Charles Jencks

Enjoy the Futures
Charles Jencks interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba and Benedict Clouette

As a critic and historian, Charles Jencks is as dedicated to envisioning the multiple trajectories of architecture’s future as is to charting its past. His relentless surveys of the terrain of architectural production open paths for future exploration, uncannily forecasting the ambitions of architects, often long before they become apparent to those architects themselves. The provocative timeline from his book Architecture 2000 depicts flows of influence that endlessly generate many distinct yet equally contemporary possibilities for architecture’s future. Jencks rose to prominence with his writings on postmodernism, and continues to advocate forms of complexity and plurality far beyond the common understanding of post-modern architecture. In his recent book Critical Modernism, Jencks writes with precision and wit about the transformations that architecture is experiencing as it confronts global political, economic, and environmental changes. Volume speaks with Jencks about the future of ambition, the pleasures of the critical, and where architecture is going.

JI: Mark Wigley recently said that you’re a mapmaker – you’ve almost obsessively mapped out the terrain of architecture. We need maps as a discipline in order to keep our bearings about what our ambitions could be. You are a public intellectual, and one of architecture’s best spokespersons representing the relationship between architecture and culture at large, and that’s why we wanted to interview you.

CJ: I’m flattered. But I don’t see it that way. I started writing about architecture in 1963, about the same time that the New York Review of Books was first published. And I wrote – ‘Why isn’t there a New York Review of Architecture, why isn’t there a critic?’ In architecture in general, there hasn’t been intellectual responsibility as there has been in literature.

Why is it that in literature, there is a public culture, but in architecture there wasn’t the same intelligence necessary to keep TIME Magazine and the rest of mainstream journalism honest? Which the New York Review was doing in literature. So I think there is a role for magazines and for a public intellectual in architecture. It’s an unfilled role. I was just rereading my attacks from 1963, and I can see that things haven’t really changed since.

BC: You’ve written about the iconic building, but what about the iconic book? What’s the role of the historian or the critic in shaping the effect that architecture has on the public?

CJ: Well, I think historically, the role of the book has been extremely powerful. Peter Eisenman and I debated on the iconic building, and I said, ‘Well alright, you hate Calatrava. Who do you like as an iconic architect?’ He mentioned Palladio. Palladio was the most iconic architect in the world because he published the Four Books [of Architecture]. So, in traditional architecture culture, of course the book can play that role. But, in a funny way, McLuhan has been prophetic about how book culture is now undercut by all media. Still, professions reproduce themselves through the book, and I think that books do have influence within the architecture profession and – every now and then – outside. But right now there is a void. I think things aren’t so great, but it’s so incredibly complex today because the interrelation between television, daily newspapers, and the media is really an interchange. You may not influence things directly, but trickle-down is amplified by a press that doesn’t know what to do. Today the influences are multiform and much harder to pin down, because media has changed. We’re no longer people of the book.

JI: So it’s paradoxical in the sense that while there are more vehicles to be a public intellectual in architecture, there seems to be an absence.

CJ: Well, I think that we’ve had a breakdown of all of the traditional means of reproduction. In the mid-20th century, we used to have CIAM, led by Le Corbusier and Sigfried Giedion and Gropius, but that broke down. Now we have networked centers of power all over. As you quite rightly pointed out, we have celebrity power amplified by the media. For instance, did you see that rather unfortunate film on Frank Gehry? Well…that was really pathetic. You know, I love Frank. He’s a wonderful man and I really do love him, but I thought it was almost suicide by camera. When they interviewed me for the film, I said, ‘The thing with Frank is that he occupies a position of power. An extreme, unbelievable power – he is the most famous architect in the world and that fame gives him the power to really change architecture. If he doesn’t use that power, then he doesn’t have it.’

There are errant rights on power; power is evanescent and has to be used if you’ve got it. If you don’t use it, it’s gone. Frank wasn’t prepared and didn’t want to lead American architecture, or sound off on the city, or do what a public intellectual – a great architect like Palladio or Alberti – would do. He wanted to occupy the position but he didn’t know what to do with it, and he was embarrassed. I said all that, by the way, and it was cut out of the film.

I’m very appreciative of Frank in many ways, and I think he’d say, ‘Look, I don’t know how to lead. I’m not Le Corbusier. You’re trying to make me someone I’m not, Charles. I have no pretensions to lead.’ And I would say, ‘Frank, you know, too bad. You’ve occupied this position. You’ve fought for it. You actually want it on another level. With that position comes incredible responsibilities.’ And then he and I would have a little fight and then, you know, he might have admitted to my point.

What’s so refreshing about Rem is that he understands the traditional role of the spokesperson. He knows that, as a celebrity, he has a certain responsibility. And he may be confused about where exactly he should lead the discipline. He’s always off trying to get more work, but after you’re a certain age and you occupy a certain position, you have to change your discourse rather than chase Dubai. What do you gain by that? Already, he’s in a position of extreme power – if he knows what to do with it, and I don’t know that he does.

Frank would say, ‘Why? I’m 70 years old. Why must I do all of what you’re asking me?’ But for the obvious reasons, when you get that power – architects mature late, if they don’t use it, they lose it.

JI: There’s a drive to be successful but there’s at the same time generations of guilt about being shapers of the environment. After Robert Moses, it’s sinful to shape the environment. And yet, the major central concern of future generations will be the world, the earth, and sustainability. So, as a profession that is hesitant about shaping the environment, how can it step up to the scale of the challenge?

CJ: The problems here are multiple, because we have the ambition on one level to shape the earth. And yet we do not have either the capacity intellectually, economically, or in terms of power, nor do the politicians. We have an earth-shaping rhetoric, but a Boy Scout ideology. And since we control only two percent of building, we get involved in this false consciousness. We have to go along with the great middle-class lie that we can do something about global warming. That’s the biggest, most unbelievable lie of our time, and everybody takes part in it, especially every architect. They have to, because it’s too unthinkable to say, look, we don’t make any difference, we can’t make a difference, and it’s an institutionalized lie to say that we can make a difference. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do all the things that we’re doing to promote an ecological or green architecture, but we should realize that these are gestures of symbolism and art, because we are artists in the end, and if we want to shape the global environment on an ecological level, we have to use our levers of power. And that means: get involved in politics. But, like the rest of the middle class we get involved in this lie that if everybody stays home and uses low-energy light bulbs we can all solve it together.

JI: So do you think that architects are destined to be forever Eagle Scouts? Like men dressed up as little boys acting out a role, but never getting our hands dirty?

CJ: I would say that you have to be an Eagle Scout with irony. I’m asking for a critical irony, because the Boy Scout ideology is the worst form of self-brain washing. My feeling is that architecture culture is bigger than that, and it can stand up and fight off the lie. And we will do that because we all feel it deep down and we want it said.

But what’s amazing is the lack of ambition today. It’s staggering how un-ambitious the people who have ambition are. Norman Foster is the most ambitious architect, at least when it comes to getting ahead. He’s like Tony Blair – he’s more focused and wants to win more than anyone else. But I still think his ambition isn’t big enough. I wrote a piece on Rem, saying his ‘large’ in S,M,L,XL was too small, because it wasn’t cosmic. We have a lot of giants who are pygmies. Their ambition looks huge because they’re competing to get to the top. We think that celebrities must be ambitious, but they actually don’t have big ambitions. The only really big ambition is to change human and animal conditions. Unless you can begin to do that, you’re still just reifying the status quo.

We all intuitively feel that the problems are bigger. Remember when Le Corbusier came to New York, he looked around and said, ‘Your skyscrapers are too small. They’re too close together, and there are too many of them.’ It was shocking; it made the front page of the New York Times. He had a vision – a crazy vision, but a vision nonetheless – that related to nature and the city. Today, ambition is always dominated by success. That’s not really ambition; that’s just competitive drive. We need to redefine ambition.

JI: You’ve said you can’t be critical with someone and try to make love with them at the same time, which is how you described the relationship between the architect and client. But could you instead be a polygamist? Could you be critical of one party in order to make love to another party? In other words, is it okay to be critical of one thing, like the profession, in order to gain the love of another, like say, the academy?

CJ: And also remember sadomasochism.

JI & BC: [laughter]

CJ: No, seriously. Obviously, clients love it when their architect is tough. And lovers love it when it’s tough, too. [laughs] I do think that if you follow the love analogy, there are all sorts of love relationships that can have criticism. Maybe I should’ve said that normally the relationship is one of mutual fantasy and mutual escalation. You fanaticize and sustain that fantasy, and by believing in someone you love so much, you make them better and they make you better and that can be a good love affair. It may not be a marriage… but, anyway, architecture is a bit like love.

JI: You’ve continually dared to define the contemporary cultural moment. Many don’t appreciate your commitment to doing so. I believe what you do is valuable because it establishes a basis for us to speculate upon our future.

CJ: But then think how much easier it is, in a way, if there’s not a lot of competition out there! [laughs] I agree with you that there ought to be cumulative bettering of our visualization of the contemporary situation. Unless you can really picture the present on the global level as an evolutionary unfolding, you’re going to have a great deal of trouble positioning yourself so that your action will be effective. I believe that successful architects carry a pocket definition in their head of an evolutionary diagram.

JI: Your term ‘critical modernism’ is different than what other architects would assume it to be. It’s about a broad awareness, a critical mass that sees the world in a skeptical way and wants to respond to it, which is different from a critical modernism that would be critical of the function and effect of all the inner workings of the discipline. It’s not necessarily disciplinary, but it’s the movement of the world, it’s the movement of culture – it’s looking outward, not inward. But when you talk about modernism, are you talking about it as a progressive force?

CJ: Reactionary modernism is always around. It can tribalize the masses, like Bush has done very successfully in America. But I do think that modernism is an unfolding of the human condition, and I think that it lives on in all sorts of aberrant and interesting ways. I do try to map this out because I'm convinced that modernism is like a computer virus, as well as being a religion.

JI: You use the term ‘prefix modernisms’. Is the prefix something conditional, something said beforehand to situate the matter, the matter here being modernism?

CJ: My point about prefixes is that today everybody is a modernist of one kind or another. There’s no longer any alternative. Even with all the people fighting globalization, we’re all locked into modernization in an irreversible way. It’s the ultimate Pandora’s Box. I believe that the future – and there will be a future – will have many outcomes. We have multiple outcomes of capitalism and of ecology. We’re in global warming, but the future, as always, is a matter of differentials. It’s there that the prefix matters, because the suffix is decided as a form of modernization. And the alternative to critical modernism is uncritical modernism.

BC: Your evolutionary maps suggest that there are always multiple outcomes in the current moment. It is significant then that in reclaiming the term ‘critical’, you understand multiple, possible outcomes for that term. It’s not only that ‘critical’ becomes one of many prefixes for modernism, but that ‘critical’ itself becomes plural. ‘Critical’ can have several futures.

CJ: Yes, exactly. The critical must be the ultimate pluralized bifurcating effect. You can say yes, no, yes, no, yes, no all the way down. It’s to reintroduce the notion of the pleasure of the critical, in a way. Criticism without tears, criticism without angst.

It’s nice that we’re discussing this over drinks. In Edinburgh during the Enlightenment, with Hume and Adam Smith and all those characters, they had a very interesting idea of politeness. You have to be polite because only in politeness can you have good discourse. They said the most important thing is to have good dinner parties where people converse, and this conversation is convivial, so you need to enjoy talking and enjoy your differences. In order to enjoy the criticism, you have to carry on a conversation; you had to sing for your dinner. The fun of the critical should be reintroduced as a basic. We need to rediscover that the critical is fun. Free choice is what you get to when you get critical. You realize you aren’t determined by anything. You could go that way, you could go this way, and you say, ‘Well why do I want to go that way or this way?’ And then you discuss, and disagree, and you fight over dinner. And as long as you’re polite, and you can enjoy your differences, you really have a good dinner party.