Here is an interview with the man:
Architecture profile: Charles Jencks
Michael talks to Charles Jencks about his view that there has been a "paradigm shift" in contemporary architecture. The simple, brute forms of Modernism have had their day, he says. The new buildings will resonate with fractals, waves forms and the structure of the cosmos.
.MC: Now you?ve written a book called ?The Architecture of the Jumping Universe?. What?s that mean, the jumping universe?
CJ: Well it?s an idea that the universe evolves in a way that is not just Darwinian. You know, Darwin said through natural selection things go gradually, and he was talking about pigeon?s evolution or horses evolving, getting faster. But in fact if you look at evolution on a bigger scale, cosmic evolution and you look at culture evolution you see it jumps, it goes through phase changes and that?s very exciting. It means that things are more unpredictable than Darwin thought and they move around a lot more? it?s a more exciting view of the universe basically.
MC: So why does an architect want to talk about things like this? What?s that got to do with putting up buildings?
CJ: Yes well, they don?t jump around! The reason is that architecture has always tried to symbolise our understanding of the big things, the big picture. I mean you can say cathedrals or you can say temples, or you can say pyramids, Hindu temples and so forth. In other words it?s always been cosmically oriented and so when our view of science changes, our view of what the universe really is then architecture changes with it, and that?s basically my argument in ?The Architecture of the Jumping Universe? is that we?re now in a new paradigm circle, it?s a new epic, and that?s quite exciting, although I think we?re at the beginning of it and you can see as with all new things it?s producing a lot of rubbish in its wake and you have to really separate the wheat from the chaff.
MC: Ok so we?re entering a new paradigm in architecture and you say it?s not based on plurality but complexity. Can you talk about the distinction between those two things?
CJ: Well I do think they overlap. Cultural pluralism it has to do with different tastes, different ethnic backgrounds, different economic groups and so forth and those motives in architecture are still terribly important, so I wouldn?t say it doesn?t relate to complexity. But complexity is a new take on that and what are called the complexity sciences are really the second stage of post modernism. They only started really in the 1980s, they were, as it were, theorised and a group at Santa Fe put it together and they said these are the sciences of the 21st century and they?re different from the sciences of the last 300 years. And they?re really about self-organising systems, complicated things, but you know once you grasp the basic idea it?s quite obvious and simple this notion of self-organisation.
MC: I suppose we?ve got used to the idea that buildings are based on big and simple forms, on circles and squares and cones and those perfect forms, and when you say we?re going to have an architecture of complexity it sounds a bit cluttered!
CJ: Yes well it?s much more like the traditional city, which is complex, and not over simple. You know one of the problems in modern architecture built for large corporations is it fragmented the city into a whole lot of giant boxes, rational, productive, very simple ? as you say cubes, cones and spheres, these primary forms ? and any old city of course has got a lot of mixed uses, alleyways and variety, and it?s that variety that complexity theory is well getting to grips with. And so I think what?s happening in architecture will be much more sensuous and interesting than modern architecture. That?s happening, it?s happening in the city of Melbourne, you can see the leading architects are going in this direction which is really one of the reasons I?m here actually because Melbourne happens to be a centre of the thinking, one of the centres.
MC: Well you say that architects or that the father of all architects is God himself, that Plato actually called him ?the great architect?, and that it all began to go wrong when architects began to identify more closely with Newton?
CJ: Well because Newton in the 17th century formulated a mechanistic world view? you know he had the idea that the universe was governed by these predictable laws and he formulated the laws of gravity and optics and so forth, and then his followers could predict exactly where a planet that had never been seen like Uranus would be, simply by following that deterministic thinking. And so we began to think of the whole universe as a giant machine, a mechanism, and that way of thinking has lasted up until really the 1960s and 70s, as new sciences came along they showed that planetary motion for instance is a very rare example of a kind of order that is semi-deterministic, it isn?t even completely deterministic. And we?ve been able to see that in the future actually the planets will go into chaos, some of them and that?s quite an amazing discovery. It upset people when they first found that out, they had to suppress it for 60 years.
MC: Charles let?s try and put this into concrete terms so that people will get a sense of what kind of buildings we?re talking about. Now one of the buildings that you are not complimentary about is Mies van der Rohe?s Chicago Civic Centre. Can you just describe the kind of building it is and what?s wrong with it?
CJ: It?s a big black box, huge, scale-less and repetitive, endlessly repetitive. I mean it is dumb and boring frankly, although it has great details and it has a sleek elegance and it became the businessman?s vernacular. These black boxes were built all over the world in every downtown from the 60s to the 80s, and still there?s some of them are still being built. What?s boring about it is that all the elements are self-same, they?re repetitive, whereas the new architecture is self-similar, like tree growths. If you look at any leaf on any tree branch it?s similar to but not exactly a repetition of the previous branch. So the new science of complexity or showing how an architecture can be produced just as quickly, cheaply and efficiently by using computer production methods to get the slight variation, the self-similarity. And Mies van der Rohe?s architecture and modern architecture in general suffered from not only being repetitive, but not explaining to the populous what the different rooms were for. I mean in this black civic centre you didn?t know that you paid a parking fine in one room, you got married in another, got divorced in the third?
MC: They?re all modular.
CJ: They?re all the same, and that really destroys experience. I mean the experience of a city is about difference, that?s what a city is, it?s all about enjoying variety and architecture should make that pleasurable and understandable.
MC: Now Charles one of the reasons I?ve always found big skyscrapers alienating is that they don?t change, as you get closer they just get bigger. You know you?ve got to think that for 50 storeys high and it?s got black windows all the way down, and when you get close up to it it?s still 50 storeys high with black windows all the way down. Whereas if you approach a great 19th century building say it?s got a form and a structure from afar, a big thing with a dome on it and when you get up close there?s an intimate engagement, it unfolds to you so you?ve got detail around the door and this door is different from that door and when you go inside you know there is detail on the hallway and so on. Is that the kind of thing you?re talking about, or are you reaching forward to something quite different?
CJ: No absolutely, you?ve put your finger on what is called fractal architecture, and a fractal is, was invented the notion of a fractal comes from I guess it?s the Greek, fractus, fractioned and broken, irregular it means, and what fractal architecture does is it brings you in from the very far distance right into the seat as it were all the way, you zoom in from outer space and at all dimensions you get new details which are self-similar to the previous one so that you don?t have that again that boredom of the Miessian modern architecture which has just a repetition.
So you?re quite right, and Gothic architecture was particularly good at that. If you look at Gothic detailing right down to the bottom of a column or the capital of a column it?s a small version of the whole building, that?s why like dating the backbones of a dinosaur a good historian can look at a detail of a Gothic building and tell you exactly what the rest of the building was, and infer the whole from the parts. That?s a fractal architecture, and I think we?re going back, in a sense we?re going back to that tradition and we?re going forward to because we?re going in a new way, we?re rediscovering these deeper truths.
MC: Yes well the new building?s based on fractals aren?t a kind of classical revival, are they? They?re a completely different look. Now one building that you pointed to in your lecture at RMIT this week as an example of this is the new Federation Square project in Melbourne, and for those who?ve seen it it?s clad, I mean it?s not finished yet, but it?s clad with what?s essentially a pattern that looks as though it?s made up of triangles that are all the same but when you look carefully it?s not quite that.
CJ: It?s made up of triangles at different scales. I mean the basic unit is a triangle but it?s played at maybe four different scales and played in and out so it?s not just flat, and if you look at it from the air, if you look at it from the highway, it?s always changing like a crystal, and although it isn?t the most developed fractal architecture, it?s the beginning. That?s why I say we?re in the beginning of; we could be called as the Futurists used to be called, the primitives of a new sensibility. In other words, you shouldn?t think of this as a mature movement in its height, you should think of this as the beginning of something that?s going to grow and grow and grow. I mean, I can say that with a fair amount of a surety because the young in the major schools of architecture are way ahead of me in thinking? you know, pushing the edges so hard and they?re pushing it through computers. You know they?re very far out actually, but you don?t get these kind of waves of enthusiasm unless something new is happening and exciting!
MC: Now Charles Jencks you say that it comes out of computers and that?s the bit that?s tricky, I think, because it sounds on the one hand as though you?re arguing for a kind of architecture that?s based in deep nature; that draws its inspiration from the scales of a snake or the way light reflects on water, those sort of fractal patterns? On the other hand a building like Federation Square or Frank Gehry?s Guggenheim Museum and it looks like something that was designed in a computer. Isn?t there a disjunction there?
CJ: No I mean the computer what it does is it allows you to do two things that you couldn?t do, first of all it allows you to build curves or faceted shapes and varying shapes just as cheaply, quickly and efficiently as repetitive ones, now that?s extraordinary without wastage of materials. Now if you couldn?t do that you could never get clients to spend the money and the contractors would walk off the job or just triple, believe me, when a contractor looks at a curve he just doubles the price. In the past he did because he knew it was very hard to resolve these corners and there would be a lot of wastage of materials and so forth. Now computer cutting, you can cut curved stone and all the waste stone you can use also in another part of the building because the computer can figure out where to put it.
So the computer is an incredible instrument to think with and to build. And secondly, and this is equally exciting it out of the computer programs you can put in information and rules and ideas and visual forms and out of it will come something you hadn?t even thought of. In other words you get true emergence and that?s why I talk about the new architecture gestating in the belly of a computer. I say we grow architecture like in the womb of a woman is a better image than God the architect of the universe. Remember God the architect of the universe is the notion that there?s an outside exterior designer of the universe who fabricates the world like a craftsman, that?s what Plato said, that?s what the Christians said, and that?s the architecture profession, you know it?s always a man with these instruments who?s making something, but that?s no longer the way architecture will be made. It will be gestated, it?ll be grown, it?ll be nurtured in this computer.
MC: So they?re used as a kind of petri dish for buildings?
CJ: Exactly, yeah, and it?s very exciting. And you know why this is closer to you and me and all of us is that it?s the way nature works and it?ll produce architecture that changes all the time in slight variation, it?ll be like a rainforest, the city will be like a rainforest. I mean that?s my hope rather than a desert.
MC: Well this is a very enticing notion but if you think about who the architects that you would point to as being leading in this vision, if we think about Gehry, we think about Daniel Lieberskind, they do feel a bit like Gods to me, it does feel as though there?s a kind of Olympus where the architects gather and from which you bring reports occasionally to the rest of us, and that instead of dealing with circles and squares, they?re dealing with these fractal shapes. Haven?t they just changed one little template for another?
CJ: Yeah I mean there?s some truth in what you say. It?s true that we live in still the global system of production where big superstars fly in from outer space like Gods from the sky and drop in a city a building and we?re going to be in that situation for a long time, so I don?t deny what you?re suggesting there that these architects are a little bit arrogant, a little bit out of touch with the locale and they aren?t the last word. But you know basically I would say to them they?re most creative. Creativity always dominates in the end and you have to criticise them, you know that?s where again I come back this city for instance, you have two different kinds of very good architects. You may feel in this part of Australia or in Australia with respect to the global village that you?re in the antipodes but in fact you?ve got two good architects who are better than our two great architects in London, which are Foster and Rogers I think.
MC: And who are we talking about there?
CJ: Ashton, Raggatt, McDougall (ARM) and Denton, Corker, Marshall (DCM). You often find in a city that two firms are competing and fighting each other and you know it lifts up the architecture culture. But these people are not the kind of superstars that although they have international practices they don?t just come down and produce the superstar building, they?re thoughtful people who are dealing with more cultural issues I would say.
MC: Well you refer to Ashton, Raggatt and McDougall, one of the buildings that you?re here to see while you?re in Australia is the new National Museum in Canberra. Do you have an initial response to it from what you?ve seen in plans and presentations and so on?
CJ: Yes I would say that it?s certainly part of this new paradigm, this new architecture. Having not seen it I shouldn?t say too much but it?s addressing this question of pluralism which you brought up at the beginning and dealing with post modern experience of difference, it?s about difference, it?s about Australia as a complex pattern of competing views of the good life, and that?s why I say the architects are more profound than those in London.
MC: Have you seen any of it yet?
CJ: I?ve seen photographs yeah, but I can?t give you from the front bulleting.
MC: Well it opens on the 11th of March, and in fact Arts Today is going up for the opening and it will be broadcasting right from inside the museum, they built a radio studio inside the museum, which is an exciting thing.
Now what about Renzo Piano, he sounds like the kind of architect who?s on your team?
CJ: I don?t know, I mean Renzo Piano talks a good game and is now one of the superstars, talks about ecology, says all the right things, but when you look at his buildings they frankly aren?t fractals, they?re repetitive, some of them extremely heavy and I?ve criticised the ones in Berlin for just being too large ? six million square feet ? six million square feet, think of the Chrysler Building which is one million square feet, think of buildings, six Chrysler buildings all in one go, no wonder it?s heavy, pompous, repetitive and out of scale, dull.
MC: That?s telling him! So do you think there?s an optimum size for a building, you know we?re always trying to build the biggest building, is there a size beyond which we shouldn?t attempt to go?
CJ: Well I think it?s like the Concorde. The Concorde was what built 20 years ago? A very thin airplane, you can hardly stand up inside, you can go well 13-hundred miles an hour, but only the rich, the super rich can go. That?s what any building over 70 storeys is a Concorde. I mean we can go, Frank Lloyd Wright said we can go a mile high, but you know it would be the most uneconomic thing, anything over 70 storeys is kind of just you know machismo or it?s what I call the mile high club, it?s just exhibitionism.
So there is I would say a law of diminishing architecture and that law it shows that their optimum levels of before technology and economy and for high buildings I think it?s frankly between 30 and 40 storeys.
MC: Now what I do like about you Charles is that you have a very positive view of things, like post modernism which you should say that we should just embrace, that it?s not a scary thing, because we have learnt to think of Post Modernism as this whole ethos that is whipped along by these scary Frenchmen who no-one understands. But you see it as a far more benign and joyful.
CJ: Yeah, I mean there?s two post modernisms aren?t there? And I had very funny talks with the Frenchman you mentioned about this. He says Post Modernism was ushered in by the Holocaust, you know so he takes a really dim view of Modernism and even of Post Modernism, but I think the Post Modernism I would support is to do with pluralism and variety and complexity, and that is a much more liberating view. It?s a view that is not so negative and critical. I think you need it very critical post modernism too so I wouldn?t attack him, but I don?t think he really forecast the liberating potential of our culture. He could see the bad side.
MC:It?s interesting that it?s almost become an unfashionable idea at the moment.
CJ: Oh yeah, no there?s nothing more unfashionable than post modernism. And furthermore I mean some of the buildings are Po-Mo and that?s bad, that?s horrible kitsch.
MC: Yes Po-Mo! What about the billion-dollar Guggenheim Museum which Gehry designed for New York? It just looks like a big scrunched up piece of paper to me. Do I just not get it?
CJ:That?s what it looked like to me when I first saw it and I thought oh God, Frank you?ve gone too far this time! But you have to have faith in Frank and his risk taking. He produces buildings that he doesn?t understand for the longest time and he gets his clients to come along, if they don?t they drop out and you know for a billion dollars he better keep changing it. But I have faith in his ability to pull it off. And what he does, you see what he does is to push himself too far and take risks and then learn how to do it, that?s why it?s exciting in the end, no-one else is taking that risk. I think he will pull it off, but it may at a billion dollars, he may have hit this you know the 100-storey building. That?s my worry, that?s what I suggested last night is that if you get too big, too expensive it?ll kill it!
MC: I suppose it takes a certain kind of nerve to take that much risk with that much money. Charles Jencks, thank you for being my guest here on Arts Today.
CJ: Thank you.
Charles Jencks goes next to Canberra to check out Howard Raggatt?s National Museum of Australia, which opens on the 11th of March. And his many titles include ?Architecture 2000 and Beyond?, ?Architecture and the Jumping Universe?, and ?What is Post-Modernism?, which you?ll find is a very enjoyable read indeed and they?re all published by Wiley-Academy.