by Eva Branscombe
For Charles Jencks history was a disruptive, active process, and the mediation of architecture through publication was central to his thinking. As he explained to me, ‘You can write history on the battlefield and you get one kind of history. You can write it retrospectively and you get another kind. Recollected and in tranquillity.’
He was very aware of his own power as a historian and agitator. Architectural post-modernism became his main project, evolving as he saw it develop and perpetuating its development in return as he wrote about it, thereby making it real. This went on over decades, and, while he readily admitted that he did not invent the term that he became first feted and then quickly hated for, he was its chief disseminator from 1976 on.
Jencks actively publicised his ideas that architecture had meaning and could communicate beyond its function and social mission. He was a regular contributor and then editor for Architectural Design magazine, and also published many books including The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, which ran to seven editions. He made us understand that modernism had been more complicated than it had ever admitted, changing and evolving this story he was spinning to include all the elements that did not fit into modernism’s grand narrative, such as kitsch, pop, glamour, self-build and history as a diverse movement. His voice was fresh and provocative, and his use of images kaleidoscopic.
However, what had started out as the description of something beautifully complex and inclusive and can today be understood (in a sense) as a form of counterculture, eventually ossified into a style that was all too easily commodified. By the mid-1980s it had become associated with the conservative politics of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
But post-modernism, derided for years as a topic that no one except Charles himself would admit to being interested in, has recently gained new attention, opening up a new and more productive discussion of a phenomenon that had for more than thirty years been considered a blight on architectural history. The Victoria & Albert Museum led the way with its 2011 exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990, while last year the first post-modern buildings were placed under statutory protection by Historic England. Today, architectural post-modernism has itself become historicised.
Charles Jencks was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1939 and first studied English Literature as an undergraduate at Harvard before changing to architecture for his Master of Arts which he received in 1965. This was also the year that he came to London to begin his PhD in architectural history, enrolling as Reyner Banham’s student at the Bartlett School of Architecture and going on to become one of the school’s most famous graduates after completing his studies in 1970.
An interest in post-modern landscape design developed in the 1980s with his second wife, Maggie Keswick. After her death from cancer in 1995, he co-founded the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres as beautiful and bespoke architectural environments in which the human as an emotional and physical being is central. The architects he commissioned included Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and OMA, and to date there are twenty centres, including one in Hong Kong. The RIBA Charles Jencks Award exists to honour excellence in architectural theory and practice as a combined contribution to the field.
Jencks was a generous person who was happy to share his knowledge and talent. He once hosted a party for C20 benefactors at his home in Holland Park, London, adapted with the help of post-modern architects such as Terry Farrell and which he dubbed the ‘Thematic House’. He also took part in the Society’s 2016 Post-modernism conference when he was interviewed by Geraint Franklin.
His death aged 80 in October came in many ways as a shock, although in recent months he had withdrawn from public life. As an architect, writer and historian Charles Jencks.