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Charles Alexander Jencks
Jencks 046 b&w.jpg
Born 21 June 1939
Died 13 October 2019
Occupation American cultural theorist, Historian

Charles Alexander Jencks (21 June 1939 – 13 October 2019) was an American cultural theorist, landscape designer, architectural historian, and co-founder of the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres. He published over thirty books and became famous in the 1980s as a theorist of Postmodernism. Jencks devoted time to landform architecture, especially in Scotland. These landscapes include the Garden of Cosmic Speculation and earthworks at Jupiter Artland outside Edinburgh. His continuing project Crawick Multiverse, commissioned by the Duke of Buccleuch, opened in 2015 near Sanquhar.

Early years and family life

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 21, 1939, Charles Alexander Jencks was the son of composer Gardner Platt Jencks and Ruth DeWitt Pearl. Jencks attended Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts, and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature at Harvard University in 1961 and a Master of Arts degree in architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1965. In 1965 Jencks moved to the United Kingdom where he had houses in Scotland and London. In 1970 Jencks received a PhD in architectural history, studying under the noted historian Reyner Banham at University College, London. This thesis was the source for his Modern Movements in Architecture (1973) which used semiotics and other literary critical methods to study twentieth century architecture.

Jencks married Pamela Balding in 1961 (marriage ended, July, 1973) by whom he had two sons: one works as a landscape architect in Shanghai, while the other works for Jardines in Vietnam. He married secondly to Maggie Keswick Jencks, daughter of Sir John Keswick and Clare Elwes, by whom he had two children: John Keswick Jencks, a London-based filmmaker, married to Amy Agnew, and Lily Clare Jencks, who in 2014 wed Roger Keeling. Jencks wed Louisa Lane Fox as his third wife in 2006, and was thus the stepfather of her son Henry Lane Fox and daughter Martha Lane Fox.

Architectural design

Jencks' first architectural design was a studio in the woods, a cheap mass-produced garage structure of $5,000 – titled The Garagia Rotunda, where he spent part of the summers with his family. The ad hoc use of readymade materials was championed in his polemical text with Nathan Silver Adhocism – the Case for Improvisation in 1971 and 2013. Jencks' architectural designs experimented with ideas from complexity theory.

Jencks designed his own London house in tandem with Maggie Keswick and Postmodern architects including Terry Farrell and Michael Graves. He named this home "Thematic House".

Maggie's Centres

After his second wife Maggie Keswick Jencks died in 1995, Jencks helped co-found and Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres. Based on the notion of self-help and the fact that cancer patients are often involved in a long, drawn-out struggle, the centres provide social and psychological help in an attractive setting next to large hospitals. Their architecture, landscape, and art are designed to support both patients and caregivers and to give dignity to those who, in the past, often hid their disease. Maggie Keswick Jencks is the author of the book The Chinese Garden, on which her husband also worked.

Landscape architecture and landforms

Black Hole in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation

Jencks switched to landscape design as a site for symbolic exploration when Maggie asked Charles to design in the family home and garden in Scotland. The result in 2003 was the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, a series of twenty areas designed around various metaphors such as the DNA garden, Quark Walk, Fractal terrace and Comet Bridge. Further hybrid landforms and symbolic sculptures were built in Edinburgh, Milan, Long Island, New York, Cambridge, Suncheon, South Korea (with Lily Jencks), and other countries, some works from which were published in The Universe in The Landscape, 2011.

From 2010, Jencks started work on the Crawick Multiverse, a fifty-five-acre site in southwest Scotland. This project developed for Richard Buccleuch, opened in 2015.

CellsofLife CharlesJencks 2005 Photo AllanPollokMorris CourtesyJupiterArtland 12
Cells of Life, a landform at Jupiter Artland

The Metaphysical Landscape, was an exhibition of sculpture at Jupiter Artland, 2011. Jencks later exhibited at the Merz Gallery, Sanquhar 2016.

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, designed in part by Jencks and begun in 1988, was dedicated to Jencks' late wife Maggie Keswick Jencks. Jencks, his wife, scientists, and their friends designed the garden based on natural and scientific processes. Jencks' goal was to celebrate nature, but he also incorporated elements from the modern sciences into the design. The garden contains species of plants that are pleasurable to the eye, as well as edible. Preserving paths and the traditional beauty of the garden was still his concern, however Jencks enhanced the cosmic landscape using new tools and artificial materials. Just as Japanese Zen gardens, Persian paradise gardens, and the English and French Renaissance gardens were analogies for the universe, the design represents the cosmic and cultural evolution of the contemporary world. The garden is a microcosm – as one walks through the gardens they experience the universe in miniature. According to Jencks, gardens are also autobiographical because they reveal the happiest moments, the tragedies, and the truths of the owner and family.

As the garden developed, so too did such sciences as cosmology, and this allowed a dynamic interaction between the unfolding universe, an unfolding science, and a questioning design. Jencks believed that contemporary science is potentially a great moving force for creativity, because it tells us the truth about the way the universe is and shows us the patterns of beauty. As explained in his book The Universe in the Landscape (2011), his work is content-driven. His many landforms are based on the idea that landforming is a radical hybrid activity combining gardens, landscape, urbanism, architecture, sculpture, and epigraphy. Thus, the landforms often include enigmatic writing and complex symbolism. They provoke the visitor to interpret landscape on the largest and smallest scale.

Crawick Multiverse stone rows
Stone rows on the 'North-South Line' at the Crawick Multiverse

Jencks became a leading figure in British landscape architecture. His landscape work was inspired by black holes, fractals, genetics, chaos theory, waves and solitons. In Edinburgh, Scotland, he designed the landform at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in collaboration with Terry Farrell and Duncan Whatmore of Terry Farrell and Partners. Jencks other works include the Garden of Cosmic Speculation at Portrack House near Dumfries; Designs for Black Hole Landscape, IUCAA, Pune, India, 2002; Portello Park, Milan 2002–2007 (Time Garden 2004–2007); Two Cells – Inverness Maggie's Centre, 2003–2005; Northumberlandia Landform, 2004; Cells of Life, Jupiter Artland, Bonnington House 2003–2010; Crawick Multiverse, 2006–; Memories of the Future landform and reclamation project, Altdobern, Germany; Wu Chi, Black Hole Oval Terrace, Beijing Olympic Park, 2008; and The Scottish World, St. Ninians, Kelty, 2003, 2010+.

Jencks was also a furniture designer and sculptor, completing DNA sculptures at Kew Gardens in 2003 and Cambridge University in 2005.

Architectural writing

Jencks discussed his theories of postmodern architecture in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977), which ran to seven editions. He examined the paradigm shift from modern to postmodern architecture, claiming that modern architecture concentrates on univalent forms such as right angles and square buildings often resembling office buildings. However, postmodern architecture focuses on forms derived from the mind, body, city context, and nature. In 2007, he published ‘Critical Modernism,’ the fifth edition of his What is Post-Modernism?

In Meaning in Architecture, 1969, co-edited with George Baird, a hypertext of leading architects and theorists commenting on each other’s texts, Jencks addressed issues of who is the ultimate user of architecture, what values should be crystallised in architecture, and what public architecture should represent. This was followed by other anthologies on semiotics.

In 1987, Rizzoli published his important interdisciplinary survey of new developments towards a hybrid of classicism or Neo-classicism and modernism in art and architecture "Post-modernism: the new classicism in art and architecture".

His book The Iconic Building explored trend setting and celebrity culture. He claimed that the reason that modern culture seeks the "iconic building" is because it has the possibility of reversing the economic trend of a flagging "conurbation". An iconic building is created to make a splash, to generate money, and the normal criteria of valuation do not apply. He wrote that “enigmatic signifiers” can be used in an effective way to support the deeper meaning of the building.

His book Critical Modernism - Where is Post-Modernism Going? came out in 2007. It is an overview of postmodernism in which Jencks argues that postmodernism is a critical reaction to modernism which comes from within modernism itself. On March 26, 2007, the Royal Academy hosted a debate between Jencks and John N. Gray centered around the book.

The Story of Post-Modernism, Five Decades of the Ironic, Iconic and Critical in Architecture, 2011, summarise the history of the movement since its origins in the 1960s.

Other works

Wfm jenks landform
Landform, in the gardens of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Willowtwist, an aluminium sculpture in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation
  • Symbolic Furniture, exhibition, Aram Designs, London, 1985.
  • Garagia Rotunda, Truro, Massachusetts, 1976–77.
  • The Elemental House (with Buzz Yudell), Los Angeles.
  • The Thematic House (with Terry Farrell), London, 1979–84.
  • DNA Sculpture for James Watson at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, Long Island.
  • Landform Ueda, Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 1999–2002.
  • The DNA Spiral, Centre for Life, Newcastle upon Tyne, May 2000.
  • The Cell and DNA, Maggie's Centre (Gatehouse), Glasgow, 2002–2003.
  • Dividing Cells, Maggie's Centre, Inverness, 2003–2005.
  • Wu Chi, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, 2008.
  • Rail Garden of Scottish Worthies, Portrack, Dumfries, 2003–2006.
  • Spirals of Time, Parco Portello, Milan, 2002–2012.
  • Cells of Life, Jupiter Artland, Bonnington House, Kirknewton, nr Edinburgh, 2003–2010.
  • Cosmic Rings of Cern, Cern, Geneva, In Development 2008+ (with Jencks2 ).
  • The Scottish World, St Ninians, Kelty, Construction 2010+.
  • DoubleWalk, Midpark Hospital, Dumfries, 2010–2012 (with Jencks2 ).
  • Northumberlandia, The Lady of the North, Cramlington, 2005–2012.
  • Gretna Landmark, Gretna, In Development 2011+ (with Cecil Balmond).
  • Holding The Eco-line, Suncheon City, Korea, Construction 2012+ (with Jencks2 ).
  • The Crawick Multiverse, Scotland 2015.


Jencks appeared on television programmes in the U.S. and UK, and he wrote two feature films for the BBC (on Le Corbusier, and on Frank Lloyd Wright and Michael Graves).

  • Kings of Infinite Space, 1983.
  • Symbolic Architecture, 1985.
  • Space on Earth, 1986.
  • Battle of Paternoster Square, 1987.
  • Pride of Place, 1988.
  • A Second Chance, 1989.
  • Let the People Choose, 1990. BBC Late show.
  • New Moderns, 1990.
  • La Villette, 1991.
  • Tokyo, 1991 (1992 BP Arts Journalism TV Award).
  • Libeskind, Jewish Museum, Berlin, 1991.
  • Culture Debate, 1991.
  • Frank Gehry and Los Angeles, 1992.
  • Philip Johnson, The Godfather 1994.
  • BBC: Gardens of the Mind. Television programme and conference organised around work-in-progress, New World View, Tokyo and Kyoto, May 1991.
  • "The Garden of Cosmic Speculation" (TV film: 50 minutes) 1998.
  • Richard Meier The Frame; Daniel Libeskind; The Spiral, 1999.
  • Rebuilding the Palace; Frank Lloyd Wright – Tin Gods, 2002.
  • Opening of Scottish Parliament for BBC Scotland, October 9, 2004.
  • Melvyn Bragg, The South Bank Show, March 2005.
  • John Soane, American TV (Murray Grigor) (USA), May 2005.

See also

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