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The gardener of the universe

Charles Jencks redesigns the natural landscape to make us think about mankind’s “place in the great scheme of things” and to imagine a better world

At first, it is like any other house in the affluent London suburb of Holland Park. Then you notice the windows in the upper floor: like eyes, open wide in surprise. These prepare you for what lies inside. The house — built in 1840, but now a “prime Post-Modernist monument”, an “apogee of symbolic architecture” — is alive with symbolism, from the entrance hall, a panelled “Cosmic Oval”, to the rear windows, which can be read by turns as a man, a woman, a dog, the sun and the moon.

The ideas, explains owner Charles Jencks, derive from the cosmos: the planets, the solar system, the seasons.

Charles Jencks

Jencks — architect, architectural historian, landscape designer and author of hugely influential texts on Modernism and Postmodernism — is concerned with no less a thing than “the architecture of the universe”. More precisely, he is interested in the way the physical world is constructed — the whole physical world, from atoms and DNA right up to planets, stars and galaxies. Also with humanity’s place within it.

The DNA Garden, part of the Garden of Cosmic Speculation

Jencks honed this cosmology at his Scottish house in Portrack, Dumfries, in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. It is an extraordinary place. Begun in 1989, the 30-acre site questions the fundamental laws of nature. Thus, for example, the Universe Cascade. Emerging from the terrace behind the house, this enfilade of stepped waterfalls traces the 15-billion-year story of the universe. Further along, a curved bridge describes a comet’s trail. A tiled area of steel slabs and lawn squares spells out the all-consuming gravity of a black hole. Lakes and landforms illustrate mathematical fractals. Even the sheet-metal greenhouse roof ridge bears equations of physics. The idea behind it, explains Jencks, is the creation of a microcosm of the universe, an experience of nature at a deeper and more sensuous level. Everyday landscaping it is not.

Reactions of visitors range from “weird” to “wonderful”, he says. “But most of them understand that the garden is part of a long historical tradition. Japanese Zen gardens, Persian paradise gardens, the English and French Renaissance gardens all played out the story of the cosmos as it was then understood.” Today, Jencks says, European gardens tend to be harmonious combinations of flowers and foliage, devoid of allegory or metaphor. But he believes that everything — architecture, art, gardening — should be content-driven.

Painting of the “Crawick Multiverse”, a project utilising landscape art to transform a former open-cast coal mine

“Everything should have something to say beyond the pleasing, or merely sensational. It should make us stop and think, not just about the here and there but also about our place in the great scheme of things.”

Gardens, he adds, are also a form of autobiography. “They reveal the happiest moments, the tragedies, they tell a lot about us.”

Can man conquer nature? “Never”, says Jencks. “But we are all romantics and through gardens we can imagine a better world.” At Portrack House he keeps two full-time gardeners and a part-time gardener and he also has helpers on a seasonal basis. Does he get involved himself? “Of course. But no heavy labour, because then you can’t think.”

North-south view of the Crawick Multiverse from the Amphitheatre

Born in 1939 in Baltimore, Jencks studied architecture at Harvard. Rejecting the then-presiding Gropius orthodoxy, he emerged with the belief not that less is more, but that more is different. “The problem with architecture was the collapse of religion and the loss of interest in public buildings that can enhance our human values,” he says. “I call it the crisis of meaning. It led to my interest in cosmology.”

In 1965 he moved to London, where he taught at the Architectural Association (AA) and designed buildings in collaboration with other architects. It was at the AA that he met his late wife Maggie Keswick, an expert in Chinese garden art and Geomanticism. When Keswick asked him to design her family home and garden in Scotland, Jencks switched to landscape design. “It all started with a swamp dug up to create a place to swim for our two children,” he says. “The excavated earth provided an opportunity not just to shape the estate’s landscape but to invent a new grammar of landscape design.”

When his wife became ill with cancer (she died in 1995) the couple founded the remarkable “Maggie’s Centres”, which offer free support for anyone affected by cancer. In her memory Jencks has recruited some of the world’s greatest architects and landscape designers to create the centres — Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Rem Kohlhaas among others. It is a scheme that has continued in her honour.

The “Maggie’s Centre” in Dundee, named after Charles Jencks’ late wife and designed by Frank Gehry, offers free support for anyone affected by cancer

Jencks has never given up trying to understand the universe through his gardens. He also designed the lawn in front of Edinburgh’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a series of crescent-shaped stepped mounds and pools inspired by chaos theory and, in his words, by “the way nature organises itself”. At present he is involved in the “Crawick Multiverse”, a major land restoration and art project in Dumfries & Galloway, utilising landscape art to transform a former open-cast coal mine. Privately funded by the Duke of Buccleuch, it is an ongoing project which started in 2010 and has, since then, focussed on a yearly theme that looks at cosmic events.

“This year we are featuring Laniakea. It is a Hawaiian word which means ‘immeasurable heaven’. Laniakea is the galaxy supercluster that is home to the Milky Way and 100,000 other nearby galaxies.” Jencks, the man that devotes his life and work to the mysteries of our existence, suddenly smiles. “I tell you what amuses me,” he says. “I was recently able to prove, through argument, that God is a woman.”

Words: Josephine Grever
Photography: Charles Jencks, Maggie’s Centre