Charles Jencks, 1939-2019

John Hill
14. October 2019
Charles Jencks's famous "Evolutionary Tree of Twentieth-Century Architecture"

Over the course of his long career, Jencks donned many hats. In his own words, on his own website, he was "a renowned cultural theorist, landscape designer, architectural historian, and co-founder of the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres." 

Jencks is best known for his writings on postmodern architecture, particularly The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, which was first published in 1977 and has been updated numerous times since. In it he pinpointed the death of modern architecture to "July 15, 1972 at 3:32 PM (or thereabouts)," when the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project was dynamited in St. Louis, Missouri. Following that classic book he wrote dozens more, many of them exploring Postmodernism and other -isms of late 20th century architecture.

Charles Jencks, at right with Pierre de Meuron, on stage at WAF in 2017 (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

In 2003 Jencks created the RIBA Charles Jencks Award "to reward an individual (or practice) that has recently made a major contribution simultaneously to the theory and practice of architecture." The most recent recipient, in 2018, was Alejandro Aravena, and before that it was given to Herzog & de Meuron (2015) and Rem Koolhaas (2012), among others. Jencks always served on the judging panel for the prize, so it remains to be seen if it will continue posthumously.

The Cells of Life by Charles Jencks at Jupiter Artland (Photo: Allan Pollok-Morris, courtesy of Jupiter Artland)

On the other end of the spectrum from Jencks's writings were the landscape designs he executed in the UK and around the world, and the Maggie’s Centres, small cancer support centers built mainly in the UK. The parks and gardens Jencks created employed curving and spiraling landforms that expressed his cosmological beliefs; his own Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland is the most well-known of these creations. 

Maggie's Centres were created by Jencks with his wife, Maggie Keswick, who was also a writer but died in 1995 after battling breast cancer. Like her husband, she embraced landscape design (her most famous book was The Chinese Garden from 1978) and therefore espoused small, intimate buildings for cancer patients that were strongly wedded to their landscapes. The much-admired buildings have been designed by Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, and other big names with landscapes by Jencks and others, all following the ideals established by Keswick in her final months and days.

Maggie’s Dundee, 2003; Architect: Frank Gehry, Gehry Partners, LLP; Landscape Design: Arabella Lennox-Boyd (Photo: © Maggie’s Centres)

Jencks's legacy is ensured by his many books, landscape designs, and the Maggie's Centres. Additionally, as discovered on the Maggie's website, "Charles’ London home in Holland Park was Grade I Listed by Historic England in 2018 and plans are underway to convert it to a house archive museum called 'The Cosmic House' which will be open to the public by appointment."

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