DUMFRIES, Scotland – Apparently, our universe is not immense enough to contain the imagination of landscape architect and author Charles Jencks. He instead thinks in terms of multiple universes, which he evokes in his most recent work, the Crawick Multiverse, a 55-acre sculptural landscape that sits on the site of a former open-pit mine in Scotland.
The American-born and Harvard-educated Jencks received his PhD in architectural history from University College, London, in 1970 and has lived in the United Kingdom ever since. He transformed his Scottish residence into a 30-acre Garden of Cosmic Speculation and has created monumental installations around the world, including Black Hole Oval Terrace at Beijing Olympic Park.
The author of numerous books, including The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Jencks articulates a postmodern aesthetic informed by complexity science. In our recent wide-ranging conversation, Jencks referenced Raquel Welch, the Renaissance, cosmology—and our human search for meaning.
Public Art Review:
How do you approach being a public artist?
Charles Jencks: The problem for a public artist today is how do you communicate with a mass and segmented audience—a local one, a national one, an international one—and avoid the obvious pitfalls of one-liners and clichés and the “already said,” as Umberto Eco already said.
In a public art, you really have to layer your meanings so they’re accessible without being clichés. The way I’ve done that is to use a whole lot of supplementary systems so that people, if they’re interested, can find out some of the hidden meanings, some of the personal ones, and some of the public ones that I attempt to design in. They can read it as a kind of dramatic narrative.
It doesn’t mean it exhausts how people receive it. A lot of people misread it, and I always find that interesting and helpful.
Tell me about what you’d call a misreading.
Tim Richardson, who is a famous critic of gardens, spent eight hours one day at the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland, which is designed around DNA and a whole lot of scientific esoterica. And he said, “I see what you meant when you said everything has more than one meaning, but I couldn’t understand the science.”
I said, “That’s all right. You have to feel a garden before you understand it.”
He said, “I understood one big thing.”
I said, “What was that?”
“That your garden is a portrait of Margaret Thatcher.”
And he showed me the plan, and it had her bun at the back and her twin set of pearls, her eye, her cheek, her nasty nose, her teeth, and all the rest of Margaret Thatcher’s accoutrements. And I hadn’t intended it. It was an emergent.
When you say “emergent,” explain what you mean.
People naturally search for meaning, especially in a garden, and once they know there’s meaning, they find more because the universe is so constructed. There’s always more meaning emerging. It’s not “less is more” but “more is different”—that’s the postmodern phrase.
But perhaps you were thinking of Margaret Thatcher?
I don’t like her. But of course anyone whom you’re critical of is on your mind. But I was certainly not designing it with her in mind. But it’s there. If you google the plan, you can see it.
The game of hunt the symbol is a public game. It was in the fifteenth century, the Medici in their garden famously said you’ve got to make people slow down: festina lente. It meant “Make haste to go slow.” Why make haste to go slow? Because you wouldn’t want to run through a garden. You go there for pleasure and relaxation and contemplation.
So how do you slow people down? Well, the Renaissance said you slow them down by giving them art and symbolism. And symbolism is a particular way of reading signs, symbols, and in my case supplementary signs, which literally tell people, “This is a banana,” or “This is a black hole.”
The fact is that the universe always gives more meaning than you intend. In other words, if you do a Fibonacci Series—you know, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21— you produce pine cones, you produce golden sections, you produce a lot of other things. But you don’t intend to. They’re a consequence of the benign nature of the universe. It always has more output than you put in.
I think public art necessarily brings up in our pluralistic global cultures the impossibility of assuming that people know what you know or believe in it.
You’re saying the audience is not monolithic.
That’s absolutely the key. It’s pluralism. It will read it with its prejudices and its knowledge and its convictions and its beliefs—all of the baggage that we all carry.
For the most part, the monument has disappeared today. The monument doesn’t exist because we don’t live in traditional cultures nor integrated cultures. So instead of designing monuments, we design icons, and we design them with iconic, enigmatic signifiers—this all comes out of symbiotics, by the way.
You don’t consider your work monuments?
They’re monumental, but they’re not monuments.
I would say that a third of my life as a designer is fighting to get things done the way I want them, and I don’t often succeed. My sadness about my work is that it is very big. It’s huge, and I believe that you should have small-scale as well and intimate places, places where you festina lente, make haste to go slow. Parks should have smallness, not just bigness. And usually in our wow culture, clients aren’t willing to even countenance that things could have a meaning and that it could matter and they won’t pay for it!
When we read an environment and know it has meaning, you naturally play the game of hunt the symbol. And I think that’s an aphrodisiac, I agree with Raquel Welch, the famous woman philosopher who said “The sexiest organ of the human body is the brain.” It pulls you forward. So all my work has eye-catchers on the tops of mounds or in the direction you might walk, and it uses these signs to pull you through the environment.
I hang a lot of signs, even written signs, all over my work, or ironic ones, ones that provoke symbolic meanings. I have a commitment to the public nature of public meaning, so I have to work to make sure that all the science is correct and doesn’t degenerate into illustration, which is its great problem.
That’s a very interesting distinction you’re making about avoiding illustration. Can you give an example of how you walk that line?
There’s no easy way to walk that line. It’s more you zigzag in and out of focus.
I’m interested in Northumberlandia and your dialog there with ancient landforms.
I’d seen these Iron Age horses around Great Britain—there is one that is beautifully abstract. I drove a mile away and I could see it from an angle. You had to know it was a horse, but you could see it. But why do a symbol of a horse on the side of a hill? Well, maybe they walked it, some sort of ritualized walking.
So for Northumberlandia, my problem is to get the people to walk two miles to her feet and up her body. I created ten stops, ten signs, on the walk from her foot to her head—the head being the sexiest organ of the body, her brain. That’s where you get the pay-off. It ends with number ten is on her forehead and there’s a painting there of the sun and the earth as a tiny, tiny little speck, and it says: “Sun 93.5 million miles away.”
Anyway, it was vandalized five times and I repaired it at my expense five times. Finally, I said, “I’ll make it with cast iron and titanium and you won’t be able to blow it away with a bazooka.” So far it has won the battle.
But if you believe in icons, as I obviously do, you have to believe in iconoclasm.
Looking at your website, it seems that most of the photos you have of your work don’t include people.
It depends. In the opening of the Crawick Multiverse, we opened it for two towns that are in a very poor coal-digging area of Scotland. We went out to the schools and I gave talks there. The schoolchildren participated in the openings dressed up as cosmic events. And those photographs of people dressed up as stars and comets and astronauts, I think, are very poignant and amusing and I love to include them.
There’s a way when they’re dressed up in costume…
It was a performance.
…they’re in obvious dialogue with the work.
I think performance art is very important in the landscape. It shows the kind of celebrations that were at Stonehenge or any theatrical installations in prehistory where the landscape is potent and sexed and active as well as passive.
The role of the landscape architect, for me, is to put forward meaning and have a dialogue with the people and a dialogue with nature. It’s not without its risk. It’s high risk. You just have to believe what you say and keep at it, and then change if it becomes impossible, if it’s against the will of the people. But you have a duty and an obligation to signify things in our public world.
And what do you want to signify?
Many things…. The evolution of galaxies, the evolution of life and of meaning. The benign nature of the universe rather than its nihilistic existence as a careless and carefree grandparent who doesn’t give a damn for people. Meaning exists on all these levels and people have convinced themselves that it’s all meaningless and despairing. (Laughs.) They’re wrong.
So there’s an essential hopefulness you see?
Most universes are failed universes in the sense of sterile. There is selection pressure where the kinetic force is too strong and life can’t evolve. We live in a well-balanced universe that is balanced by 30 different parameters, not only kinetic force and gravity. Science tells us that, but does anyone portray it? No. Do you know about it? Maybe you don’t. But it is a very benign story—the story of the universe.