In Memoriam

Sean Griffiths on the fun of debating with the late Charles Jencks

Like his designs, the late Charles Jencks was highly philosophical and fun. (Courtesy Sean Griffiths)

Charles Jencks possessed an authoritative but genial way of speaking that nevertheless harbored a hint of arch skepticism. The worst place to encounter it was in a hotel lobby where jet-lagged and disoriented after arriving for some conference or other, you would hear your name exclaimed in a gentle yet ominous greeting and turn around to be confronted by Charles Jencks, who, giving the impression of having comfortably settled into his surroundings some hours prior to your arrival, was already in full Charles Jencks mode.

To experience this was to be subjected, in advance of having properly formulated an argument you had anticipated making, to a precise and lengthy deconstruction of said argument before you had even made it to the hotel room. Such behavior was, of course, entirely in keeping with a number of attributes that characterized Jencks’s life and work, not least among them energy, enthusiasm, erudition, precision, and good humor.

Generous yet critical, serious yet funny, acutely focused yet magpielike in his ever-curious observation and appropriation of what was going on around him, he was the very personification of the multivalence and “double-coding” that he promoted in the architecture he admired. And of course, as one would expect in such a figure, the prodigious output of groundbreaking, if not uncontroversial, theorizations of architecture, which made him a figure of profound significance in the architectural discourse of the last 50 years, was interwoven with other equally important concerns, each of which on its own would amount to a considerable legacy.

There was his thriving land-art/landscape practice whose commissions comprised curving and spiraling landforms, sometimes designed with his daughter, the landscape architect Lily Jencks. These were inspired by Jencks’s interest in cosmology and contemporary physics but also recalled the ancient pagan monuments of Britain, his adopted country (Jencks was born in Baltimore, Maryland). One is sited adjacent to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Unlike others bestowed with exotic titles, like The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, this one is modestly entitled Landform and functions, as my daughter and I once discovered, as an excellent tobogganing slope, thus perfectly exemplifying the Jencksian ambition for design to be simultaneously highly philosophical and fun.



Perhaps of greater significance was his central role, alongside that of his wife, Maggie Keswick, in the development of Maggie’s Centres, the world-famous series of sanctuaries for cancer patients, each designed by an architect of note, providing sites of holistic support for those going through the traumatic process of dealing with cancer. These have become among the most highly sought-after commissions for architects across the world as well as havens for those enduring the distress of illness.

Jencks’s compassion was also exemplified by his commitment to campaigns against injustice. A fierce opponent of the Iraq War and a supporter of the rights of the Palestinian people, he was nevertheless circumspect in flaunting any specific political allegiance while exuding a liberal attitude to life and culture. Despite his concomitant Post-Modernist rejection of the grand narratives of Hegelianism and Marxism, a little of the former seeped through in his famous evolutionary flow diagrams that charted and illustrated the historical development of architectural movements. These compositions were little works of art in themselves and exhibited Jencks’s determination to categorize diverse strands of architectural practice and thought under the rubric of a series of “isms.” Thus, we got Post-Modernism, Ad-Hocism, Bio-morphism, Reactionary Modernism, and so on. This ongoing process of nominalism was a corollary to the way he saw architectural meaning as being carried by linguistically-based semiotic systems of signs and symbols. Nowhere was this more evident than in the title of his most successful and famous work, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, a truly seminal text that heralded the arrival of Post-Modernism as a serious architectural movement.

But his reliance on linguistic tropes was also considered a weakness by critics who did not accept that the sociopolitical dimension of architecture was reducible to a series of visual codes whose currency was ambiguity and irony, rather than an engagement with architecture’s underlying means of production. In pursuing such a route, Jencks was a product, as well as a shaper, of his time, a period when the social democracy that had underpinned the postwar, modernist transformation of Britain and Europe was in retreat, and technologies of communication began to displace industrial forms of production as the determinants of cultural outputs.

Despite this, Jencks was acutely aware of how rebellions against the status quo are eventually co-opted by the dominant ideology. In answer to his famous claim, made in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, that architectural modernism died on July 15, 1972, with the dynamiting of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, I once put it to him that Post-Modernism had subsequently died on September 15, 2008, the date that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and ignited a financial crisis whose political legacy we still grapple with today. Jencks, of course, demurred, pointing out that the real and “happy curtailment” of Post-Modernist architecture had actually occurred in 1987 on account of the fact that by then, most of its major protagonists had accepted commissions from the Disney Corporation. Even when acknowledging that you were right, he made sure that you knew that he had been right before you were. Charles has gone now, and the world of architecture is certainly a less interesting place as a result.

Sean Griffiths is an artist, architect and academic. He practices architecture through his company Modern Architect and serves as a professor of architecture University of Westminster and as a visiting professor of architecture at Yale University. He was a founding director of art and architecture practice FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste) between 1991 and 2014. 

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