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.
“Great money is spent on the largest commissions in history, and the clients, public, and architects have no shared symbolic intentions,” he says. “How stupid is that?” At the same time, he seems to suggest that his approach is futile. “In a pluralist democracy, all icons can and will be read counter to what designers demand and hope,” he told me in an e-mail. “You can’t successfully (for long) enforce meaning in architecture, or anything else.”
But try he must. Speaking of Gehry, a friend since the 1970s, when Jencks taught architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles, he says, “To build a garden, I have to understand the origins of the universe. Frank can just wing it.”
Not everyone understands what drives him. Jencks recalls a conversation with his friend Peter Eisenman, the architect, who said, “I love your work. Love it. Except for the cosmogenesis shit.” Jencks says he replied, “The work is the cosmogenesis shit.”
It’s typical of Jencks to quote his critics. “He’s a sophisticated and self-deprecating man,” says Sudjic, who adds: “As someone who doesn’t like to be bored, he’s tremendously generous to people who challenge him.”
Which certainly includes Eisenman. In his office in New York, the architect elaborated on his reservations about Jencks’s gardens. “You can read symbols in architecture — on a facade, for instance, different elements can convey ideas and possibly even emotions,” Eisenman said. “But I’m not convinced you convey the same kind of meaning in landscape.”
Cynthia Davidson, head of an architecture think tank that produces books, conferences, and the journal Log, has edited essays by Jencks and has seen some of his work, including a house on Cape Cod painted 28 shades of blue, to match the shades of blue he sees in the landscape. Davidson says Jencks “is very sensitive to the environment.” Of what he does to that environment, she says, “He’s working with the land in a very spiritual way. Sometimes it seems corny, and sometimes it’s effective.”
One thing is certain about Jencks’s work: It requires significant acreage. For that reason alone, the Baltimore-born Jencks is lucky he lives in Scotland, where renewable energy sources are quickly replacing coal. That leaves hundreds of surface mines abandoned; what to do with them is a pressing concern.
One of his first attempts to answer that question came in Cramlington, 10 miles from Newcastle in the very north of England. There, alongside a still-functioning mine, Jencks was commissioned to create a park that would help protect the neighboring community from noise and dust. His first proposal involved giant landforms in the shape of a naked man and woman spooning, but, he says, “the client dropped it because of the expense.” He settled on just the woman — though one big enough for hundreds of visitors to hike on. The piece isn’t prurient, or kitschy, mainly because it is so big (a quarter mile from head to toe) that it can be perceived as nothing more than a series of peaks and valleys. Some families with children may not even know, as they ascend one of a pair of nearly identical hillocks, that they have surmounted a giant breast, or that the path down will take them through cleavage.
Residents hope the unusual landform, called Northumberlandia, will attract visitors. Either way, the client is happy: As it turns out, a little earthmoving is less expensive than creating a conventional park, with elements that require precision in fabrication, installation, and maintenance.
Back in Scotland, at the Crawick Multiverse, detail work was never part of the plan. The park is named for what cosmologists call their present conception of the cosmos: an infinite number of universes, each one infinitely large. But Jencks’s budget was decidedly finite. With the mining company out of the picture — “these days, they’re designed to go bankrupt after they’re done mining,” Jencks says — there was nobody to put the land back together. But Jencks persuaded Richard Scott, the Duke of Buccleuch, who is one of the largest landowners in the United Kingdom, to bankroll his vision. Buccleuch gave Jencks a budget of just one million pounds (one-third the cost of Northumberlandia), with half of that required for environmental remediation. What was left, says Jencks, wasn’t enough to do much more than move some dirt and reposition boulders.
He moved 2,000 big rocks. Many of them line a quarter-mile-long north–south path, a kind of unspooled Stonehenge, that runs through a 5,000-seat amphitheater. Other rocks were used to create model galaxies — “there’s Andromeda,” he says, “and there’s the Milky Way”—and a cave that he has designated the Omphalos,  “the navel of the world” in legend.
A key feature of the Multiverse is a small hill with 100 large, flat stones arrayed along a spiral path. Each stone represents a universe. The garden also contains two large pairs of breasts, which, he says, symbolize the anthropic principle (the idea that the universe has “conspired” to produce the conditions required for human life). But the breasts seem out of place alongside galaxies and universes; if this is a model, it is a model that needs to be taken with a boulder of salt.
“At least there are women in his concept of the universe,” says Davidson. And if his interpretation of cosmogenesis is very sexual, she says, “it makes sense, because without sex there’s no procreation.”
Another problem with the Multiverse was strictly terrestrial: clashes with HSE, the Scottish Health and Safety Executive. Among the points of contention: To shelter visitors from sun and rain, Jencks created a kind of lean-to, its roof made from a large, flat stone. But HSE worried that the stone could collapse on visitors. One day when Jencks wasn’t around, they sawed much of it off. They have also put up warning and wayfinding signs, made of the synthetic material Plaswood, all around the park, which Jencks finds jarring. “I won some battles but I lost most of them,” he says.
There are no such concerns 20 miles south, at Portrack House, an estate that once belonged to Maggie Keswick’s family. After Jencks and Keswick married in 1978, they began adding follies to the garden (though Keswick, author of a seminal book on Chinese gardens, was less into symbolic elements than her husband). Jencks picked up the pace after Keswick’s death, adding elaborate features meant to illustrate phenomena such as black holes, quarks, and, in one case, “all the equations of the universe.” His daughter, Lily Clare Jencks, who is a landscape architect, says that “every time we’re in a powerful landscape, it’s revealing the laws of the universe subliminally.” Her father, she says, has tried to make those same revelations explicit. But one is reminded of the aphorism “if everything is special, nothing is special.” Jencks, who now lives at Portrack with his third wife, Louisa Fox Pitt, is determined to make everything in the garden special.
And yet, for all the research into the latest scientific theories, Jencks keeps returning to one shape: the spiral. It appears in his landform on the lawn of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh (a collaboration with Terry Farrell & Partners); his partially completed Time Garden in the Portello section of Milan; and sections of Northumberlandia and the Multiverse. Asked what that shape means to him, Jencks says, rather surprisingly, “I never thought about that.” Then he recalls his childhood in Baltimore, talking to his father, a musician, about time. He remembers deciding that time wasn’t “round like a clock, but a spiral, like on a barber’s pole.”
Jencks attended prep school in New England, where he was a football captain. He studied architecture at Harvard in the 1950s, then continued his education in London, where he met Keswick. Her years living with cancer led them to create a facility where cancer patients would receive support. (She died in 1995, at 53.) Jencks is thinking of extending the concept to the United States. To do that, he would have to raise a lot of money. 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.
Along with Maggie’s Centre buildings come, in many cases, gardens. The Centre at Glasgow’s Gartnavel General Hospital, designed by Koolhaas, is set in a spectacular garden designed by Lily Jencks, who runs a small landscape practice in London. Lily Jencks said she is more focused on what gardens can do (their environmental benefits) than on what they say (the kind of symbolism favored by her father). But she appreciates his narrative approach: “My father was a writer and scholar first—and that trajectory has led him to want to tell stories,” she says. Landscape “is a good outlet for doing that.”
Fred A. Bernstein is writer based in Brooklyn. Reprinted from Landscape Architecture Magazine (May 2016), the monthly magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects.