Architect, garden designer and co-founder of Maggie’s Centres

Born: June 3, 1939;

Died: October 13, 2019

CHARLES Jencks, who has died aged 80, was not merely himself an architect, but a chief architect of one of the most modish and pervasive intellectual theories of the late 20th Century: Post-Modernism (he preferred the hyphen and capitalisation).

But, in keeping with his view that the postmodern age “is a time of incessant choosing”, Jencks was many other things besides an intellectual theorist: a genuinely learned architectural historian; a landscape artist and garden designer who produced several extraordinary sites, notably in the Borders; a dandy and socialite; an authority on furniture and geology; an enthusiastic amateur of speculative physics and the co-founder of Maggie’s Centres for those suffering from cancer.

Set up in Scotland, after Jenck’s wife Margaret Keswick was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, Maggie’s now provides innovative care homes throughout the country: there are 26 in the UK, and more in Hong Kong, Barcelona and Tokyo many of them designed by the world’s leading architects.

That Jencks could summon up such stellar names (often waiving their fees or working for nominal costs) was testament to his stature in the world of architecture. But it was also an indication of his personal qualities, which included an extraordinarily gregarious manner, an interest in every subject under the Sun, and a generous and catholic aesthetic sensibility.

He summed up his view of the end products by declaring: “It’s a hybrid building by nature – it’s a church that’s not religious, it’s got art in it but it’s not a museum, a house but it’s not a home. When you have cancer your ego is bashed, your body is bashed, you are enervated, you have no energy, you are suffering, you are crushed and the architecture lifts you up.”

The first, in Edinburgh, was designed by Richard Murphy and nominated for the Stirling Prize for 1997; Glasgow’s centres were by Page\Park and landscaped by Jencks, the Gartnavel facility was designed by Rem Koolhaas. The first buildings in the UK by both Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid were Maggie’s Centres (Dundee and Kirkcaldy respectively), while Richard Rogers won the 2009 Stirling Prize for his centre for central London, and in 2016, Norman Foster produced one for Manchester.

Charles Alexander Jencks was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in the USA on June 21 1939, into a prosperous family (the money derived from the standard design adopted for safe deposit boxes in banks). His father, however, was a composer, and art of all kinds was a constant from his earliest years. He went to boarding school at Brooks, in North Andover, Massachusetts and then to Harvard, where he graduated first, in 1961, in English and then from the School of Design with an MA in architecture in 1965.

He was to spend the rest of his life in the UK, dividing his time between London and Scotland. At first, he completed a PhD at University College London, where his supervisor was Rayner Banham who, although himself a student of Nikolaus Pevsner, was a radical advocate of the “New Brutalism”, and a ferociously beardy enthusiast of Pop Art, counterculture, and all things revolutionary. But Jenck’s thesis, on Modern Movements in Architecture, argued that “Modernism” had curtailed its options too abruptly, and that more could be learned from picking and choosing from the past. (An early book was simply titled Adhocism.)

This apparently modest dissent from the monolithic adherence to Brutalism, then unquestioned amongst modernist architects, argued that people, context and function mattered more than textbook adherence to right-angled forms. The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977) ran to seven editions, and was influential far beyond his own field: Jencks was surprised to find that many ideas that he had cribbed from literature, art history and sociology were subsequently echoed by theorists in those fields. But he consistently argued that postmodernism was both “the continuation of Modernism and its transcendence”.

His contribution to the 1980 Venice Biennale for Architecture, which had a seismic impact, gave every indication that he had won that argument, and the UK’s building boom of the 1980s and 1990s, dominated by architects such as Terry Ferrell, Robert Venturi, Piers Gough and Will Alsop, all of whom exemplified aspects of the doctrines Jencks had espoused, gave literally concrete force to his ideas that decoration, livability, stimulation and intellectual playfulness could be as important to a building as form and function.

Charles Jencks married, in 1961, Pamela Balding, with whom he had two sons; the marriage was dissolved in 1973. He then married Maggie Keswick, herself a renowned garden designer, and expanded his interest in landscape art, constructing a Garden of Cosmic Speculation at their house in Dumfriesshire. He also, with Terry Farrell and Michael Graves, remodelled his house in Holland Park, west London, as a playful illustration of the history of architecture. The jacuzzi was an inverted model of Borromini’s dome for the Church of San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane.

Jencks went on to create an ambitious garden with the 55-acre Crawick Multiverse at Sanquhar, for the Duke of Buccleuch, and works in Germany, Northumberland, China, Italy and India.

He helped to set up the Maggie’s Centres after realising the need for a space offering real assistance for cancer patients, after his second wife was diagnosed and effectively sent out into the corridor with no further support. In the event, she lived a further two years and was instrumental in developing the concept.

Jencks and Maggie Keswick had a son and a daughter; she died in 1995. In 2006, he married Louisa Lane Fox, former wife of the classicist and gardener Robin Lane Fox, and mother of Lady (Martha) Lane-Fox of Soho, founder of Charles Jencks died of cancer on October 13.