'If you can’t take the kitsch, get out of the kitchen': Remembering Charles Jencks

Written by

In the late 1960s and ‘70s modernism was becoming moribund and reductivist. “The orthodoxy of high modernism was still very strong and it was very cold and very isolated to the general public,” says Mark Lee, Chairman of the Architecture Department at Harvard GSD.

Enter Charles Jencks, the critic and designer who would become one of the most prominent advocates for postmodernism, which he understood as the restoration of symbolism and ornament to buildings. One of his great contributions, says Lee, co-principal of the architecture firm Johnston Marklee, was to reintroduce “the notion of meaning in architecture.”

Jencks died on Sunday, October 13, at the age of 80 after a long career as an architect, critic and landscape designer. Most significantly he created Maggie’s Centres, drop-in centers for cancer patients founded with his second wife Maggie Keswick Jencks when she was sick and dispirited by the clinical character of cancer treatments and the spaces in which they were delivered.

Charles Jencks pictured with his late wife Maggie Keswick Jencks

Following her death in 1995, Jencks continued the project, tapping famous architect friends, including Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Richard Rogers, to design centers first in Scotland, then in England and Wales. In Maggie's Centres he leaves restful places for cancer patients to gather and share experiences; and a remarkable collection of signature buildings both therapeutic and architecturally adventurous.

Lee, who inherited the office at UCLA once occupied by Jencks, says he “was famous for these classes he taught there in the 1970s where he would compare a building like Corbusier's Ronchamp to the shape of a nun's hat or the silhouette of a swan. And I think that was tremendously important, you know, because it opens up the language of architecture for people outside the field.”

Jencks wrote 30 books on architectural style and trends, most famously the 1977 "Language of Post-Modern Architecture," which united in postmodernist theory the work of architects as diverse as Charles Moore, Michael Graves, James Stirling, Hans Hollein, Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman.

What they all shared was a desire for a new path in architecture, which had fallen from public favor following the planning and design mistakes of the 1950s and 60s.

Maggie's Dundee, designed by Frank Gehry with a garden designed by Jencks

For Jencks, “modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 3:32pm (or thereabouts),” he wrote, “when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather, several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grace by dynamite.”

Jencks churned out books, with a facility for identifying and naming trends, though none achieved the impact of "The Language of Post-Modern Architecture."

His other books included "Bizarre Architecture" (1979), "The New Moderns" (1990), and then "Heteropolis: Los Angeles : The Riots and the Strange Beauty of Hetero-Architecture" (1993) following the civil unrest of April 1992, in which he argued that nationalism and ethnic conflict can be countered by an equally powerful drive - “heterophilia: the love of difference, the desire to seek out new experience and curiosity.”

Jencks practiced what he preached, tapping his favorite postmodernists Terry Farrell and Michael Graves to help him transform his home in Holland Park, London, into a “riotous living monument to his theories,” writes Guardian critic Oliver Wainwright, with “pedimented bookshelves, a sundial window seat, and a jacuzzi in the form of an upside-down classical dome, every corner alive with symbolism and allusion.”

Lady of the North in Northumbria, designed by Charles Jencks

Jencks also poured his energies into landscape design, working together with Maggie on the expansive Garden of Cosmic Speculation, conceived as nothing less than a microcosm of the universe.

But one of his biggest works was Northumberlandia, aka the Lady of the North. Wainwright describes it as “a huge effigy of a recumbent naked woman with 34-metre-high grassy breasts, next to an opencast mine north of Newcastle. His outré landscape designs were dismissed by some as faux-scientific kitsch, but, as Jencks was fond of saying of his own extraordinary home: “If you can’t take the kitsch, get out of the kitchen.”

Jencks was a true believer in the positive power of architecture and landscape, the more packed with ideas the better. He made a mark on both sides of the Atlantic, transforming himself over the years from American academic to his own version of an eccentric English country gent, who never lost the exuberance and curiosity he brought with him.

Landscape at the Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh, designed by Charles Jencks (photo by Frances Anderton.)