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Tribute to Charles Jencks

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Architects, artists, critics, teachers and theorists pay tribute to Charles Jencks, who sadly passed away on Sunday

The US-born architectural theorist, historian and landscape designer Charles Jencks passed away on Sunday 13 October. Jencks wrote more than 30 books, including The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977) in which he declared the time of death for all of capital-M Modern Architecture. ‘Boom, boom, boom’ he wrote. 

He lectured at more than 40 universities and worked on many landscape architecture projects, such as the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, earthworks at Jupiter Artland outside Edinburgh, and the so-called Lady of the North, a 400m-long land-sculpture near Cramlington, Northumberland. In 1995, with his late wife, Maggie Keswick, he set up the Maggie’s cancer care trust. The organisation has built nearly 20 cancer care drop-in centres with some of the world’s leading architects.

Jencks is remembered as much for his care as for his criticism. As Denise Scott Brown writes: ‘Charles put the mojo in PoMo and warmed Maggie’s house with saintly kindness’.

Farshid Moussavi of Farshid Moussavi Architecture

I am extremely saddened by the news of Charles Jencks passing. We have lost a truly remarkable person – whose immense contributions to architecture are hard to adequately capture in words. He has given us so many great things that we will enjoy for years to come. To begin with, his highly influential books on the history and criticism of architecture after Modernism, in which he was a protagonist of change in the direction of architecture by continually attempting to reach a synthesis of seemingly opposing architectural practices.

He has also given us the remarkable Maggie’s Centres, a new type of building that Charles together with his late wife, Maggie, ‘invented’, that not only touch the lives of those undergoing cancer treatment, but enrich the culture of architecture. He has designed great landscapes and gardens across the UK that are sensual and bold and belong to a lineage of landscape design culture that stretches from a history of British Isles Bronze Age earthworks through to the development of the English Garden. He also established the Charles Jencks Award for architecture – a platform for architects simultaneously devoted to the theory and practice of architecture. I feel honoured to have been one of those who received the prize in 2005.

His wonderful accomplishments aside, Charles was also one of the most generous colleagues I have known. Generous because he cared to enter into debate with people whom he disagreed with as well as those he agreed with. I treasure my debates with him. They were informative, expanded my own perspective as an architect and ultimately, they were good for the culture of architecture – because they treated subjects of personal investigation not as private territory, but as belonging to everyone for interrogation, disagreement and debate. They were also incredibly fun! I will truly miss him and I know the architecture community will miss him as well.

Adam Nathaniel Furman, artist and designer

As a teenager, Charles’ books were the first things I ever read about architecture, and they filled me with a passion and love for the subject that’s never left, because that is what Charles exuded, conveyed and gifted to everyone he came into contact with, either in person or through his writing, a deep sensitivity and appreciation of the great art inherent in design. His house, a masterpiece of Soanian proportions, in which much of his generosity, complexity & joy is captured in spaces of layered wonder, has been Grade 1 listed and will be preserved for posterity, and his books will no doubt continue to inspire architects long into the future, but we have lost a real character of beauty & inspiration for the profession, and for culture in general. 

Charles Holland of Charles Holland Architects and formerly of FAT

Modern Movements in Architecture (1973) was one of the first books I read and it remains for me the best general history of modernism out there. It is funny and incisive, never po-faced and full of learning worn without pretence. The issues of Architectural Digest he edited through the 1970s and 80s helped shape the intellectual landscape of architecture and formed the background of much of my education. It is impossible to think of that period without him.

Years later, my FAT colleagues and I were thrilled to get to edit a copy of AD with him. Working on Radical Post Modernism was a pleasure and I remember the afternoons we spent at his wonderful house in Holland Park talking about architecture and everything else with great affection. He was a great historian, a funny, flamboyant and cultured figure and a very generous and charming man.

Sam Jacob of Sam Jacob Studio and formerly of FAT

Charles embodied a rare spirit of architectural adventure. Provocative, challenging, demanding, but also always generous with it all underwritten with warmth and humour. His rare mix of intelligence and action meant theory for him was not something separate from the world but an active part of making the world. Words spilled into projects (or vica versa).

He was endlessly positive about the power of architecture to act in the world, always curious, ever tolerant of difference and supportive of new possibilities. Thank you for all those -isms and charts, all those books and landscapes, that house and everything else. Ad-hocism for ever. And may Pluralism endure long after his passing.

Edwin Heathcote, architecture critic

Charles was a rare figure in contemporary architecture, a writer, a patron, a catalyst and a provocateur. He was genial, witty and generous and he will be much missed. He used to be characterised by a natty velvet or chord suit, scarf raffishly draped over one shoulder and a hat, always standing out at a party, a head above most of the guests, where, inevitably, he knew everyone.

I suppose like many architects of my generation Jencks’s works formed the cornerstone of my early reading in architecture - Modern Movements in Architecture, which was a readable, cool, clever and occasionally controversial introduction to the last century and The Language of Post Modern Architecture which went through 11 printings and revisions and God knows how many translations. He was the doctor who declared the death sentence of Modernism, gave life and theory to Post Modernism and then stuck with it, long after almost everyone else had abandoned it.

While, to many, PoMo quickly became a moribund aberration, for Charles every subsequent iteration of architecture was only an expansion of the PoMo moment, from Deconstructivism through the work of Gehry, Zaha and Rem, all of whom were close friends. In fact Rem even designed a couple of rooms in his house, which Jencks rejected as not symbolic enough.

Which brings us to the house, a stucco-fronted 19th century job in Holland Park which Jencks conceived as an embodiment of his ideas on the cosmos, myth, classicism and, indeed, the whole of architecture. The Cosmic House, which was listed at Grade I last year, is now being adapted or a new life as a museum, archive and forum, to designs by Jencks himself and his daughter Lily. Jencks annointed me ‘Keeper of Meaning’, which I consider just about the perfect job title.

Of course, beyond writing, Jencks was himself a designer, not only of his own house but of landscapes and forms around the world from his own Garden of Cosmic Speculation at his Portrack house to the huge Parco Portello in Milan. Inspired by breakthroughs in science, from genetics to cosmology and black holes, he tried to translate complex ideas into the most archaic expressions and instinctive, landforms, using the landscape to embody notions of the earth, space and time.

In recent years with his work for the Maggie’s Cancer Caring centres he ensured that the charity became, arguably, the most ambitious and voracious single patron of architecture in the world and used those buildings not as baubles but as places of healing and human warmth.

Jencks became so much associated with PoMo that, perhaps, his influence waned over recent decades. But, as PoMo returned as culture rather than kitsch, his work is arguably as relevant now as it ever was. After all, who has written better or more compellingly or more accessibly about what architecture is, why it is like that, and what it could be? 

Piers Gough of CZWG, who designed the Maggie’s Centre at Nottingham City Hospital

Charlie was the most worldly of writers and critics and an otherworldly practitioner and proselytiser. His exuberant accounts of contemporary architecture were second to none, because he had travelled the world, personally visited every major building and discussed them with their architects as an equal. He was able to convey pleasure in all the strands of current architectural endeavour through popular lavishly illustrated volumes of books and magazines.

Meanwhile, to find an original untapped influence for his own work he pursued cosmology. Being at once scientific and mystical, he proclaimed it as the ultimate Postmodern reference. He was always warm, smiling, welcoming and interested as well as excited to tell of another new discovery. We met when he taught history at the Architecture Association and soon after generously commissioned a jacuzzi room for his house, I proposed an upside-down dome to sit in, so unforgettably Charlie organised an hilarious evening with an upside-down show of his slides of domes to choose from.

Lead image: Charles Jencks’ Postmodernist living room – the Spring room – in his west London townhouse was a collaboration with Terry Farrell, embracing ‘cosmic law’ and kitsch. The monumental fireplace was designed by Michael Graves. Courtesy of Andreas von Einsiedel / Alamy