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A Thoroughly Post-modern Thinker


Among the most popular modernist quotes is Mies van der Rohe's maxim, "Less is more," to which post-modern architect Robert Venturi riposted, "Less is a bore." To this, Charles Jencks, architectural popularizer and provocateur , who coined the word post-modern in design circles, has continued to add more and more.

"When you design a building, you're designing it to live a good life--to personify and symbolize the good life," he says one day at his Rustic Canyon home, where he is demonstrating the good-life principle--variously lounging by the swimming pool, eating poached salmon on the veranda and offering his visitor a postprandial Jacuzzi.

All of this is symbolic, of course. An architectural historian and ardent symbolist, Jencks believes that buildings should communicate to their users through visual metaphors and semantics. Dubbed "The Elemental House," his Rustic Canyon habitat incorporates signs of earth, air, fire and water--roughly celebrating the outdoor California life. The family's recently completed London home, "The Thematic House," is designed around signs of the cosmos and seasons. Both houses are featured in Jencks' latest book, "Towards a Symbolic Architecture: The Thematic House," published in November (Rizzoli International: $50).

Yet Jencks' posture as indigenously laid-back lord of the manor is largely problematic. Opinionated and prolific, Jencks, 46, spends his time teaching, writing and speaking for the post-modern cause. Raised in Connecticut, he is married to Englishwoman Maggie Keswick of the China trading fortune of Jardine-Matheson, and spends nine months a year in London with Keswick and his two children.

In Los Angeles for three months a year, he teaches a class in architecture at UCLA. He's also been working on his upcoming book on post-modern classicism.

"He never relaxes," says Keswick. "He gets bored with the blah-blah-blah of everyday life."

A tall, cerebral man with an urbane manner and sardonic wit, Jencks seems charged with purpose: He marches along garden paths and carries a collection of lists in his jacket pocket. He reaches for them when asked about a good California wine, a Chinese restaurant or a telephone number. He also has an irrepressible habit of questioning his interviewer. "I like to provoke people," he says.

He can't remember a vacation when he didn't take his typewriter along, and he begins his days, not with a Byronic amble over the grounds, but with a medley of sit-ups, press-ups and jumping jacks.

In the role of host and house guide, he proves himself an alacritous showman. He squeezes a glass of juice from blood oranges, which he discovered in Venice in Carpaccio and Bellini cocktails; then he's off to the four Elemental pavilions, the pool in the shape of the state of California and Keswick's gardens, themed on Milton's poems "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso."

He reads an inscription from Milton on the carport pediment, citing Stygian caves (the garbage cans) and horrid shapes (the cars). He shakes a bush, making a Zephyr-like sound and moves his visitor around, not unlike a symbol herself, to achieve advantageous viewing points. The precise spot to appreciate the sculpture of Aqua, which has been suspended above the Jacuzzi, is atop a ladder on the opposite side of the swimming pool, he says, his tongue not so much as flicking into his cheek. Yes, he does take his symbols seriously, he states.

"In designing this house, I wanted to see what would happen if you pushed this idea as far as you can do it," he says. "It's an attempt to see where it breaks down."

In some instances, symbols push the occupants around. A careless lap-swimmer might crack his head on the inward jut of California. ("You swim on the diagonal," Jencks instructs.) And some symbols have not worked. The high diving board, designed as the tongue of the Aer Pavilion's anthropomorphic face, was omitted when building codes stipulated that the shallow swimming area had to face houseward. (A diver would have improbably approached the plunge by climbing up through Jencks' second-floor studio.)

In the crucial question of symmetry, however, Jencks has bent convention to his will, putting two doorknobs on entrances (one of them functionless) and even two breast pockets on his custom-made Hong Kong suits, a modish touch that his mother-in-law, Lady Keswick, admittedly finds lacking in sartorial elegance.

Indeed, Jencks is a thoroughly post-modern man. He's reading Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose," "engineered as a piece of post-modern literature," quotes post-modern philosopher Roland Barthes, holds forth on post-feminism and post-modern politics (Marcos' unseating is "a classic example") and works in a post-modernized Breuer chair, which he fattened up from what he calls the "wimpish" original.

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