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Charles Jencks - An Obituary

Charles Jencks – cultural theorist, landscape architect

Born June 21st, 1939; died October 13th 2019

Charles Jencks, who has died aged 80, was a cosmic architectural visionary, who changed the cultural landscape both physically and intellectually in daring and unique ways. This was as much the case for his futuristic-looking landform sculptures as it was for the network of Maggie’s centres for cancer caring, named in honour of his late second wife, Maggie Keswick.

Charles Alexander Jencks was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of composer Gardner Platt Jencks and Ruth DeWitt Pearl. He attended Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts before going to Harvard University, where he received BA in English Literature in 1961 and an MA in architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1965.

Jencks moved to the UK the same year, and in 1970 received his PhD in architectural history from University College, London, where he studied under radical modernist Reyner Banham. His thesis was the basis for his 1973 book, Modern Movements in Architecture, which suggested with what would become trademark stylistic panache that modernism was a much more expansive and diverse affair than those who attempted to junk it into the dustbin of history would have it.

It was with post-modernism, however, that Jencks’ sense of playful provocation came into its own. His 1977 best-seller, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, widened its palette and cast list with each of its eleven editions. Jencks went on to publish more than thirty books.

As a designer, his most famed creation was his house in Holland Park, transformed with help from the likes of architects Terry Farrell and Michael Graves and sculptors Eduardo Paolozzi and Celia Scott into an elaborate embodiment of his theories. In landscape, the grounds of Jencks’ Dumfriesshire house were transformed with Keswick into the Garden of Cosmic Speculation.

Other major outdoor works in Scotland include Landform, created with Terry Farrell and Duncan Whatmore, and which reimagined the grounds of what is now Modern One at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Cells of Life did something similar at Jupiter Artland, the sculpture park surrounding Bonnington House on the outskirts of the city.

After Keswick was diagnosed with cancer in 1993, it became apparent to Jencks that there was little that existed in the way of humane environments to support those in need of care, and the pair set up the Maggie’s centres. The first, designed by Richard Murphy, opened at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh in 1996. These holistic environments are perhaps the most life-affirming aspect of the rich legacy Jencks brought into being.

Jencks is survived by his third wife, Louisa Lane Fox, and his four children, two from his first marriage to Pamela Balding, and two from his second marriage to Maggie Keswick.

Scottish Art News - November / Autumn 2019

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