Charles Jencks visited Australia recently “to report
on the state of contemporary architecture”, and to
visit some of ours. Paul Walker responds.

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

Collage from the back cover of Jencks’s Architecture 2000 and Beyond.

Collage from the back cover of Jencks’s Architecture 2000 and Beyond.

Charles Jencks likes Storey Hall. It gets  plenty of praise in the chapter added to the  second edition of his polemical book The  Architecture of the Jumping Universe. It also  features on the back cover of his latest,  Architecture 2000 and Beyond: Success in  the Art of Predicting. There it is shown  collaged with Daniel Libeskind’s Victoria and  Albert folded spiral, over the caption: “A  fractal urban landscape of the future?”.

Given this attention, it was natural enough  that the President of the Victoria Chapter of  the RAIA, Ian McDougall, should give Jencks  a particularly warm and generous  introduction when he delivered a lecture – in  Storey Hall no less – in early February.

But perhaps the audience was not feeling  so generous. After all, Jencks’s profile as an international star critic and historian derives  mostly from his connection with the postmodernism of the late seventies and  early eighties. Even those of us who lived  through all that are now a little embarrassed  by the thought of so much colourful whimsy:

Jencks’s presence was perhaps just too  much of a reminder of the discomfort in  thinking of our own past enthusiasms.

Could he get over this as he spoke to us?

Has Jencks convincingly transformed  himself into a guru of folds and blobs, animate forms and hypersurfaces? Certainly  his interest in contemporary architecture  was apparent in the lecture – liberally  illustrated with the projects of Libeskind, Eisenman, Lynn and Gehry among the  internationals, and Lab Architects along with  ARM to represent the local scene. The slides  illustrated an argument that new paradigms  in architecture are emerging which coincide  with new modes of computer based design,  visualisation, and production. And these  appear to correspond with changes that  are occurring in science. But the position  Jencks argued – that architecture and the  arts have a role now of giving public  expression to the arcane findings of a range  of sciences from astrophysics, fractal  mathematics, chaos theory, and a smidgen  of biotechnology – is not quite so  convincing. Jencks insinuates that these  things add up to a single entity, which is  shaping our cultural trajectory. But this is a  false unity. As Jean-Francois Lyotard argued  in his 1984 book The Postmodern  Condition, science is now itself a  fragmented enterprise, marked by a plurality  of local and specific “language games”  rather than any singular “grand narrative”.In his introduction to the lecture, Ian  McDougall suggested that the issues of  emergent complexity that now interest  Jencks have replaced the plurality that was  a key concern in his earlier work on  postmodernism. However, the complexities  that Jencks illustrated in his talk were  mostly complexities of form, whereas the  luralism that he used to address was not  only a matter of what things looked like, but  also of whose taste cultures they  accommodated, of whose interests were  served. Is there a social complexity, say, in  the new architecture, corresponding to the  complexities in its apparent formal and  material attributes?

Jencks’s view on this matter, expressed  in a brief interview the day after the lecture,  is that architecture should be both  presentational and representational. Like a  good postmodernist, he disavows the  opposition between a contemporary  complexity and a dated pluralism that  cDougall ascribed to him. The propositions  promoted by Robert Venturi are, he feels,  transformed rather than repudiated in the  work of a current generation of notable  designers. But, if there are continuities  between the old postmodernism and the  new complexity, Jencks is also critical of the  disjunctions he sees (in Venturi’s work, for  example) between the role of the building as  a sign and the building as a functional entity. Architecture should not operate as an  expressive system alone. Jencks cites a  design of his own as an example: the “black  hole” terrace in the garden of his Scottish  property. Those who occupy the garden are  apparently made aware of their own  relationship to gravity through the cant and  fall of its surfaces, as the concept of the  black hole is given visual expression in  those surfaces and their material finishes.

But the apparent mismatch between  radical forms and less-than-radical  institutional programs, in designs such as  Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim or Lab  Architects’ Federation Square in Melbourne,  does not faze Jencks. We cannot, he  suggests, expect everything to participate  fully in a paradigm shift, and even if he is  particularly interested in the moments of  great revolutionary jumps, most  transformations will be more gradual.

Jencks sees Federation Square’s distorted  vermiform volumes as a translation of the rectangular prisms of the nearby city office  blocks, but he also connects the Federation  Square design with the casbah models of  urbanism explored by Aldo van Eyck and  other Dutch architects in the sixties. There is  an engagement in this project between the  cultural institution and the concept of the  market place to which a commercial city like  Melbourne is intimately associated.

Jencks also finds much to praise in at  least one local project where architectural  form is perhaps less apparently innovative  than is the program it houses. The  minimalism of DCM’s Melbourne Museum,  tempered by historical allusions to the  beaux-arts in plan, accommodates an  institution which, like other Australian  museums, is directly and unflinchingly  confronting the pressing issues of cultural  difference and conflict.

So, of course, I felt obliged to elicit  Jencks’s views of the National Museum of  Australia in Canberra. He had a lot to say,  nearly all of it expressing his admiration. It  is, suggests Jencks, an important building  for it raises the fundamental questions for  Australians of who they are and where they  are going. While these questions cannot be  answered, it is a great merit of the building  that it faces the puzzles of identity not with  esignation but rather with joy.

The two great formal episodes of the  building are the Boolean loop (though I  cannot accept Jencks’s assertion that it  simultaneously gestures entry and acts as a  sheltering porte cochere) and the Main Hall.

He finds the latter to be not only a  spectacular space, but one full of references  which give it interpretative resonance: the  Sydney Opera House, Candela, Dr Caligari’s  Cabinet, the sculpture of Rachel Whiteread.

The references are not only to high-brow  culture (Jencks particularly ridicules the  notion that allusions to Libeskind or Le  Corbusier are plagiarism) but also to the  popular. The pluralism that began to be  explored in architecture thirty years ago, and  the unconventional forms that are coming  out of new ways of conceiving and making  architecture, come together in the NMA in a  way that Jencks sees as exemplary.

I am left, however, with a nagging doubt.

No matter how fine a building the NMA is,  do all our environments have to meld  everything so deliriously together? It is  perhaps the strength of Storey Hall, for  example, that it is not part of a more general  “fractal urban landscape”, but that we can  enjoy it in the Melbourne streetscape as it is, in all its singularity.



Published online: 1 May 2001
Words: Paul Walker


Architecture Australia, May 2001

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