." Pawson was a perfect fit for such an undertaking.

Pawson was struck by the ruggedness of the area when he and Catherine first visited the site: "The rain was driving so hard that we literally could not get out of the car. The windscreen wipers made no difference. Incredible! My first thoughts were 'rain, water, gorse, wilderness'." He had driven for a few hundred miles around the area by then, he says, "seeing what looked good". This being mid Wales, there are few structures to see of any description, mostly houses of white-painted stone and red brick.

A house already stood on the site: a 1950s concrete bungalow with an adjoining stable block at right angles to it. Pawson's immediate instinct was to retain the same basic layout. He proposed an L-shaped scheme, with a single large, open living and dining space, like a Welsh longhouse, and a block of sleeping quarters adjoining it at right angles. There was a problem with Pawson's scheme from the outset, though: Living Architecture already had one of those. Michael and Patty Hopkins had recently completed The Long House, in Norfolk, for them -- another reinvention of the traditional long house, not far removed from what Pawson was proposing. "So we kind of pushed back," says Mark Robinson. "It was a nice idea. We got it. But we just felt like we wanted something more."

"I should have realised that," says Pawson. "Alain said, 'Well there are two options: we can part company very amicably and no grudges held, or you can have a chance to relook at it, and in the mean time I'll send you some ideas of mine.' -- 'Because obviously you haven't got any,' was the subtext! My emotional reaction would be to part ways, but there's something in me, ever since the very early days, I've had this thing about never giving up, regardless of what is thrown at you."

The ideas de Botton sent Pawson -- partly his own thoughts, partly images of other buildings -- also spurred Pawson on, he says: "There's nothing more irritating than being shown somebody else's work! So I said I'd have another long look at the site."

"We were really saying to John: 'You've got to break the rules. You've got to go mad here. Let's really push this as far as it can go,'" says de Botton. "We were drawn to this issue of religion, and whether in John's architecture there was a nostalgia, almost, for religious buildings and the solemnity that they often have, and whether we could bring that out in a modern house. For me the points of reference were the Czech monastery to a large extent, and a few of the smaller church projects he had done. We said, 'That's the direction we want you to go in, but on a domestic scale. That was really the challenge. And because these houses don't have to be lived in day to day, we really said to John, 'Go out and make a slightly impractical house, and see where we get to."

In discussion with Pawson, Robinson and de Botton were also honing their ideas of what the "something more" might be. Since Living Architecture's early days, there had been an ongoing conversation about augmenting or enhancing the domestic experience, of giving visitors more than just spaces in which to sleep and eat. Their very first project, MVRDV's Balancing Barn, in Suffolk, began life as a group of discrete buildings dispersed about the site, each of which would be associated with a particular characteristic or activity. That proved to be impractical and impossibly expensive but the germ of the idea persisted, and in Wales, it found a way to return.

"The house become a kind of collection of a lot of things we'd been talking about for the last 10 years," says Robinson. "We called it 'the Calm House' as a working title -- somewhere that put emphasis on the kind of rituals that we spend more time doing when we're on holiday: reading, writing, sleeping, bathing, listening to music."

Some extreme ideas were floated. Pawson remembers talk of putting the lavatory outside, to force visitors out into the elements and make them aware of their surroundings. Or perhaps there could be a long walk from the road to the house, where guests had to carry their luggage in a wheelbarrow or cross a stream? At one point there was talk having almost no kitchen or sitting room, so that guests would have to congregate in each others' bedrooms. Then again, this being a relatively far-flung destination that visitors may have driven a long time to get to, and paid money to enjoy, a certain level of convenience would be expected.

The final brief incorporated those aspirations but jettisoned the daunting levels of discomfort. The convention of a communal living/cooking/dining area was retained. And rather than the outside lavatory, each bedroom would have an ensuite bathroom. But each of these bedrooms would also emphasise a particular activity: bathing, reading and listening to music.

Furthermore, the house was to include an extra room with no specified function: a "contemplation chamber", as it became known. De Botton describes it as "a chance to elevate the act of thinking, to give it its own architectural space. Architecture is very limited in its repertoire of what rooms are supposed to be for. There's the sleeping room, there's the cooking room, etcetera. Could we slightly tweak that in a domestic setting? That was the challenge."

"I started to work more with the land and the way it rolled down, and how we'd nestle the house in," Pawson says. His second scheme expressed the bedrooms and living spaces as discrete volumes, giving the house the appearance of a collection of buildings, with low-pitch roofs and large windows wrapping around their corners.

In contrast to his trademark pristine white render, Pawson chose dark brown brick for the exterior of the house. It is the first time he has used the material, he says. He was inspired by the blackened gorse in the landscape, but dark brick would also be an easier material to maintain, given the Welsh climate. For the interior, the bricks -- hand-made in Denmark -- became a pale brown, almost white.

Internally, these volumes are connected by an L-shaped corridor. The living space is at the front of site, roughly running north-south, with views across the valley. The western end of the L-shaped corridor terminates in the contemplation chamber, which is partly sunk into the hill. The northern end of the corridor opens onto a paved outdoor area mirroring the footprint of the contemplation chamber -- its external counterpart. Thus, a subtle narrative presented itself -- from dark to light -- which was accentuated by using the dark, exterior bricks for the hillside corridor, and the interior of the contemplation chamber itself.

The contemplation chamber was the subject of particular consideration. What should it look like? There were few precedents. Well-appointed country houses would often have had their own private chapel, but that was not a helpful design precedent. Nor, conversely, could it simply feel like an empty room. Art installations by James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson were points of reference, as was Peter Zumthor's Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, in Germany, whose interior walls are rough and charred, and whose roof is open to the sky.

De Botton thought it should be solemn and dark, "like a crypt, with elements of a monastic cell, but the nicest cell you can imagine." It is a strong, spare, sober space, quite different in atmosphere to the rest of the house. An electrically openable skylight lets in some light, as well as outside sounds and even, potentially, rain -- a Roman impluvium. But the skylight was deliberately kept small, so as not to dispel the darkness or turn the room into a Turrell-like installation. The only furniture is two heavy block-like benches with glazed brick surfaces (with pony-skin cushions and throws as a concession to comfort). A slate plaque in the floor is inscribed with a quotation from Blaise Pascal's Pensées: "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone."

The other areas of the Life House -- as it later became known -- took shape organically, along more recognisably Pawsonian lines. The materials were kept to a minimum: brick for the internal walls; Douglas Fir stained a warm, pinkish hue for the interior woodwork; polished terrazzo for the floors, stainless steel for the kitchen surfaces.

The "Bathing" bedroom, features a bath set into a long, plain, monumental block of pale precast terrazzo -- almost like an altar -- with views across the landscape, but privacy from the road and the rest of the house. A similar "altar table" runs along one wall in the "Music" room. Upon it sit a top-of-the-range valve amplifier and CD player, and it is flanked by two loudspeakers. A small, carefully curated CD library is arranged on shelves on the wall next to the stereo set-up. Pawson was happy to hand over responsibility for the music selection to his son Caius, founder of the Young Turks label -- whose choices take in jazz, rock, soul, Afrobeat and hip-hop.

The "Reading" room has a long, wooden desk running along its northern wall, looking onto a framed view across the garden to the north. It comes with a small, eclectic library of books -- some new, some second-hand -- all bound in uniform grey, ranging from Aristotle to Goethe, Sigmund Freud to Virginia Woolf, not to mention de Botton's own writings and, of course, Thoreau's Walden.

Finding a contractor to build the Life House was not straightforward. In this part of the world, contractors of any description are thin on the ground, let alone one experienced enough to meet Pawson's exacting standards. Added to which, there was the inhospitable climate.

Having interviewed contractors in a radius that extended to Hereford, Living Architecture settled on JA Morgan, a family firm based in the nearest town, Llandrindod Wells. "He just knew the land," Robinson says of Jack Morgan. "He understood the environment he was working in. And right from the start he looked at what we were trying to build and said, 'To build that in Wales is going to be tough.'" Morgan knew how to go about it, though. He erected a giant marquee -- of the type usually used by famers for livestock -- over half the site, with lighting, thus enabling work to continue through the dark winters and horizontal rain.

The build came in on time and on budget -- possibly a first for Living Architecture. "For all my worries about finding the right skills around there, what comes through in the house is that quality of materials, and that quality of build frankly," says Robinson. "It's remarkable to have achieved that standard considering where it is, from a builder who was basically your average housebuilder. They said they'd never done anything remotely like it, but at the same time they rose to the occasion massively. They did an amazingly good job."

Most of the furniture and fittings inside the house -- the sofa, the tables, the kitchen and the bedroom furniture -- were made bespoke, to Pawson's design. Pawson's existing mass-produced ranges also stock the kitchenware. Plus a few design classics, such as the Hans Wegner chairs in the dining room and reading room (a Pawson favourite), and the table lights by Pawson's mentor, Shiro Kuromata.

Some of the design's qualities are appreciable to the focused eye: the clarity of line, the harmony of the proportions, the framing of the views, the flow of the spaces, the seamlessness of the detailing, "the refined dialogue of tone, pattern and texture" between the materials, as Pawson puts it. Others are imperceptible. Pawson invests time in suppressing all mechanical noises, for example. "I am at the disadvantage of being able to hear very high pitched or very quiet noises. I'm constantly going around turning things off," he says. "An interviewer once asked me what I liked to listen to. I replied: 'Silence.'"

Living Architecture were full of admiration for Pawson and his team, led by project architect Shingo Ozawa. "They are incredibly professional," says Robinson. "They sample everything. There's no margin for error. The number of samples they did for this house was amazing. Everything gets put together and tried and tried again, furnishings and fittings and one thing and another. That's how they work. I'm not a super minimalist by any measure, but it feels comfortable. It's welcoming. It's not too austere, and I think the materials all help with that."

At times Pawson can go too far in his desire for minimalist perfection, says Robinson. "He doesn't like seeing plug sockets and light switches and that sort of thing. He wanted to hide all the sockets inside cupboards. He even wanted to hide the light switches inside the timber of the door frames, so you wouldn't be able to see them when the door was closed. I understood, but I had to explain, there's only so much we can hide if people are coming into the house for the first time. If you don't know where the light switch is, it's a bit of a problem!"

There were also times when it worked the other way around, too, Robinson admits. "Alain and I are always meddling. We'd come up with ideas and sketch something up and show it to John. Like one time we were thinking, 'Maybe the roof should be a bit more pitched, with an oculus at the top? I did this sketch and John looked at it and said, 'Well, if you want [renowned Portuguese architect] Souto de Moura, I suggest you go and get Souto de Moura.' That's the perfect answer, really. He was saying 'I'll happily work with you on everything but that's not my design. That's not what I want to do."

Pawson's reputation for perfectionism often leads to him being branded as a "difficult" architect, but Living Architecture saw no sign of that, particularly compared to many other talented but wilful designers they have worked with in their time. "He was a complete delight to work with," says de Botton. "He was the least stressful of all the architects we've worked with. He really listened and tried to adjust to the brief. He had a slightly resigned air at points, but not even a sulky one -- just the challenges of existence but nothing more."

Having known him for many years, de Botton suggests Pawson might have mellowed: "I think when you're younger, you really need certain buildings to be exactly the way you want them. Now he's done it enough to feel that his whole life doesn't depend on it. I think he was happy to cede control a bit, and to just indulge us, essentially."

Pawson bristles at the suggestion he has -- or had -- a reputation as "difficult". "I don't want to be, and I don't think I am. Maybe it's for others to think, but I like to listen and I try not to complain. I took on and tried to assimilate their input, but I haven't taken on anything I didn't believe in."

Both Living Architecture and Pawson wonder in hindsight if they could have pushed things a little further. Could have been more radical? Could they have blurred the boundaries between interior comfort and external wildness a little more? Between luxury and asceticism? Perhaps reconciling these concepts is a fine balancing act, achieved through steady refinement rather than impulsive gestures. "Architecture is so permanent, I suppose I'm inherently conservative," says Pawson. "Always trying to do the right thing. Maybe I should have been more selfish. More… difficult."

But it bears remembering that Pawson's architecture is radical, in its own restrained way. "At the beginning of my career, people went on about how mad I was, and how mad my designs were," he says. If Pawson seems less mad, and his work less radical, it is because it has been so widely -- often badly -- imitated, and because to a great extent, it covers its tracks so well. Less is more work. Pawson might express his aim as simply "making people feel good" but his architecture is nothing if not comprehensively considered. "Every single corner, every nook, every vantage point, every vista I go through in my head how it will be," he says. "Of course it's always slightly different when you actually go there, but if you work really hard on the details and all the things that go with architecture: the proportions and the light and the vistas. If you get it all right, that in itself is very unusual. So people will have something very special."

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