Charles Jencks, Anti-Modernist Transformer of Landscapes, Dies at 80

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Charles Jencks, whose writing on architecture helped define the field after Modernism, and who put his ideas into practice both in memorable landscape architecture and in overseeing the creation of Maggie’s Centers, buildings specifically designed for cancer patients, died on Sunday at his home in London. He was 80.

His sister, Penelope Jencks, said the cause was cancer.

Mr. Jencks was an architectural historian who, with a landmark book, put himself at the forefront of the debate over what architecture should do.

“Charles boldly announced the death of Modernism in his 1977 book ‘The Language of Post-Modern Architecture,’” Joseph Giovannini, who writes frequently about architecture, said by email. “He also brashly offered its replacement, Post-Modernism, stirring angry style wars that raged in architecture for more than a decade.”

Mr. Jencks had little use for Modernism, the style emphasizing geometric forms and rational use of space and eschewing ornamentation, which had dominated the first three-quarters of the 20th century. Instead he advocated “radical eclecticism” — he believed architecture should reflect the environment, should embrace symbolism and metaphor, and should celebrate distinct styles and merge different influences.

“If he was sometimes facile,” Mr. Giovannini, who has written frequently for The New York Times, said, “he was always witty and erudite, and with his teasing polemics, he succeeded as an agent provocateur who helped open the field to other paradigms.”

Mr. Jencks wrote numerous books, among them “Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in Architecture” (2000), “Iconic Building” (2005) and “The Story of Post-Modernism” (2011), but he was known for more than just words. As a landscape architect, he created intriguing, whimsical gardens, walkways and parks in Scotland, England, Italy, China, South Korea and elsewhere, many of them with science-based themes.

His 40-acre Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries, Scotland, “uses nature to celebrate nature, both intellectually and through the senses, including the sense of humor,” Mr. Jencks’s website says. DNA, quarks, black holes and more inspired its features.

His Crawick Multiverse opened nearby in 2015 and turned an old coal-mining site into a cosmos-related piece of land art that includes twin mounds representing the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. Another Jencks creation is Northumberlandia, a quarter-mile-long reclining woman formed out of the landscape near Northumberland, in northeast England.

“He put his causes — irony, history, complexity, symbolism — into practice in his own architecture,” Mr. Giovannini said. “His landscape designs were brilliant.”

Mr. Jencks also devoted considerable effort to Maggie’s Centers, an idea that originated with his second wife, Maggie Keswick Jencks, during the seven years she had breast cancer and was furthered by Mr. Jencks after she died in 1995.

She envisioned buildings where cancer patients could go for the kind of welcoming support and life-affirming relaxation not generally offered in hospitals. He helped recruit leading architects and landscape architects to design the buildings and grounds, with Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Kisho Kurokawa among those participating.

The first Maggie’s Center opened in 1996 in Edinburgh. There are now more than 20, mostly in Britain but also in Tokyo and Hong Kong.

“Architects, like any group, are competitive and collegial, but with us it seems that each successive center has set the bar a little higher,” Mr. Jencks wrote in “The Architecture of Hope: Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres,” a 2015 book documenting the continuing project. “Their performance — and I speak as a (self-interested) critic — has been extraordinarily high.”

Charles Alexander Jencks was born on June 21, 1939, in Baltimore, though he would spend much of his adult life in England. His father, Gardner Platt Jencks, was a pianist and composer, and his mother, Ruth (Pearl) Jencks, was a biologist and artist.

Mr. Jencks grew up in Westport, Conn., and Wellfleet, Mass., and studied English literature at Harvard University, receiving a bachelor’s degree there in 1961. In 1965 he earned a master’s degree at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and in 1970 he received a Ph.D. in architectural history at University College London. His doctoral thesis became the book “Modern Movements in Architecture” (1973), which announced him as a significant voice in the field.

Four years later came “The Language of Post-Modern Architecture,” which Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic of The Times, called “the book of the year.” The volume, she wrote in December 1977, “takes architecture apart and puts it together again with critical wit and a nice bit of scholarly venom.”

In that book, Mr. Jencks examined the good and the bad in architecture and faulted Modernist designs for saying little.

“We must go back to a point where architects took responsibility for rhetoric, for how their buildings communicated,” he wrote.

“An architect’s primary and final role,” he added, “is to express the meanings a culture finds significant, as well as elucidate certain ideas and feelings that haven’t previously reached expression. The jobs that too often take up his energy might be better done by engineers and sociologists, but no other profession is specifically responsible for articulating meaning and seeing that the environment is sensual, humorous, surprising and coded as a readable text.”

Mr. Jencks’s first marriage, to Pamela Balding in 1961, ended in divorce in 1973. He married Ms. Keswick in 1978. She was a landscape designer who had written a book about Chinese gardens, and the country house she inherited from her parents became the site of the Garden of Cosmic Speculation.

“When you design a garden,” Mr. Jencks wrote in a 2000 picture book about that garden, “it raises basic questions. What is nature, how do we fit into it, and how should we shape it where we can, both physically and visually?”

“Serious garden art,” he added, “is a heightening of both aspects of nature, its beauty and terror. Japanese Zen gardens, Persian paradise gardens, the English and French Renaissance gardens were, in some respects, analogies of the cosmos as then understood.”

Mr. Jencks married Louisa Lane Fox in 2006. She survives him, as do his sister; two sons from his first marriage, Ivor and Justin; a son and daughter from his second marriage, John and Lily Jencks; a stepdaughter, Martha Lane Fox; a stepson, Henry Lane Fox; eight grandchildren; and five step-grandchildren.

In 2011 Mr. Jencks was interviewed by The Guardian about another gigantic land form, “Cells of Life,” that he was working on at Jupiter Artland, a sculpture park near Edinburgh. What, he was asked, drove him to make works that sought to connect the land to the cosmos?

“It’s something people have done even before they built Stonehenge,” he said, “so why not now?”


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