Earth to Space

Charles Jencks is on the line, from his slightly crazy Crawick Multiverse in Scotland.

| Spring 2017

  • Jencks leads me to the top of the largest landform in the park.
    Photo by Flickr/James Johnstone
  • Another problem with the Multiverse was strictly terrestrial: clashes with HSE, the Scottish Health and Safety Executive.
    Photo by Flickr/Sara Graham
  • A key feature of the Multiverse is a small hill with 100 large, flat stones arrayed along a spiral path.
    Photo by Flickr/Sara Graham
  • That’s one reason he opens his Garden of Cosmic Speculation to the public once a year, selling as many as 3,000 tickets in a single day.
    Photo by Flickr/Neil Williamson

When a coal mine near the Scottish town of Sanquhar closed in 1995, residents were left with a 55-acre eyesore. Some wanted the land returned to its natural state. But not Charles Jencks. Owner of a nearby estate, and a designer of gardens with powerful symbolic elements, Jencks saw planting grass and trees as unambitious. “Why not give something more to the people?” he asked, meaning more than another patch of vegetation in an already verdant region. “Around here, you get green fatigue.”

Ten years after he released his first proposal for the site, Jencks leads me to the top of the largest landform in the park, which has been reimagined as a kind of diorama of the cosmos. Green it isn’t; dramatic it is. “Up here, you’re among the gods,” Jencks says. In front of me, two flat stones, each as large as a mattress, project into the air. “If you stand there,” Jencks says, pointing to the space between the stones, “you should start to feel vibration.” That vibration he says, is evidence of the Casimir effect — a force, he says, that “relates very closely to dark energy” and is “an explanation for the origin of the universe.”

So what if I feel nothing? It’s possible to enjoy the garden without having heard of Casimir, or even of Jencks. Still, it’s fun to get a tour from the progenitor, a spry, ingratiating host whose referents range from Peter Higgs (for discovering the boson) to Raquel Welch (for calling the brain “the sexiest part of the human body”) to Piet Mondrian. Like Mondrian, Jencks says, he had only three colors to work with. But unlike Mondrian, he saw no alternative: A tight budget limited him to dirt, grass, and boulders, which he arranged for maximum effect.

In the architecture world, Jencks is known as perhaps the leading theorist of postmodernism: new buildings that include historic or iconic elements. He has been publishing books on the subject since 1977; the latest is The Story of Post-Modernism: Five Decades of the Ironic, Iconic and Critical in Architecture. Jencks is also the founder, with his late wife Maggie Keswick, of Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, of which there are 18 around the world. The centers, small buildings next to large hospitals, have been designed, pro bono, by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and others, making Jencks perhaps the only architectural theorist who has also been a client of the world’s top architects. Some of those architects would recoil at being called postmodernists, but Jencks has expanded the definition to include designers who create complex forms that permit multiple readings, a group that encompasses Gehry, Norman Foster, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. To Jencks, postmodern architecture is alive and kicking.

Deyan Sudjic, the director of London’s Design Museum, said that as an architecture critic and patron, Jencks has had “a huge influence.” Sudjic remembers Jencks welcoming him to a party at his house in London with sheets of paper explaining its postmodern elements, many by Michael Graves. “Clarity isn’t always at the top of the list,” says Sudjic of Jencks’s multiple agendas, adding, “But why should it be? He’s an amazing catalyst.”

Now, at 76, Jencks has a chance to be a catalyst in the world of landscape, arguing that gardens can and should be filled with recognizable symbols. In past eras, religion provided all the symbols the built environment required. But a pluralistic society may require a different approach. Jencks’ recent gardens, including Northumberlandia, a landform in the shape of a female nude, are, he says, “attempts to deal with the question of what subjects deserve iconic expression today.

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