Charles Jencks, Strange Attractor

After the lecture by Charles Jencks, delivered at the NAi Maastricht on March 13, a former student of Delft University of Technology asked me if a snapshot was taken of Jencks. ‘He is an icon’, she continued. ‘Twenty years ago it was all theory, and look what he does now!’

In this article, I try to take seriously Jencks’s remark that culture should find an iconographic language to connect us to the universe. Jencks’s lectures, answers and gardens seem to resemble the cosmos when it comes to beginnings, centres and ends: there seem to be none. In writing on his lecture, that gives a lot of freedom.

‘Why?’, asked the local NAi director, following Jenck’s elaborate talk on garden architecture. This caused what Jencks would call a symmetry break in the evening. Symmetry breaks, as metaphorically translated into one or more of his gardens, are the cosmic transitions from energy into matter into life into consciousness. It was consciousness on the bigger picture of his motivations that was given to us by his fractured answer.

‘To be critical and thus have independence’, is how I would summarise his words. ‘Being critical and creating are two sides of the same coin’, said Jencks. By creating – in his case through writings, lectures and gardens – he fights his way out. Way out of the dominant reductive iconography of the global market system. When listening to Jencks saying such things, one tends to zoom in and question his critique of the market, but it is a critique of the reductive iconography.

To be reductive and iconic – two things we can’t escape being, according to Jencks – we need our senses. Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting – they once weren’t there. They opened up connections to the universe. With the senses, which we should celebrate, we can decode, find a language, an iconography for change.

It is in the often-literal interpretation of fundamental discoveries about reality by scientists, such as DNA, that Jencks finds the ‘words’ with which to ‘write’ his gardens.

Paradoxically, by going back to these basics of scientific truth, Jencks offers insight into possible changes in worldviews.

An important aspect in further understanding his view on change is the necessary existence of order and chaos. As much as life, and literally our heartbeat for that matter, needs order, it is irregularity and chaos that lie at the heart of change and thus growth. A destructive asteroid in Mexico extinguished the dinosaurs and made way for new mammals. Things can be different, mammal or market.

A main tenet of the chaos theory Jencks likes to refer to and metaphorically interpret in his works is that of strange attractors. This term for chaotic flow is used to describe the process of thought.

Even after doing some physical research on this concept, I find it the most difficult to understand, the most frustrating, and the most poetic of the evening.

Why gardens as a vehicle to be critical?

Gardens use nature to learn more about nature. Gardens are a concentrated world. ‘First there was nature, then there were cows and then came gardens’, Jencks cites Cicero.

Three images relating to Jencks’s symbolism-led gardens (for which A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson would be the perfect garden guide):

1. In his own private garden, the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, at Portrack House near Dumfries, Scotland, one can see a representation of gravity being able to distort light and space around a black hole.

2. At Altdöbern Lake, Germany, Jencks was asked by the community to make an icon for their history in which reclamation in favour of mining caused the town of Pritzen almost to vanish. In this project he worked with landscape architect Andreas Kipar. They designed a giant hand that forms a protected place ‘one needs in a garden’.

3. This image is a representation of a three-dimensional model of the Lorenz Weather System, a so-called strange attractor. Jencks uses chaos imagery of strange attractors by Japanese scientist Yoshisuke Ueda as a metaphor for brainwaves.

It is the chronology of thought by Cicero, the imaging results of particle impacts at CERN Geneva, the chaos representations and much more that motivates Jencks to make waves. And, I will help him with this one, ’they are easy on the eye’.

Jencks warns us against using the wrong metaphors such as Big Bang. ‘It wasn’t big and it wasn’t noisy’, says Jencks. (The expression Big Bang was introduced by a cynic of the event. JR)

‘What is the worldview we need to have then?’, one might ask. ‘A good garden is frustrating, keeps people from where they want to go. Gardens are as much a retreat as they are an attack!’, said Jencks in Maastricht. A lecture in thinking for yourself.