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Charles Jencks - A short narrative of related ideas


Post-Modernism Charles Jencks has held simultaneous jobs over his seventy-plus years: architectural critic and historian, cultural theorist, designer of cosmic landscapes, co-founder of the Maggie's Cancer Care Centres, and what he is best known for - becoming the protagonist and definer of Post-Modernism.


Combining opposite roles is itself a goal of the postmodern agenda, and Jencks was one of the first to define it positively as an umbrella movement. This primary definition occured because architecture, like opera, is a hybrid artform, necessarily mixing fast-changing technologies and slow-changing values. It is the perfect subject to Charles Jencks onfront the problems of modernity, and thus the nascent movement helped lead worldwide shifts in the other arts and sciences. Every field soon adopted pluralist approach and, in a globalised world, defined its particular version of the new philosophy - under such rubrics as "postmodern dance" and "complexity science." Not since the modern world view was adopted centuries ago has such a seismic shift occured, and it continues to fluctuate in fortune along with its parent, modernity.


Born in Baltimore Maryland on June 21st, 1939, Charles Alexander Jencks followed his parents – the composer Gardner Platt Jencks and Ruth DeWitt Pearl – to Connecticut and Cape Cod. Summers in this idyllic refuge of dissident artists and intellectuals had a strong influence on his outlook. After getting degrees at Harvard, in English literature and architecture, he moved to the UK in 1965 where he has lived ever since. In 1970 Jencks received a PhD in architectural history, studying under the radical modernist Reyner Banham, from whom he learned much especially how to enjoy disagreements. The fruits of this confrontation turned into his pluralist critique of the reigning dogma, Modern Movements in Architecture, published by Penguin books 1973, which became a best-selling textbook for fifteen years. It criticised the suppression of the outlying modernists – the Expressionists, Constructivists, Organicists who did not fit the party line – and showed how Modernists had collaborated with Vichy, Mussolini and Hitler. In short, the book revealed the dark sides of Modernism without either supporting a return to the past or a single style.


This ‘criticism from within’ led directly to Jencks’ The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 1977, and seven later editions continuing into the 21st century. The new PM movement was defined as based on pluralism and hybridity, combining opposite codes of architecture that could adequately express the contradictory requirements and tastes of a global society. It was defined variously as ‘the loyal opposition to modernism’, ‘the continuation of Modernism and its transcendence,’ and ‘the double-coding of modernism with other codes’ – or, in 2007,

‘Critical Modernism,’ the fifth edition of his What is Post-Modernism?


Complexity science, first mooted in the 1960s by Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson and Robert Venturi, became in the 1980s at the Sante Fe Institute, the intellectual foundation of what they predicted as ‘the sciences of the 21st century.’ These nonlinear sciences touched all aspects of life, and self-organising systems, a perfect foil to the modernist sciences of simplicity stemming from Descartes, Newton and Darwin. Chaos science, fractals, and present-day cosmology all derive from this new paradigm. It was summarised in Jencks’ the Architecture of the Jumping Universe, 1995, the title which expresses the dynamic and emergent world view of a self-organising cosmos. By the late 1990s it had become the orientation of many creative disciplines.


Jencks’ own designs experiment with these ideas, as a provocation to a developing Post-Modern tradition. First was his studio in the woods, a cheap mass-produced garage structure of $5,000 – titled polemically The Garagia Rotunda, where he spent part of the summers with his family. The ad hoc use of readymade materials, and a basic garage, meant that the savings could be used on symbolic ornament: such things as the one-inch rotunda, the eleven shades of blue that bring out the Cape Cod landscape and metaphors of the body. His polemical text with Nathan Silver defined Adhocism – the Case for Improvisation in 1971 and 2013. Adhocism became one of the several strands of Post-Modernism that waxed and waned, as it has done over the centuries.


The question of expressing content in contemporary life was one of the pressing issues of the 1960s: who is the ultimate user of architecture; what values should be crystallised in architecture, above all what is public architecture to represent? These issues were addressed in Meaning in Architecture, 1969, co-edited with George Baird, a hypertext of leading architects and theorists commenting on each other’s texts. This was followed by other anthologies on semiotics, the theory of signs. Then Jencks’ Towards a Symbolic Architecture, 1985, focussed on today’s agnosticism and neutrality and how they led to a pervasive abstraction and architectural malapropism. His London house, designed with Maggie Keswick and a host of Postmodern architects including Terry Farrell and Michael Graves, was based on explicit and implicit signs and symbols. They referred to cosmic meanings that remain eternal – black holes and whirlpool galaxies – or to local nature, the sun, the moon and changing seasons. And they depicted self-organising patterns that might become the iconology for a Post-Christian architecture, rather than the gratuitous ornament being tacked onto buildings, or the empty neutrality, the default mode of so much Modernism.


Three years later Jencks switched to landscape design as a site for symbolic exploration, particularly the hybrid landforms that mix sculpture and epigraphy. The great outdoors became the focus for symbolism when Maggie asked Charles to design in the family home and garden in Scotland. The result in 2003, after many vicissitudes, was The Garden Of Cosmic Speculation, a series of twenty areas designed around various metaphors such as the DNA garden, Quark Walk, Fractal terrace and Comet Bridge. A “landscape of waves” was the underlying grammar that pulled the landforms and planting together, the idea that wave-forms were just as significant as particle-forms, the latter which had dominated Modernist physics since Isaac Newton, and architecture since Le Corbusier. Further hybrid landforms and symbolic sculptures were built in Edinburgh, Milan, Long Island, Cambridge, Suncheon South Korea (with Lily Jencks), and other countries, some of which was published in The Universe in The Landscape, 2011. Writing and design informed each other.


After Maggie died in 1995, Jencks helped co-found and further the Maggie Cancer Caring Centres, twenty of which were built in twenty years. Architects who had become friends were asked in the first instance to design these small havens, close to a mega-NHS-hospital. Complementing the primary with secondary therapies, these Centres grew out of Maggie and Charles’ experience with cancer, the idea of self-help guided by professionals – and changes in lifestyle that could extend life and improve the quality of living with cancer. Above all was the idea that cancer needs the care of a friend, a relation or attentive companion, someone that can help you navigate the difficult route through over-choice and pain. Major architects took up the challenge, and produced strikingly different icons to the same programme, a demonstration of the pluralist paradigm.


By the year 2000 a conjecture became current among scientists that we inhabit a Multiverse, an ensemble of universes. This speculation explains a lot, is reinforced by theories such as inflation and some evidence. It presumes that the parameters and laws are set slightly differently, as one universe grows from another, illuminating why ours is so miraculously fine-tuned for life and basic qualities. From 2010, Jencks started work on The Crawick Multiverse, a fifty-five acre site in southwest Scotland. This project developed for Richard Buccleuch, along with scientists, artists, Charles’ co-worker Alistair Clark, opened in 2015. It remains a site where every summer new cosmic installations and performances take place. Galaxies and black holes are celebrated by landforms and local red sandstone. The mythic center of the earth is an Omphalos of boulders; several agencies that affect life – such as the Solar Flare-Earth Shield – are dramatized. The multiverse carries forward ideas first developed in Jencks’ Pluriverse (a chapter in Adhocism) where the plurality of the cosmos and the city is the theme.

Greater complexity, greater meaning? The story of the universe shows the evolution of ever-greater complexity punctuated by catastrophic setbacks and moments of devolution towards simplicity. This mixed message – benign at the large scale with gratuitous suffering at the small – is oxymoronic. It led Jencks to define the Postmodern Agenda in 1992 as ‘tragic optimism,’ and pursue a zigzag course of public and private work, the co-creation of cancer caring centres and the symbolic landscapes and architectures that have some explicit public meaning. His idea that greater meaning emerges over time assumes that positive evolution also entails greater sensitivity and organisation, more of the qualities that makes life worth living. The PIC (inscribed at the top of the Multiverse) is the principle of increasing complexity at work. The growth of many cultures, and the cultivation of better wine, are typical positives that do not deny their opposite, mass-cult and the proliferation of plonk. But they put the race to the bottom in perspective. Global culture may homogenise the landscape, but materialists cannot deny the continuous evolution over three billion years, that ever-more crystals and beautiful minerals have emerged and continue to do so. The Metaphysical Landscape, an exhibition of sculpture at Jupiter Artland 2011, presented the mixed world view. Jencks’ later exhibit at the Merz Gallery, Sanquhar 2016 continued with this Metaphysical Realism, the idea of an art constrained by cosmic reality but still transcendent of nature and culture. The value of imagination and the imagination of values see to that.

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