There’s a garden at Portrack in the Scotland’s south west that ranks, alongside Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta, as one of the most extraordinary contemporary gardens in Britain. This garden has a double-edged history, forming a monument to the singular ideas of architectural historian Charles Jencks, and also a deeply touching elegy to his wife Maggie Keswick, who died of breast cancer in 1995. Jencks’ explicit aim is to create a microcosm—a miniature representation of the universe. It’s ironic then that, formally, it’s all over the place.
Jencks has been a busy man recently: not since he coined the term ‘post modern’ has he had such a high profile. Alongside his endeavours to build cancer care centres with architects such as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, Jencks has been working in the garden of Maggie’s family home, creating the grandest of follies, a project so personal that other people might have kept it under wraps. But Jencks has chosen to make it public, welcoming the South Bank Show into his back yard, and publishing a handsome volume through the venerable publishing house Frances Lincoln, which offers a lucid and finely detailed exposition. Echoing Phaidon’s excellent contemporary art monographs, this garden portrait uses a series of texts by Jencks, alongside detailed photography, to explain the thinking behind the unusual design. Nevertheless, despite the impressive clarity of the prose and the visuals, it’s impossible to look at these elegant pages for long without being distracted by the wilfulness of the sculptures they depict.
Fractals, black holes and cosmology form the constellations in his personal universe, but Jencks only succeeds in reducing these fundamental scientific ideas, emptying them out of their conceptual power and leaving a series of florid formal gestures. Although Jencks has a showman’s eye for the conceptual fol-de-rol, an Eco-esque joy in explaining difficult scientific and philosophical ideas, there’s an equal sense that his interest in them ends at a sense of awe at their conceptual beauty. His artistic interpretation of these great ideas results in objects that seem to celebrate the worst excesses of anti-Euclidean funny-shapism. Just because the double helix is a celebrated form in nature, for example, it doesn’t follow that a vast aluminium version will become an elegant sculpture, particularly when at its base it features the head of a woman and next to this her own open brain, sitting on a plinth, gently bouncing in the wind.
Jencks’ incisive criticisms of modernist architectural theory are a constant subtext to this book. In scientific theory, he implies that he has discovered a theoretical framework powerful enough to conquer the less-is-moreism that, despite postmodernism, has dominated design for close to a century. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t successfully apply these ideas in three dimensions in the garden. To criticise the project is made all the more problematic by the fact that it is also a love letter to Maggie. Sadly, Portrack makes a compelling case for keeping love tokens private.
Nick Barley is editor of the List