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The metaphysical landscapes of Charles Jencks

— August 2011

Article read level: Art lover

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Image from The Universe in the Landscape: Landforms by Charles Jencks

The Universe in the Landscape: Landforms by Charles Jencks

Charles Jencks

In the 18th century, numerous gardeners created hills, woods and lakes in their quest for the perfect ‘landscape garden’.  Many of today’s earthmovers, such as Charles Jencks, aren’t trying to imitate nature, but to create individual works of art that sit in, or actually comprise, unique landscapes. They often work on specific personal themes. Indeed, a ‘Jencks’ landform is always recognizable. But Jencks has developed his themes over several decades to produce increasingly complex creations, while still maintaining great originality in his designs. 

Charles Jencks is an architectural theorist, landscape architect, artist and writer. He was born in Baltimore in 1939, studied English literature at Harvard and architectural history in London. For many years he’s been based in Dumfriesshire, where he created his own garden; its ideas and images were published as The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (Frances Lincoln, 2003). He became known to the general public in 2004, when he won the Gulbenkian Prize for Museums with his Landform Ueda at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

The influences that shape Jencks’ style come from every time and place: prehistoric landforms, classical architecture and sculpture, genetics, waveforms, random theory and the fractal geometry of nature.  He is much in demand, and his new book The Universe in the Landscape: Landforms by Charles Jencks, details past, current and future projects. The title is inspired by William Blake’s poem, ‘Auguries of Innocence’.

Scientists love him: how many other artists are so knowledgeable about, and so interested in, the latest research into genetics and physics? In this book, Jencks traces the scientific inspirations for work where: ‘Nearly every design has some concept of nature or the cosmos behind it, motivating the patterns and rhythms’. Yet, despite a great deal of theoretical writing, Jencks can also be very down-to-earth (excuse the pun), noting, for example, that his distinctive earth and turf style could be called ‘Contour Gardening’. Being a hands-on gardener myself, when I walk on and in his work I also tend to wonder about the cost of maintenance for the future.

Most of Jencks’ work can be appreciated on both an intellectual level, and a purely visual one. The mounds and patterns of turf are strangely beautiful in a Never Never Land kind of way, and the landforms are always welcoming to the walker. Some are enormous. The  Fife Earth Project  (2009) reclaims a scarred landscape after excavation as an opencast coal mine. The design includes a loch in the shape of Scotland’s coast, sitting amid mounds that represent the continents settled by Scots. And the  Time Garden  in Parco Portello, Milan, with its intricate features, and varying colours and textures of paving, appeals as much to children as to adults pondering the nature of time, or the history of the location. For the Beijing Olympic Forest Park Jencks designed a black hole (following an earlier one in his own garden at Portrack), which makes an inviting sloping pattern for children. In fact he summarizes his practical experience of public parks with a section on ‘Some lessons of city parks’, commonsense points of advice for other architects, artists and designers.

Northumberlandia,  north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, may well become the largest human figure ever made. It has already been nick-named the ‘green goddess’, and this large recumbent figure will transform an open-cast mine into mounds and lakes. Exploring this will give you a good healthy walk.

There are many predecessors of Jencks’ work, notably Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose Little Sparta garden is located not far from Jencks’ own. Other garden designers are echoed here and there, such as the eighteenth-century’s William Kent, whose serpentine rill at Rousham prefigures Jencks’s ‘Mitosis Rill’ in his  Cells of Life.

Cells of Life,  the complex of mounds at Jupiter Artland near Edinburgh, has just been completed after several years of development. The theme is the life of the cell, and the way cells divide (‘mitosis’); the plan comes from the idea of overlapping cell membranes. There are mounds and a causeway, sculptures and a bridge. Each mound bears a sculpture at its summit, highlighted in white, and you need to tread the mounds yourself to appreciate the complexity of the designs and to see the very detailed sculptures. As Jencks writes: ‘Landforms at the scale of a twenty-minute walk need a visible goal on each peak to pull people around the site, and mix the celebration of landscapes with the tiny cells that organize it’.  

Jencks’ completed piece at Jupiter Artland is accompanied by an (indoor) exhibition, ‘Metaphysical Landscape’, including sketches that show him working through his ideas, along with models. There’s also a video of Jencks discussing his own garden at Portrack, not usually open to visitors. 

Jupiter Artland is a phenomenon in itself, a sculpture park created by Nicky and Robert Wilson, set in the grounds of their home at Bonnington House, near Edinburgh. Nicky Wilson is a sculptor by training, and Robert a successful businessman who has just become chair of the Edinburgh Art Festival. Now in its third year, Jupiter has already attracted huge attention. Much of its sculpture has been made specifically for the 80-acre site. There are works by Ian Hamilton Finlay, Andy Goldsworthy, Anish Kapoor, Marc Quinn, Antony Gormley, Nathan Coley and many more.

I visited first thing on a rainy June morning, ideal for exploring the Jencks mounds without the crowds. It made for a much more contemplative experience than most people will ever have. In fact, at peak periods this summer there will be invigilators on hand, both to guide visitors and to stop them from sliding down the mounds. Do go – both Jencks and Jupiter are well worth the visit.

The Universe in the Landscape: Landforms by Charles Jencks,  written by Charles Jencks, will interest specialists and the informed general reader alike and is published by Frances Lincoln, 2011.  288 pp.  with about 600 colour and mono illus, £40.00. ISBN 978-0711232341 


Patricia Andrew
Art historian

Media credit: Photograph © Charles Jencks

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