‘Plain Space’, John Pawson’s mid-career retrospective at the Design Museum, offers a chance to reassess his work so far, but also to consider this specific moment in architecture. A whole generation of the London-based architect’s more flamboyant peers is often charged with privileging ideas over actual buildings. Pawson’s plain spaces offer a contrast to the work of Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano and Frank Gehry; but, with the 2009 fire at Rem Koolhaas’ unfinished CCTV headquarters in Beijing, has the notion that contemporary architecture needs to be about something started to burn out? Divided into three parts, the exhibition begins with a scrapbook in the form of a timeline. Here, the walls and tables are filled with ephemera: childhood pictures, letters from Shiro Kuramata and Karl Lagerfeld, photos of interiors, books on Pawson and articles about him, tracking his development from Eton to his own early attempts at fashion, later going on to work in Japan for Kuramata and designing Bruce Chatwin’s London apartment in 1982. Separated by a partition from the rest of the show, this overview indicates just how difficult it is to square Pawson’s spare ideals with the requirements of the survey format; the dividing wall seems to be designed to keep this documentation away from the rest of the show as if to protect it from the mess. Looking at Pawson’s work I always wonder what I’m missing. He claims Dan Flavin as an influence, and there’s certainly an appeal in the idea of a space that shuts out the world and its demands and distractions. But his approach avoids engagement with any real-world issues. Pawson’s work is clearly about good taste versus context – materials rather than matters. Indeed, the majority of his commissions have been private homes for clients including Fabien Baron and Martha Stewart. The second part of the show comprises large photos of buildings including Baron’s home in Ystad, southern Sweden (2005), and the Sackler Crossing, a sinewy bridge in Kew Gardens, London (2006). The projects are accompanied by models and films, as well as giant palettes made from the material used in each building. Paired as a study in contrasts, the stacks give the sense that they were at the heart of the project, as if the materials were all that mattered. They try to solve the perennial problem of exhibiting architecture in a museum, but – while the serialist installation gestures towards Minimalist sculpture – they fall short. At the show’s centre is an untitled blank white space with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Successful as a literal embodiment of Pawson’s architecture, the room still asks more questions than it answers. The chamber is revealed, almost like an ecclesiastical peepshow, through a translucent screen at the exhibition’s entrance. With the installation’s white walls and pale wood floors, a vague kind of religiosity is the intention. Its gauzy diffused light creates a cone of silence for introspection, but that falls apart when you sit on the benches. What are we supposed to do here? Stare at the person opposite you? Stare at the ground? If you do, you can see the failure of the beautiful materials in the real world. One week into the show and the floor was already scuffed. It’s tempting to wonder how Pawson squares his design of chapels and a monastery in the Czech Republic with his work on high-end shops. Starting in the mid-1990s, his flagship stores for Calvin Klein created white-walled temples to consumption. (A spare aesthetic works well with shopping, transforming every handbag or pair of heels into something sacrosanct.) Today though, the experience has been taken further (and made more baroque) by architects such as Peter Marino, whose experiential emporia for Chanel and Louis Vuitton incorporate diamond dust, LCDs and LEDs; facades that become virtual television sets lighting up at night and glass walls lined with gold chainmail. Holding Pawson up to his contemporaries like Koolhaas and Hadid, none of them seems to win. Pawson’s plain spaces are just that – pretty and plain, while the bold thrusting buildings inspired by chaos theory and complex geometry push the limits of engineering while ignoring their inhabitants. It’s not an either or; neither statement architecture nor Minimalism is the winner. Nor, for that matter, is the Design Museum. The retrospective isn’t simply looking back but forward – to the institution’s new home. The architect? Pawson himself. He’ll be transforming the former Commonwealth Institute in West London into a new home for the Museum, including 62 luxury flats, due to open in 2014. ‘Plain Space’ feels at times like an immersive press release justifying Pawson’s appointment. This conflict distracts from any assessment one can really make of his work; it’s a bit like a museum that contributes to the provenance (and value) of a board member’s collection by including it in a show.