Charles Jencks at a Maggie's Center in Swansea, Wales
Maggie's Centers Charles Jencks at a Maggie's Center in Swansea, Wales

Charles Jencks will always be the Man Who Invented Postmodernism. After his first book on the topic, The Language of Postmodern Architecture, came out in 1977, he spent the rest of his life rewriting, refining, and extending that romp through contemporary architecture, both in future editions of the seminal work and in The Post-Modern Reader and Heteropolis, to name just a few of this brilliant mental packrat’s subsequent assemblies of architecture. His Maggie’s Centers, a chain spread throughout the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, created humane environments for patients with cancer, and, at least for those of us focused on architecture, stand as an extension of his theoretical work.

Jencks’ message was the message was the message: architecture to him was a form of communication that told people who and what the inhabitants and builders of our structures were. He was less interested in plan and program, let alone structure or mechanical systems, except when they became part of the expressive parts of buildings. What mattered to Jencks was a building’s ability to tell us something. Over the years, his interest extended from showing the ability columns and architraves have to impress upon us the fact that a building is important—and, conversely, the inability of the abstract and minimal version of Modernism to tell us anything—to the deeper messages he saw embedded in geometries evoking the mystical unity of the universe.

A Frank Gehry, FAIA-designed Maggie's Center in Dundee, Scotland
James_Falconer/Flickr via Creative Commons license A Frank Gehry, FAIA-designed Maggie's Center in Dundee, Scotland

A Steven Holl, FAIA-designed Maggie's Center in London

The Language of Postmodern Architecture was both a delightful diatribe and a desktop reference book. You could read it for the misalignments and unintended double readings it documented, including the fact that Mies van der Rohe’s mechanical plant at the Illinois Institute of Technology looked like a church, while the actual chapel looked like a boiler room. You could also thumb through it, as many of us did, to find buildings or messages to copy. The book’s variety was endless. Jencks loved buildings that clearly told you what they were–the houses that looked like houses and the banks that looked like banks—as well as those structures, such as Cesar Pelli’s Pacific Design Center or Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, that could be whales, icebergs, or nun’s caps.

Jencks' evolutionary tree of 20th century architecture
Public domain Jencks' evolutionary tree of 20th century architecture

The greatest accomplishment of the book, which went through seven editions, was to show that the continuity between the signs and forms of everyday life and architecture—a continuity that Robert Venturi had first sensed, in his 1966 Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture—was a lot more real than most architects would admit. Architecture was just another form of advertising, promotion, branding (though that work did not come into common usage until later) and personal expression. It should, Jencks believed, be a way for any group to express itself. All attempts to restrict that potential harmed the power to talk to the diverse and increasingly global audience Jencks perceived. Above all else, Jencks was the populist apostle of an architecture of endless forms and expressions.

At least partially through his influence, which he wielded through his always witty, erudite, and well-argued writings and lectures, a hundred flowers bloomed (to quote Mao) and the endless experimentation of Postmodernism flourished at least until the early 1990s. In fact, you could say that Postmodernism was and is victorious: we have never gone back to a situation in which one style or mode of architecture, or even two competing ones, are considered dominant. We live in an era of polymorphous perversity.

Jencks with Daniel Libeskind, FAIA, who designed a Maggie's Center in London
Rory Rae/Maggie's Centers Jencks with Daniel Libeskind, FAIA, who designed a Maggie's Center in London

One of the contradictions of Charles Jencks’ position was that he argued for populism in an elitist manner. His work was based on academic analysis and historical knowledge (he held both a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard and Ph.D. in architectural history from University College London) and he was able to assemble his globe-spanning examples because he had the means, following his second marriage, to the landscape architect and historian Maggie Keswick, to travel as much as he wanted. Keswick was not only an accomplished designer and academic in her own right, but also an heiress to the Hong Kong trading fortune that the Jardine family had assembled over several centuries. Without the constraints of either an office or an academic position (though he taught both in Europe and the United States and designed several buildings and gardens), Jencks was free to explore and write.

Perhaps that was why his version of Postmodernism—he was the one to popularize and define the phrase in architecture through a series of lectures starting in 1975, though others soon gave it many other meanings—always felt hedonistic and slight. His home in Rustic Canyon in California, built around a swimming pool in the shape of that state, with Catalina as the hot tub, epitomized that position.

Jencks' Garden of Cosmic Speculation at his Scottish estate
John Lord/Flickr via Creative Commons license Jencks' Garden of Cosmic Speculation at his Scottish estate

After Keswick’s untimely death in 1995 from cancer, Jencks’ life took a turn towards proving that his theories meant something in daily life and could improve people’s health and well-being. Commissioning some of the best architects in the world, he built his Maggie’s Centers not only in his late wife’s memory, but also to show that an expressive architecture could draw us out into a relationship with a small community and our physical environment, making us feel the reality of our physical presence and place in the world as something not just tenuous, but affirming and beautiful.

Jenck’s hat trick, in other words, was to turn hedonism and anything-goes-architecture into an affirmation of life in the face of mortality. He spent the last two decades pursuing that project, and the success of the small but welcoming Maggie’s Centers in part vindicates and in part supersedes the style surfing that made his name. The brilliant witticist, raconteur, and connoisseur of remarkable buildings became the maker of monuments that demonstrated architecture's ability to bring us back to ourselves. We will remember Charles Jencks both for the pleasure and the meaning he found in architecture.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.