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Remembering Charles Jencks – critic, scholar and a true gentleman

Paul Finch
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Paul Finch shares his personal memories of the writer and Maggie’s Centre co-founder, who died last week

Never a dull moment with Charles Jencks. Iconoclast, raconteur, historian, critic, landscape designer, philanthropist, generous host and – important from my personal point of view – a huge supporter of World Architecture Festival from its inception in 2008 through to his last appearance in November 2017 in Berlin.

He liked the festival because he liked debating big issues, as well as the pluralism the award programme represented. That Berlin appearance was typical Jencks: he discussed the Elbphilharmonie building in Hamburg with Pierre de Meuron, who entered into the spirit of a very Jencksian session – with CJ taking the part of the architect, presenting the building, and de Meuron taking on the role of critic.

Jencks was, in part, a constructive provocateur: he once asked Norman Foster and Richard Rogers if either was aware the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank and the Lloyd’s of London buildings contained golden sections in their designs. He told me neither could provide confirmation – but he had already done the measurements and found them in both.

His almost intuitive sense of what had happened and what was happening resulted in him becoming a major critical figure

His challenging of received ideas brought him to the UK, having opposed the Vietnam War and having no intention of being drafted post-Harvard. He found in 60s London a different sort of ferment, which suited his intellectual curiosity, not least via his PhD studies with Reyner Banham. This led to his first book, on different strands in the history of Modernism, an idea which developed later into his often updated blob diagram (shades of Abercrombie) of architectural movements.

As a historian he left much to be desired from an academic point of view – the books too frequent and sometimes hastily edited; the insights presented as facts; the almost automatic up-ending of conventional wisdom. But it was precisely his almost intuitive sense of what had happened and what was happening that resulted in him becoming such a major critical figure, particularly through his relationship with Andreas Papadakis, proprietor of Architectural Design and the publisher of Jencks’s The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, which became the best-selling architectural book of all time.

Jencks and Papadakis had attended what could be described as the birth of PoMo, the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale curated by Paolo Portoghesi under the title ‘The Presence of the Past’, with his iconic ‘Strada Novissima’ exhibit. Papadakis and Jencks knew that something big was happening as heated discussion took place around the cafés near the Arsenale, and Jencks was on hand to take notes, becoming a sort of Boswell to the emerging architectural movement.

For some hard-line Modernists, the promotion of PoMo was too much to take, and Jencks was to an extent persona non grata with an official UK establishment, as was Papadakis (he and Jencks fell out, as publishers – particularly Papadakis – and authors do).

Jencks wasn’t very concerned, since he was on friendly terms with most of the architects who mattered, both here and overseas. Moreover, he was to prove, through his curation of the Maggie’s Centre programme and his land art works reflecting his interest in cosmology, that he was a man of action as well as words.

Last week, the Royal Academy (RA) launched the first annual event in honour of Richard MacCormac, who for many years chaired the Academy Forum, the forerunner of which was founded by Papadakis. Jencks was an active member of the forum, which advised on the RA architecture programme – I wish we had recorded the discussions about possible future events, which were almost events in themselves.

At the post-event dinner, RA president Christopher Le Brun proposed toasts both to MacCormac and to Jencks – thinkers and conversationalists, but also people who put theory into practice … to all our benefits.

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