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Tributes paid to Maggie’s founder Charles Jencks


Architects, including Norman Foster and former members of FAT, have paid tribute to Charles Jencks, the ‘godfather of Postmodernism’ and co-founder of the Maggie’s cancer care charity, who has died, aged 80

The US-born landscape designer, architectural historian and theorist, who wrote more than 30 books, including The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977), died at his London home on Sunday night (13 October).

In May 2018 Jencks’s own home was handed a Grade I listing. The ‘inventive and ingenious’ Thematic House (1985) had been designed with Terry Farrell and includes contributions from US Postmodernist architect Michael Graves, sculptor Celia Scott, and sculptor and artist Eduardo Paolozzi. There are currently plans to convert it to an archive museum which will be open to the public by appointment.

As well as lecturing at more than 40 universities around the world, he worked on numerous landform architecture projects, such as the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, earthworks at Jupiter Artland outside Edinburgh, and the so-called Lady of the North, a 400m-long land-sculpture near Cramlington, Northumberland.

In 1995, with his late wife, Maggie Keswick, he set up the Maggie’s cancer care trust. The organisation has built nearly 20 cancer care drop-in centres with some of the world’s leading architects, including Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, which won the 2009 RIBA Stirling Prize for its Hammersmith scheme.

Charles Holland of Charles Holland Architects and formerly of FAT described Jencks as a ‘hugely influential figure on the world of architecture and on me personally’.

He said: ‘Modern Movements in Architecture (1973) was one of the first books I read and it remains for me the best general history of modernism out there. It is funny and incisive, never po-faced and full of learning worn without pretence. The issues of Architectural Digest he edited through the 1970s and 80s helped shape the intellectual landscape of architecture and formed the background of much of my education. It is impossible to think of that period without him.

’Years later, my FAT colleagues and I were thrilled to get to edit a copy of AD with him. Working on Radical Post Modernism was a pleasure and I remember the afternoons we spent at his wonderful house in Holland Park talking about architecture and everything else with great affection. He was a great historian, a funny, flamboyant and cultured figure and a very generous and charming man.’

Piers Gough of CZWG, who designed the Maggie’s Centre at Nottingham City Hospital, said: ‘Charlie was the most worldly of writers and critics and an otherworldly practitioner and proselytiser. His exuberant accounts of contemporary architecture were second to none, because he had travelled the world, personally visited every major building and discussed them with their architects as an equal. He was able to convey pleasure in all the strands of current architectural endeavour through popular lavishly illustrated volumes of books and magazines.’

Thematic house, lansdowne walk north kensington london solar staircase by charles

Thematic house, lansdowne walk north kensington london solar staircase by charles

Thematic House [aka Elemental house, Cosmic House] at 19 Lansdowne Walk, Kensington and Chelsea, London (Grade I) by Charles Jencks and Terry Farrell - solar staircase

He added: ‘Meanwhile, to find an original untapped influence for his own work he pursued cosmology. Being at once scientific and mystical, he proclaimed it as the ultimate Postmodern reference. He was always warm, smiling, welcoming and interested as well as excited to tell of another new discovery. We met when he taught history at the Architecture Association and soon after generously commissioned a jacuzzi room for his house, I proposed an upside-down dome to sit in, so unforgettably Charlie organised a hilarious evening with an upside-down show of his slides of domes to choose from.’

Maggie’s chief executive Laura Lee said: ‘It’s very hard to come to terms with Charles not being here as he has been such a pivotal part in developing Maggie’s vision for a different type of cancer care and turning that vision into a reality.

‘Over the past 23 years his passion, drive and imagination meant that leading architects from across the world came to build these extraordinary centres; places which have benefited thousands of people with cancer, both in the UK and abroad.

She added: ‘I know Charles will be remembered for his many talents, but for me personally his legacy lies in the contribution he has made to ensuring people living with cancer, and those close to them, have the best possible support.

‘Maggie’s would not be the organisation it is today without his tenacity, dedication and charisma. He will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with his family.’

Jencks was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in June 1939. His father was composer Gardner Platt Jencks.

After receiving a degree in English Literature from Harvard University in 1961 and a Master of Arts degree from Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1965, he moved to the UK.

Five years later, he received a PhD in architectural history, studying under Reyner Banham at University College, London. His thesis became the source for Modern Movements in Architecture.

Jencks married Pamela Balding in 1961 but the marriage ended in 1973. He had two sons with Balding. He later married Maggie Keswick with whom he had two children: John Jencks, a London-based filmmaker, and Lily Clare Jencks.

Jencks married his third wife, Louisa Lane Fox, in 2006.

Landform, in the gardens of the scottish national gallery of modern art, edinburgh

Landform, in the gardens of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh

Landform, in the gardens of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh


Sam Jacob of Sam Jacob Studio and formerly of FAT
Charles embodied a rare spirit of architectural adventure. Provocative, challenging, demanding, but also always generous with it all underwritten with warmth and humour. His rare mix of intelligence and action meant theory for him was not something separate from the world but an active part of making the world. Words spilled into projects (or vica versa).

He was endlessly positive about the power of architecture to act in the world, always curious, ever tolerant of difference and supportive of new possibilities.

Thank you for all those -isms and charts, all those books and landscapes, that house and everything else. Ad-hocism for ever. And may Pluralism endure long after his passing.

Edwin Heathcote, architecture critic
Charles was a rare figure in contemporary architecture, a writer, a patron, a catalyst and a provocateur. He was genial, witty and generous and he will be much missed. He used to be characterised by a natty velvet or chord suit, scarf raffishly draped over one shoulder and a hat, always standing out at a party, a head above most of the guests, where, inevitably, he knew everyone.

He was the doctor who declared the death sentence of Modernism

I suppose like many architects of my generation Jencks’s works formed the cornerstone of my early reading in architecture – Modern Movements in Architecture, which was a readable, cool, clever and occasionally controversial introduction to the last century and The Language of Post Modern Architecture which went through 11 printings and revisions and God knows how many translations. He was the doctor who declared the death sentence of Modernism, gave life and theory to Postmodernism and then stuck with it, long after almost everyone else had abandoned it.

While, to many, PoMo quickly became a moribund aberration, for Charles every subsequent iteration of architecture was only an expansion of the PoMo moment, from Deconstructivism through the work of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas, all of whom were close friends. In fact Rem even designed a couple of rooms in his house, which Jencks rejected as not symbolic enough.

Which brings us to the house, a stucco-fronted 19th-century job in Holland Park, which Jencks conceived as an embodiment of his ideas on the cosmos, myth, Classicism and, indeed, the whole of architecture. The Cosmic House, which was listed at Grade I last year, is now being adapted for a new life as a museum, archive and forum, to designs by Jencks himself and his daughter Lily. Jencks annointed me ‘Keeper of Meaning’, which I consider just about the perfect job title.

Shutterstock parco portello milan

Parco Portello in Milan

Source: Shutterstock

Parco Portello in Milan

Of course, beyond writing, Jencks was himself a designer, not only of his own house but of landscapes and forms around the world from his own Garden of Cosmic Speculation at his Portrack house to the huge Parco Portello in Milan. Inspired by breakthroughs in science, from genetics to cosmology and black holes, he tried to translate complex ideas into the most archaic expressions and instinctive, landforms, using the landscape to embody notions of the earth, space and time.

In recent years with his work for the Maggie’s cancer caring centres he ensured that the charity became, arguably, the most ambitious and voracious single patron of architecture in the world and used those buildings not as baubles but as places of healing and human warmth.

Jencks became so much associated with PoMo that, perhaps, his influence waned over recent decades. But, as PoMo returned as culture rather than kitsch, his work is arguably as relevant now as it ever was. After all, who has written better or more compellingly or more accessibly about what architecture is, why it is like that, and what it could be? 

Ivan Harbour, senior design partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
I am so saddened to hear of Charles’s death. He was a huge influence in my early career and a delightful client. His architectural legacy, delivering his and Maggie’s vision, is unmatched and an inspiration to us all.

I am honoured to have been a part of that journey, which has a special place in my heart. As a student of the Bartlett School in 1980, Charles was the architectural polemicist of the moment.

Charles was a formidable and generous critic

He was an inspiration to me and my colleagues as we looked to the future, naively interpreting Postmodernist characteristics to embellish our designs, in a teaching environment then shaped by Brutalism and the International Style.

To finally meet your hero 20 years later, as we embarked on what would become Maggie’s first London centre, was initially a terrifying but quickly enjoyable experience.

Charles was a formidable and generous critic who, as our client, subtly influenced the evolution of this most human of buildings.

Little did I know that this delightfully uplifting place would eventually contribute to the emergence of ‘Hearthism’; a language Charles suggested, connected all Maggie’s centres!

Norman Foster, founder and executive chairman of Foster + Partners
I am deeply saddened by the news of Charles Jencks’ passing. A doyen of architectural criticism, his all-encompassing contributions as a theorist, historian and designer reflected his love for architecture and the built environment. Under his tutelage, he inspired hundreds of students at more than 40 schools of architecture around the world, where he taught and lectured throughout his storied career.

Charles had assembled a world archive of recent architecture in a single house

Education was never far from his heart and I was extremely supportive of his endeavour to convert his house in west London into a public museum. Over several decades, Charles had assembled a world archive of recent architecture in a single house – one that exemplifies in its own architecture, alongside his own worldview and the thoughts and works of different architects over 50 years.

As the co-founder of Maggie’s Cancer Centres, borne out of his late wife Maggie’s struggle with the disease, Charles showed remarkable strength and fortitude to turn a personal tragedy into an institution that brings so much hope to so many people. I will always remember him for his incisive focus and infectious humour that inspired all of us during the numerous design discussions for Maggie’s Manchester.

Above all, Charles and his late wife were dear friends over many decades. I will miss the cut and thrust of debating with him, the twinkle in his eye and an infectious humour with an ever-present serious undercurrent. Most of all I will miss his friendship. My thoughts are with his family and friends at this difficult time.

Thematic house, lansdowne walk north kensington, london.winter room by charles jenc

Thematic House [aka Elemental house, Cosmic House] at 19 Lansdowne Walk, Kensington and Chelsea, London (Grade I) by Charles Jencks and Terry Farrell

Thematic House [aka Elemental house, Cosmic House] at 19 Lansdowne Walk, Kensington and Chelsea, London (Grade I) by Charles Jencks and Terry Farrell




Readers' comments (3)

  • Steve McAdam

    This extraordinary man shocked me into who I am now. He removed ridiculous certainties about architecture in terms of style and, instead, talked about architecture as a thing deeply culturally placed while openly enjoyed - a thing human! Fluid drew heavily on the wonderful and apocryphal talks he gave at the Architectural Association (though I was then a confused student to be honest). Everything he said seemed to challenge received wisdom and to be about people. I feel with his passing, a major figure who the world of architecture can respond to, is lost. If we are 'big enough' we can take on-board what he said. Let's do that!

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  • What an inspiration! Serious and yet lighthearted at the same time? He got us through the 70s and 80s, an otherworldly and American influence, pointing out a higher plane while dealing with the foundations of a house extension, to hinting at other ways of designing our later major works?

    The other man to us wagers in Holland Park. Elia and Zoe round the corner, Rogers down the road, lot’s of others in Julie’s Wine Bar, Michael Carapetian, Swinhoe Measures, Dixon and Jones, and APT in Clarendon Cross. And Bryan Ferry and John Cleese as neighbours! Famous days, pink, grey and light blue the colours?! He didn’t sound the death knell of Modernism, he helped it transmogrify into something richer and with many embodied meanings, multivalent, as he would have said.

    I will go early to metastatic cancer treatment at CXH today and spend some time in Richard’s Maggie’s with a few memories. T5 meets KL? Dig out the books. Think of his walk down Clarendon Rd. Ironically so near to the scene of later tragedies in Notting Dale. We will carry on, stronger but more humble. Post Modernists are we.

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  • Nathan Silver

    Charles Jencks and I met in 1968 over the discovery that we were both interested in making things out of other things. There wasn’t a name for that yet, but Charles soon supplied it: “adhocism,” just as he would later supply “postmodernism” as a catchy term for another design phenomenon.
    We had both arrived in the UK from the USA a few years earlier, I to teach at Cambridge and he for a PhD at the University of London. As an outcome of our schmoozing I wrote an appreciative article for The New Statesman, where I was architecture critic.
    In concept, adhocism described work of any kind that, with an expressive air of real or apparent improvisation, deliberately included the tried and true in some obvious way when creating the new. That’s a fair enough general definition. As card-carrying adhocists no. 1 and no. 2 we especially wanted to countervail the vulgar notion—decidedly prevalent at the time—that proper innovation was out of the blue originality, at its loveliest when it paid no attention to, or even reversed, what had come before. When my piece had some interested response from Statesman readers, we decided to collaborate on a book on the subject.
    Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation, jointly authored, was published by Doubleday in 1972. Our co-authorship contributions were done in separate halves, roughly dividing between us architecture and design, and rashly ranging far beyond. The book received some mystified and a few appreciative reviews, won the praise of some disparate designers and artists, and subsequently went out of print. Four decades later (much to the authors’ surprise), The M I T Press declared an interest in publishing an expanded and updated edition. That happened in 2013.
    When we last worked together while writing revisions and new material, Charles read my drafts and repeatedly challenged me to more fully explain my views about revivalism, design development, contextualism, design plagiarism. He was a most encouraging collaborative teacher, as well as the important architectural historian whose judgement and commentary will be well remembered. His vivacious intellect inspired thousands, including most influential architects and designers, whom he knew and challenged too. Charles's design histories with their always argumentative, usually persuasive tone, will triumphantly endure, of course. Late modernism lives. And adhocism lives!

    Nathan Silver

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