Charles Jencks: master of the multiverse

Landform artist Charles Jencks’s cosmically charged gardens push the boundaries of nature and science. Clive Aslet meets the man with the monumental ideas about life, the universe and everything

Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh 
Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh  | Image: Allan Pollok-Morris

It is a beautiful day to drive through Dumfriesshire, but as Charles Jencks enters the shady copse he slows the car down. We are approaching his house, Portrack, and he wants to savour the drama. “You are about to enter the cosmos,” he announces with the light Maryland drawl he has never lost, despite decades of living mainly in Britain. Then the house itself – a white-painted Victorian lodge – bursts into sight, with a view of a gentle green valley beyond it. The cosmos, at this point, is a turning circle, planted with interconnecting turf patterns that represent “two galaxies stripping each other” – it is not one of the more elaborate constructs of his 30-acre garden, although suggestive of the Jencks approach. This 76-year-old theorist and architect, whose preoccupation with science and the universe made him a natural choice to design a garden for the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) a few years ago, has spent the past 20 years demonstrating ideas about nature through landscape. Strange but perfectly appropriate when you think about it. Science is about nature, and what is landscape if not nature?

Charles Jencks in the Portrack House gardens, Dumfries & Galloway, with the bridge for mainline trains on the London-Glasgow line in the background
Charles Jencks in the Portrack House gardens, Dumfries & Galloway, with the bridge for mainline trains on the London-Glasgow line in the background

Jencks’s projects are, like his ideas, monumental. Be warned: if you’d like to commission a work from this man, you’ll have to think big – in every sense. For a start, you’ll need a proposal that captures his attention – “Most work is junk, right?” – because he’s reached the kind of eminence where he doesn’t need to be bothered with it. But he’s undoubtedly up for the “right project, as long as it’s right” (by which he means big), perhaps in collaboration with his daughter Lily. Epic commissions have recently rolled in from India, China, Turkey and South Korea. Closer to home, Jencks has given shape – and name – to the Jupiter Artland, created by Robert and Nicky Wilson (Robert is chairman of the homeopathy healthcare company Nelsons, best known for Rescue Remedy) around Bonnington House, where they live just outside Edinburgh. “There are scores of sculpture parks in Britain,” Jencks declares. “I said they should make theirs an Artland, because each of the works has been specially commissioned.” Jencks’s own contribution consists of mounds, lakes and a connecting causeway on the theme of cells as the basic unit of life. “Och, look at this!” exclaims the taxi driver, who has never seen it before, when we drive in. That’s the thing about Jencks’s work: whatever you make of the ideas – and I can’t pretend I got inside all of them, even after a disquisition that unfolded through dinner and into the night – they are visually stunning. They engage you. They make you want to know more. (The public response to the Jupiter Artland has encouraged the Wilsons to open it to the public seven days a week in July and August and four days a week in May and June.)


Another Jencks patron is the Duke of Buccleuch, whose Crawick Multiverse garden – a series of mounds, sculpted terraces and paths lined with standing stones found on site – covers 55 acres near Sanquhar. Readers of the FT probably know what the multiverse is. I didn’t, until someone explained that it’s the theory whereby our universe is merely one of billions that exist at the same time, some infinitely small, others overlapping. Crawick’s unveiling in June was preceded by a conference of major scientists on patterns in nature at Drumlanrig Castle, and celebrated, on Midsummer’s Day, with a 30-strong theatre troop blowing peculiarly shaped instruments made from plastic tubing and performing cosmic dance.

The north-south path, Crawick Multiverse, Dumfries & Galloway
The north-south path, Crawick Multiverse, Dumfries & Galloway | Image: Charles Jencks

But when I meet Jencks, we never get to Crawick; there’s simply too much to see at Portrack, where he might be compared to a child with a train set. A big train set, because it includes a real bridge for mainline trains on the London-Glasgow line; the old bridge was becoming unsafe, and when Scottish Rail approached Jencks, as the landowner, to replace it, he sensed a design opportunity. Next to the new bridge is a rail garden, funded as part of the deal, largely made from old pieces of track with a redundant locomotive thrown in.

The project’s double galaxies, Milky Way and Andromeda
The project’s double galaxies, Milky Way and Andromeda | Image: Charles Jencks

A red scarf thrown around his neck, a floppy hat on his head and a silver-mounted stick made out of a long root in his hand, Jencks could be Goethe. Or perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom Jencks shares a Welsh pedigree – although his original ancestor, a royal cutler who made swords and other steel implements left the former principality in the 17th century. Jencks still maintains he’s a puritan by nature, careful of expenditure and wanting to put otherwise discarded materials to good use – a self-image that would have surprised those who knew him in the 1980s as the leading apostle of post-modernism, which, after the death of the Modern Movement, reintroduced ornament to architecture, albeit in an ironic way. If a puritan, he has always been a well-heeled one: a 19th-century Jencks made a fortune from safety-deposit boxes (using, perhaps, an inherited knowledge of steel), and Charles’s father Gardner Jencks could pursue a life as a pianist and composer, helped by the happy circumstance of having ample wealth.

Andromeda galaxy mound
Andromeda galaxy mound | Image: Charles Jencks

Jencks’s first degree, at Harvard, was in English literature – good training for the stream of books and articles that would pour from him, beginning in the 1970s, when The Language of Post-Modern Architecture went through six editions. In 1961, he turned to architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, after which he completed a doctorate in architectural history at University College London. Architecturally, his most famous work was Cosmic House in Holland Park, which delighted visitors used to the austerities of the Modern Movement with its visual exuberance and jokes: in the kitchen, for example, a Doric entablature provided a shelf, the metopes being gaps for teapots and the triglyphs made of wooden spoons. But as a commentator he was ubiquitous, regularly oscillating between teaching positions at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and the University of California, Los Angeles, besides travelling the world to review the latest architecture and speak at conferences. His wife Maggie’s tragically early death from cancer in 1995 inspired the foundation of a charity to give practical, emotional and social support to cancer sufferers, in calm, well-ordered surroundings. There are now 17 Maggie’s Centres at major cancer hospitals in the UK and abroad, all designed by leading architects.

Jencks’s Universe Cascade at Portrack House
Jencks’s Universe Cascade at Portrack House | Image: Charles Jencks

It was Maggie who inspired Jencks’s late flowering as a landscape gardener – or landform artist, if preferred. Daughter of the buccaneering Sir John Keswick, taipan (managing partner) of Jardine Matheson in Shanghai, later Hong Kong, she and Jencks took on her parents’ house of Portrack, in the Keswick heartlands of Dumfriesshire. Maggie wrote the standard book on the Chinese garden, as well as being a designer (of clothes) herself, so she naturally wanted a garden – and equally naturally thought that Jencks might design it. Initially, he refused. “It was her project and I knew it wouldn’t help if I took over.” So she commissioned a major scheme from Arabella Lennox-Boyd. However, it was not pursued and she turned again to Jencks. “I said OK, as long as it wasn’t traditional. The Georgians did the perfect spoon; I didn’t want to redesign the Georgian spoon.” The result was a collaboration: a garden in the form of two intertwining dragons, part land and part lake. Maggie was responsible for the water. The success of this led to another project, the object being to turn a midge-ridden swamp into a lake where the family could swim. “She had been considering buying a Hockney. I said this would be much cheaper – and nobody could steal it.”


Digging out the lake produced a lot of soil, Jencks recalls. “What were we going to do with it? Maggie said, ‘Flatten it for the cows.’ I said, ‘No, they’ve enough grass already.’ So being a puritan and not wishing to waste it, I designed a double-helix mound.” It was the first of Jencks’s mounds: high‑flown in meaning but sculpted, prosaically, by mechanical diggers. Eventually, into the lake splashed The Universe Cascade. “Water comes down and time travels up. Actually, it shows four different universes. There’s our universe. You can get between the failed universes by pushing out a bridge. It was the first of my Multiverse gardens.”

There are times talking to Jencks – or him talking to you; he’s capable of quite a lot of talk – when your mind has to run to keep up. But it’s never dull. This funny, gregarious man is bursting with ideas that he needs, by whatever means, verbal or visual, to communicate. But he never loses his sense of the fun of it all. Or that this, after all, is not a science lesson but a garden. A tour of the Black Hole Terrace is cosmically epic with its demonstration of the “spaghetti-fying effect of falling into a black hole. You get stretched; you become nothing. Then you emerge through a wormhole into a self-similar, fractal universe, with another universe coming out of it. This becomes,” he says, indicating a tall post wrapped in aluminium ribbons, “a maypole?” I suggest. “No. Not a maypole. It’s a plasma jet 150,000 light years tall, sucking space time in and ripping it apart.” Dizzying. But there’s also a practical aspect. “You can eat on the terrace and these fractals are useful for sitting on, with a drink. We made the terrace because it rains so much that if you put out tables and chairs they sink into the lawn.”

We are ending our tour of the Fractal Terrace when Jencks’s wife Louisa meets us with some wild strawberries. As a granddaughter of the Marquess of Anglesey she has a family understanding of landscape – as well as having been previously married to the Oxford don and garden writer Robin Lane Fox. “Don’t exhaust him,” she advises her husband, while warning that a limb has come off one of the trees by the Quark Walk. But there’s more to explore and I’m eager to see it. There’s The Nonsense Folly that began life as a pavilion partially designed by Jencks’s friend, the late James Stirling, architect of the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, Germany. Another friend, the Prince of Wales’s urbanist Léon Krier, saw the result. “I asked him what he thought and he indicated his complete dislike of it with a thumbs down. But he was a classicist and this is an irrational building.” The DNA Garden of the Six Senses is constructed around sculptures by Jencks, evoking the conventional five senses, as well as the unexplained sixth – intended, I think, as feminine intuition. The sense of touch has a hand, looking curiously like a washing-up glove, designed to wave in the breeze; amid the planting around it are nettles. Elsewhere the Comet Bridge explores the theme of Jencks’s book The Universe in the Landscape, where the otherwise smooth development of nature is sometimes interrupted and fast-tracked by unpredictable cosmic events, such as the collision of comets with the earth. I end the day with my head reeling.

Whatever you may make of Jencks’s cosmology, there’s an infectious excitement to his vision. This communicates to his art. “One of the people to live near Portrack in former times, beyond Robbie Burns, was James Clerk Maxwell – the Victorian scientist who discovered the electromagnetic field. Field… when I heard that my ears pricked up.” Magnetic field had suggested the fields that can be seen from the house – and Jencks was off. The Crawick Multiverse may not answer every question one might pose about life, the universe and everything – as Douglas Adams might have put it – but it succeeds brilliantly in its primary purpose: healing the scars left by an open-cast mine through the creation of a great early-21st-century garden. How long before Jencks turns his imagination to other alien terrains in need of beautification? I predict a garden on Mars.