A man of many talents, Charles Jencks defies being pigeonholed: teacher, author, theorist, architect, landscaper, postmodernist, Maggie’s Centres’ co-founder... He talks to Jamie Mitchell
Introducing Charles Jencks can be tricky. Which of his achievements do you name first? You could start by calling him the father of postmodernism, an influential theorist and the author of several acclaimed books, including The Story of Post-modernism. But Jencks is also a successful architect and landscape architect, having applied the theories of postmodernism to buildings and outdoor spaces including the Garden of Cosmic Speculation at Portrack House, near Dumfries in Scotland. He is also the driving force behind the Maggie's Centres project, which has seen some of the world's best architects design and build retreats for people with cancer, and which Jencks co-founded with his first wife, the eponymous Maggie Keswick Jencks.
Witty, amiable and razor-sharp at the age of 73, Jencks is all of these things and more, and there can be few people alive today more erudite on the subject of modern architecture and design. How many, for example, can tell you what architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius was like to work with - and in the next moment give an incisive critique of London's controversial new skyscraper, The Shard?
Born and raised in the USA, Jencks now splits his time between homes in Scotland and London, and most of the gardens he has designed are in the UK. His most recent work is Northumberlandia, a 'land form' sculpture of a recumbent woman carved into the landscape of Shotton Surface coal mine at Cramlington, near Newcastle. The work has been broadly well received by the press and the public, and its human form makes it one of Jencks's most immediately accessible works to date.
He says of the project: 'I was asked to design something that would mark the entry to the North, so I started with the idea of the human face because humans have more neurons to do with the face than anything else. Then I thought of a human form, and it was female because of the natural undulation of the landscape.'
Funded by mine operator the Banks Group, and Blagdon Estate, the land owner, the sculpture sits in a public park and is meant, says Jencks, to give something back to the people of Cramlington in return for the disruption mining will cause over the next eight to 10 years. 'It's called "restoration first",' says Jencks.
Jencks's love of architecture goes back to his childhood. Growing up in New England, he lived in a house designed by his architect uncle, and in his youth travelled widely in Europe, where he encountered the work of Le Corbusier. When he saw his famous chapel at Ronchamp it was love at first sight: 'It was imprinted on me and I've never got over it,' he says. Even so, he studied English literature at Harvard before going on to do his MA in architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design. He then taught architecture at Harvard where, to the consternation of some other tutors, he applied many of the skills used to study literature to the study and practice of architecture.
'I was fascinated with multiple meanings in literature, and that has been a staple of my work,' he says. 'When I went to Harvard to teach architecture I was attacked ferociously by some of the other teachers because, they said, "architecture is not literary". Walter Gropius was teaching then and he was dead against it. I remember having a sort of tart argument with Gropius over that.'
Jencks likens his gardens to the poems of TS Eliot: both are packed with allusions that can unlock deeper meanings in the work, but which will also be obscure to many people. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, for example, features references to the cosmos, which may remain beyond the understanding of some visitors. Does that matter?
'It does and it doesn't,' says Jencks. 'I think of this approach as building a parallel world with its own internal logic and meanings. If you intuitively understand that there's a meaning to this garden - even if you don't know what it is - you'll look for other meanings and find them. That's one of the biggest payoffs of what I call symbolic architecture, and symbolism generally.
Jencks's career as a landscape architect began only after he had taught architecture for 40 years, and was, he says, 'a serendipitous result of my relationship with my late wife Maggie'. After moving to the UK in 1970 he did his PhD in architectural history at University College London, where he met and married Maggie Keswick. 'Maggie was studying Chinese gardens and had been to China several times, and I helped her write a book on them. She wanted us to design gardens around our house and I resisted for whatever reason; then she got cancer and I agreed. So I said "Yes, Maggie, I'll help you." Then I didn't look back.'
Maggie's cancer also led to the creation of the first Maggie's Cancer Caring Centre, in Edinburgh, designed by Richard Murphy and completed shortly after Maggie died in 1995. What began as a one-off is now a network of 14 walk-in centres designed by architects including Zaha Hadid, Frank Ghery and Richard Rogers. Has the project changed Jencks's opinion of what architecture can do?
'Yes, very much,' he says. 'I went into architecture feeling that good architecture should be done for good architecture's sake, but that it can't change society, as the modernists did. I still don't think it can change society, but I began to see from experience that, given an institution like a cancer caring centre, it can have an enormously positive feedback effect.' It is Jencks's hope that eventually all NHS hospitals will have a Maggie's Centre nearby.
Still a vocal critic of contemporary architecture, Jencks says the profession is currently producing 'a massive smorgasbord of styles'. He says that the dominant movement is 'entrepreneurialism' and that The Shard, designed by Renzo Piano, typifies this approach, which he suggests favours grand gestures over the pursuit of deeper meanings.
'Piano says The Shard is like a steeple, but that just reminds you there are no other references to religious buildings in the design. He says it's like a mast on a ship, but that just reminds you that it has no other ship references. It's not really like a shard either. But in the end I like it. I'm happy it's there, and I'm happy that Piano built it rather than somebody else.'
The history of architecture is, says Jencks, 'a series of internal arguments against its professional idiocy'. So where does he see his role in all this?
'I work with the architectural establishment,' he says, 'but I don't necessarily always tell it what it wants to hear. In terms of architectural criticism I'm a kind of irritant, I suppose - but a happy one'.
This article was first published in fx Magazine.