Architecture's lexicographer of style
Cambridge, Mass. — Some might call him architecture's agent provocateur.m To others, he is the mere historian of design in our times. While England's Building Design magazine acidly labels him "public classifier" to the architectural trade . . . a dodgy business," the chairan of the Harvard University architecture department. Henry S. Cobb, introduces him as a walking encyclopedia whose work "marked the beginning of a new dialogue."
In a period in which the decibel level of that dialogue in search of new styles has risen, Charles Jencks's genius for categories "keeps us all distinctly uneasy," fellow dialectician Vincent Scully put it.
In short, if there were no pluralism, one suspects that this historian-scribe would invent it.
However one assesses the influence of Charles Jencks, he remains an advocate withm portfolio. Or, to be literal, he is an advocate carrying a leather bag with 40 lectures on architecture and as many sets of slides around the globe.
Tucked under his seat or "chained to his hand," this prodigious output accompanies him as he courses the world from his home in London to his winter teaching post in California with stops to visit architecture of the moment anywhere.
At any given instant, one of these lectures or one of these stops may -- and in fact seems to -- produce a book.
Scarcely a season can pass without a volume on architecture bearing the Jencks name along with one of his outrageous dissections.
In the wake of the wide disenchantment with modernism, architects and their fellow citizens struggled to find post-modern patterns of design. Architect Jencks kept paces ahead: He invented them.
Post-modernism, the vague word linking today's eclectic, ad hoc designs, had barely made it into the language when Jencks was dividing it into Late Modernism (the slick high-tech side of architecture) and Post-Modern Classicism (its symmetrical, ornamented, more traditional opposite).
Jencks carries his flags of many categories without personal fanfare. Speaking of his acquired home without a trace of an accent, he wears his purple bow tie and purple-and-white striped shirt, gray suit, and wire glasses owlishly on a tall lean frame. He has a pleasant, slightly academic manner which seems to take his ideas but not himself overseriously.
Jencks's bibliography between 1963 and 1979 has 113 entries, but the awesomeness of its length is mitigated by some self-critical and humorous personal asides.
"A neohysterical account of the life and work of Philip Johnson" is how he describes his own essay on "The Candid King Midas of New York Camp." It is typical of his after-the-fact attempts to soften his polemical style. Some call this historical balance; others claim he has softened his polemic merely to entertain and proliferate.
Jencks plays down his air of a one-man press. "They're just essays," he says of the recent picture book on bizarre architecture or the skyscraper accompanied by his own photos.
"They're really magazine articles, but I like to publish in color so I publish them more as fun books," he says.
His next fully conceived work is totally serious, however. A heavy-duty study on classicism, it will take three years to produce and combine his twin focuses on past and present.
Above all, Jencks is a historian and for all his fluency with nomenclature, he is a bit tentative in gluing words on the present period. He admits that his latest label, free-style classicism, "could be only a fashion" for playing on the past -- a "loose movement," he describes it.
Nonetheless, it is clear as he lectures at Harvard or talks later that Jencks has staked his gifts of categorization on the fact that architects are heading back to classical motifs, that ornament has returned, that proportions are symmetrical, and that more and more eyes are fixed on the past.
Here is a "temple," he says of one contemporary building; there some arches; another place, he reads the three-part divisions of classicism -- the base, the shaft, the capital -- into a whole building in one slide view.
Jencks's own designing, though limited, takes cognizance of the past. Trained as an architect at Harvard in the early 1960s, he says he likes to keep his skills honed by doing a building every three or four years.
His own Cape Cod house of the mid-'70s is subject to the same dissection as the work of his peers.
Jencks's personal wit fits the new spirit of humor and irony in architecture as a whole. He mentions architect Charles Moore's Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans and its sixth order -- the "Deli order." "It relates to bad taste," Jencks says. Clearly, though, "bad taste" make good sense.
The critic-historian relishes the human element; he enjoys picking out the anthropomorphism of a building. He points to the eyes, face, and mouth in one entry in the Venice Biennale; picks out a face and torso in Michael Graves's controversial Portland (Ore.) Public Service Building. He enjoys the steel palms of Hans Hollein's Vienna Travel Bureau as a twist of mass culture's symbol of travel.
Although some observers criticize such punning as professional in-jokes, far from the social mission of design, Jencks vigorously denies elitism in his work.
In lectures he lauds the "civic quality" of one building, the pragmatism and energy consciusness of another. He emphasizes mass housing by European architects. His aversion to modernism lies not only in the cultish qualities in his school days but in its "disastrous effect on the city." It failed to make much social or environmental sense, he says.
Aesthetically, "individual single gestures cancel each other out," he asserts.
Of all our architectural witnesses, Jencks possesses the most cosmopolitan eye. Rising at 5 a.m. on the day of our interview, he picked up standby tickets to log only his latest lap at Boston's Logan International Airport.
"Part of what I do is to go around the see the world," he says simply. "It keeps me from being linked into any one country."
Despite this wanderlust, and his London base, he calls the United States the "most dynamic" nation architecturally.
The reverence that some people hold for the book Jencks reserves for architecture. He eagerly awaits confirmation of his paper prophecies in a fleet of post-modernist buildings coming to the streets quite soon, among them Philip Johnson's Chippendale-topped AT&T Building and Graves's Portland offices.
his enthusiasm mounts for the whole field, which he sees riding the crest of a new popularity.
"Architecture has again become a top art," he says. "It looks as if it's the leading art, the mother of the arts," he waxes on.
Jencks's writings confirm such comments more temperately: "On the verge of a mini-Renaissance," he has hedged a bit in print. But in person the historian's modifiers drop.
"I think we're in a Renaissance," he exclaims without reservation.