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‘His writing was always alive to the deep pleasures of great buildings’

25 November 2019

Modern Movements in Architecture (1973) by Charles Jencks was one of the first books on architecture I read, a birthday present given to me the summer before I started my degree. In some ways, it spoiled things: I thought all architecture books would be that much fun. Modern Movements in Architecture is a complex and sophisticated history, but it wears its learning lightly. It relates architecture to a wider cultural discourse and it is unafraid to be critical, even of some architects, such as Mies van der Rohe, who were previously considered to be above criticism.

When I arrived at architecture school, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t on the recommended reading lists. The reason for this lay in the book’s heretical conclusions. It may be one of the best primers on 20th-century architectural history, but it makes no pretence to neutrality. Ultimately Jencks came not to praise modernism, but to bury it. His mapping of its various strands leads in the final chapter to its rejection in favour of postmodernism. In this sense, it forms a counterpoint to Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History, first published in 1980. Both books shift from a broad account of architecture’s recent past to a clear prescription for its future, but with very different conclusions.

Jencks’s book grew out of his PhD thesis, supervised by Reyner Banham at the University of London in the late 1960s, and paved the way for his later, more explicitly polemical The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977). In this bestselling book, Jencks set out his stall for a pluralist architecture that rejected what he saw as modernism’s reductive ‘univalent’ approach, swapping it for a symbolically rich and historically engaged ‘multivalent’ postmodernism. For good or bad it became the defining book of its era, an unabashed rejection of mainstream modernism that ushered in a new architectural style.

Despite enjoying a recent revival, postmodernism remains divisive and Jencks is often viewed with suspicion for espousing it. But The Language of Post-Modern Architecture – and Jencks’s interests in general – were more wide-ranging and eclectic than his detractors would have. The book includes sections on ad-hoc architecture (the subject of a separate and very interesting book co-authored with Nathan Silver) and alternative communities such as Drop City. It explored an interest in do-it-yourself culture from custom cars to the carriage lamps, plastic columns and mock-Tudor that characterise everyday suburban architecture.

Its success prompted a series of issues of Architectural Design magazine charting the rise of postmodernism. These led in turn to larger and glossier coffee-table books, which didn’t expand the themes but did disseminate them further. At the same time, his ever more complex genealogy of architectural movements expressed via beautiful flow diagrams obsessively identified new ‘isms’. Jencks’s taxonomic approach wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea; it sometimes appeared reductive, especially to architects who objected to having their work categorised. Nevertheless, there was something heroic in his attempt to understand and give expression to the forces of architectural history, its overlapping themes and impossible-to-map family trees. And while his reliance on linguistic description mirrored his faith in architecture’s ability to communicate through a system of signs, his writing was always alive to the deep pleasures of great buildings.

The Universe Cascade in The Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries, designed by Charles Jencks and Maggie Keswick.

The Universe Cascade in The Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries, designed by Charles Jencks and Maggie Keswick. Photo: gardenpics/Alamy Stock Photo

Jencks was also a prolific designer and the early books are peppered with his own work including the Garagia Rotunda, a symbolically overloaded weekend studio in Cape Cod where he spent summer holidays. Later he developed a parallel career as a landscape designer, the creator of epic, undulating earthworks – sometimes as collaborations with his daughter Lily, a landscape architect, and in the case of the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries, his wife Maggie – that reflected an interest in contemporary physics.

Like many of his architectural heroes, who included Edwin Lutyens and James Stirling, Jencks could never resist a good joke or even, it has to be said, a fairly poor one. His own home, the Thematic House in Holland Park (designed in collaboration with Terry Farrell and now Grade I-listed) abounds in them. The ground floor is themed around the seasons. In the ‘Spring Room’ the supports for the table lamps are made of actual springs, a linguistic joke enjoyable for its acknowledged silliness. The jacuzzi – designed with the architect Piers Gough – is based on an upside-down version of a dome by Francesco Borromini. The design process for this last element consisted of Gough projecting a series of famous domes on to the floor to work out which would make the best tub. A number of other notable architects and artists contributed to the house, including Michael Graves, Eduardo Paolozzi and, perhaps most surprisingly, Rem Koolhaas.

Charles Jencks outside the Maggie’s Centre at Charing Cross Hospital, designed by Rogers Stirk + Harbour.

Lightwell between the Architectural Library and the Solar Stair in the Thematic House, London, designed by Charles Jencks with Terry Farrell (1979–85). Photo: © Historic England Archive

As a patron, Jencks will also be remembered for the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres that he commissioned after the death from cancer of his second wife, Maggie Keswick, in 1995. Maggie’s experience led her to conclude that while the treatment provided by hospitals was excellent, the environment in which it took place could be alienating. The resulting organisation, set up by Charles and Maggie and run by her former cancer nurse Laura Lee, has commissioned a series of exceptional buildings for the care of cancer patients designed by some of the world’s most renowned architects.

In 2010, I was lucky enough to collaborate with Jencks. Together with my colleagues at the architectural practice FAT, we co-edited an issue of Architectural Design examining the contemporary relevance of postmodernism. We called it ‘Radical Post-Modernism’ because we wanted to avoid the crass commercialism of the 1980s and link it to a more progressive critique of modernism. The use of the word ‘radical’ was our suggestion. Charles accepted it gracefully, but with his customary understated irony. For him, radicalism referred to a period in time, and he found our interest sentimental. Working with Charles was like that: he was generous, charming, but ever alert and critical.

The time we spent in his house discussing the project was a privilege. A trip to the loo or to the kitchen to make coffee was a journey through Charles’s vivid architectural imagination. The house is his very own Soane Museum, a dense warren of spaces and themes, teeming with objects, sculptures and symbolism. My favourite moment is in the garden, where the word ‘infinity’ is written on a mirrored door set in a high hedge. It seems a fitting epitaph. Buildings change and sometimes even disappear, but I hope the words of Charles Jencks will always be with us.

From the December 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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