Charles Jencks Tried to Make Sense of Architecture in a Messy Time

And he did it through wit. The founder of McMansion Hell remembers the humorous side of the great historian and theorist.
Charles Jencks

The architectural historian, critic, and land artist Charles Jencks Courtesy The Crichton Foundation

Around 2009, when I was a freshman in high school, I finally procured a library card for the local community college. This was in rural North Carolina, and while the community college had a better selection of books than the county library, the stock was still rather limited. The college basically stopped buying books around the year 2000. As a result, the architecture section had a dense selection of books by a fellow named Charles Jencks. These books ranged from the very small to the very large, from wordy to the almost entirely pictorial. In them were photographs and drawings of fantastic buildings, many of which no longer exist, lists and charts of architects, and down-to-earth writing that brought architectural theory to an eager adolescent mind.

Jencks, who was born in Baltimore but lived for decades in the U.K., passed away on Sunday at the age of 80. Although he trained as an architect (obtaining his Masters’ from Harvard in 1965), he made his mark as an architectural theorist, historian, and critic. His late-career turn to landscape art resulted in highly sculptural projects such as The Garden of Cosmic Speculation and Metaphysical Landscape, forming a niche intersection between Jencks’s introspective reflections on cosmology and the showy campiness he championed as a theorist. And through the Maggies’ Centers network of cancer centers, which he co-founded with his wife Maggie, herself a victim of the disease, Jencks became an advocate for architecture’s caring capabilities.

Accessible for both ideological and mercurial reasons, Jencks’s works on architecture were widely read beyond the architectural press. Passages from his writings found their way into the analyses of broader cultural critics such as Frederic Jameson. Modern Movements in Architecture (1973) and The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977), perhaps his most acclaimed books, chronicled and taxonomized the stylistic evolutions of the movements known as Late Modernism and Postmodernism. His architectural evolutionary trees, spanning decades and -isms in oozing blobs inking across large-scale charts, remain some of the finest examples of taxonomical thinking applied to the history of architecture. Throughout his career, Jencks felt a need to sort and categorize—to make sense of what were very messy times in architecture.

His work on the decades of the 1970s and 1980s is comprehensive. He released dozens of books, from critical histories such as Late Modern Architecture (1980) to sprawling coffee-table books chock-full of fantastic images—essentially catalogs of the comings and goings of the field—like Architecture Today (1982). Jencks’s work was so granular that many of the images and buildings he included in his books cannot easily be found anywhere else, such as photographs of the interiors of a Toyota distributorship in Glen Burnie, Maryland, built by none other than Frank Gehry. They are not only useful as histories but as primary sources.

Charles Jencks

Maggie’s Centres Dundee Courtesy Maggie’s Centres

Jencks was not just a historian and theorist, but also in many ways a humorist. For instance, the drawings in Late Modern Architecture amusingly, but perceptively, compare Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp to a man in a tricorn hat and Cesar Pelli’s Pacific Design Center to a range of visual analogues including a cornice and a whale. Meanwhile, Bizarre Architecture (1979) and Daydream Houses of Los Angeles (1978) were hilarious romps into the architectonic absurd. Daydream Houses of Los Angeles—a touchstone for my work as McMansion Hell—coupled images of houses in Beverly Hills with Jencks’s witty one-liners, describing the indigenous pastiche architecture with such quips as “topiary fascist” or “Liberace astroturf.” He embraced the irreverence of emerging Postmodernism much in the same way that the Venturis did with their comedic sketches in Learning from Las Vegas.

As a youngster, Jencks’s books became a starting point for my own independent studies. The evolutionary trees served as a laundry list of buildings, movements, and architects to look into. Through Jencks I discovered some of my favorite architects of all time, including Kisho Kurakawa, Paul Rudolph, Herman Hertzberger, and Charles Moore. His essays were equal parts acerbic and witty (and always self-serious, if not melodramatic). To take just one example, in Late Modern Architecture, Jencks wrote of the inadvertent humor to be found in the glassy, gratuitously atria-forward works of the time: “Late Modernism, like most periods of architecture, has not consciously sought architectural wit. Nonetheless, there are moments of humor, especially when the architect is deadly earnest and trying hard to make the great architectural statement. This loosens the critical faculties that usually bind him and something amazing issues forth.” (He then goes on to describe the Transamerica Building in San Francisco as “Pereira’s prick.”)

Charles Jencks

Jencks’s evolutionary tree of 20th-century architecture

Still, even through this sardonic prose, Jencks managed to synthesize some of the complicated theoretical concepts of the time (i.e. semiology, and later deconstruction) in a way that was much more readable than anything else to come out of the academy or mainstream press. His need to constantly re-evaluate history in the context of unfolding history both frustrated and amused his contemporaries. The evolutionary tree that started as a half-pager in Modern Movements in Architecture grew to a full-page image in Late Modern Architecture and Post-Modern Architecture, before mushrooming into a two-page spread in his final historical book The Story of Postmodernism, published in 2011. The now-definitive version requires a magnifying glass to dig into.

Jencks felt a rapacious need to consolidate how architecture was evolving with how it evolved in the past. He approached architectural history as an explorer searching out new territory and consolidating it into an existing map. I find myself engrossed in the same project, both in my academic work studying the formal evolution of late-Modern concert halls, to my need to create parameters that define and explain the sociology behind the McMansion. Jencks was an omnipresent figure in both endeavors.

In a world where contemporary architectural theory tends to be zoomed-in, hyperspecific, and arcane, Jencks’s historiographic methods, taxonomy and precedent studies, synoptic mastery, and accessible—pleasurable—writing are well worth revisiting. Jencks was a lifelong Postmodernist; from its earliest days, he championed the movement, becoming its greatest spokesman. However, the idea of applying scientific and statistical analytical approaches to an art such as architecture was in itself a rather Modernist thing to do. This was but one of many tensions that appeared at the threshold between Modernism and Postmodernism. And whenever a contradiction, tension, or massive screw-up occurred in the field of architecture, you better believe that Charles Jencks would be there to record it for posterity.

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Categories: Architecture