Charles Jencks

An Internal Dialogue: Architect vs Critic


In designing and building The Cosmic House (originally named Thematic House), Charles Jencks assumed several roles at once: that of architect, client and critic. In this piece, written after the completion of the house, Jencks interviews himself as a critic would interview an architect. Jencks interrogates his most important design and architecture projects, culminating in an in-depth discussion of the design of The Cosmic House.

Excerpt from: A + U [Architecture and Urbanism]. Special edition: Charles Jencks, 1986:1, (Tokyo : A + U Publishing Company), pp. 9-44.

The following dialogue on my architecture and furniture was inspired by Paul Valéry’s Eupalinos and Peter Eisenman’s House X. It is a speculative dialogue between two characters, or voices, which debate within me every time I design. Since I am not, like Robert Venturi, an architect who criticises, but rather a critic who architects (to use an old verb) it is worth saying that the architecture helps my criticism by testing certain ideas. It also gives me greater respect for the difficulty of the building profession – a labour, if ever there was one, of patient love. Patience and tenacity of vision are two of the most necessary mental faculties that the architect must develop. They don’t come naturally to the impatient creator ⁠– the writer in my case; the artist in, for instance, that of Le Corbusier. And this is just one of the conflicts which will be touched on in the following dialogue. The architect, Eupalinos, is the idealist, intellectual and poet of his chosen language; the critic is the realist (or sceptic) raising functional and social questions which are pushed aside by the will to form. Architecture is often best described as a civil war between these contending forces – and others including the contractor, artists, client, planner, building codes and just human inertia. But if war is a just analogy, then so, as Filarete averred in the sixteenth century, is marital love: the client, the husband, makes love to the architect and if it is a good match, then after nine months and hard labour a fine building is born. Architecture is created between love and war and other old professions.

Act 1: 1968–1972

Architect: The beauty of architecture comes from a concept being carried through, in a language, to perfection. The Greeks took this notion from the Egyptians and so many Neo-Platonists, particularly in the Renaissance, made it their point of departure.

Critic: But their concetto is not enough; you can’t inhabit a concept.

Architect: Precisely, it's nourishment for the mind. Edifices must edify, that's the definition of architecture. It’s a spiritual and moral, not utilitarian, role.

Critic: By insisting on the essence of architecture, you typically overlook its reality, like all Neo-Platonists.

Architect: But get your priorities right: beauty before function. The analytical, critical mind takes creativity and beauty for granted. You realise that before the age of specialisation most architects were critics and vice versa. Alberti, Palladio, even someone like J.B. Fischer von Erlach, wrote and designed as two complementary activities: their treatises helped their architecture clarify theoretical and practical matters, and building gave their treatises a realistic grounding.

Critic: But how dilettantish it all was! If you are to get anywhere today in the profession of historical writing, criticism or architecture you have to specialise: that's a fundamental fact of the modern world.

Architect: Forget the modern world and its ideology of Modernism: it's an unfortunate mistake except insofar as it aids the basic or eternal questions that we pose. You have to see culture as a whole.

Critic: Your Fischer von Erlach was the last great critic/architect who could see the world as a whole and summarise its history and meaning into a single view – and look how amateurish was this view. His reconstruction of Trajan's square was simply a projection of his Imperial, seventeenth-century mind-all symmetry, wide-open courtyards, giant orders, statues answering statues, fountains squirting back at fountains, it’s all very Viennese and Baroque. Nothing much to do with Ancient Rome. Or an archaeologist ...

Architect: Give me the amateur every time. At least, as T. S. Eliot wrote, he tries to find what’s alive from the past in the present. He's more civilised than the archaeologist. Léon Krier and many Neo-Traditionalists today show the barbarity of a straight archaeological approach that leaves the past deteriorating as an unintegrated relic in the city's fabric, a relic that even disrupts the urban continuity. Piranesi and Sir Arthur Evans were civilised; today's scientific archaeologists (in league with the civic bureaucrats) are barbarians. They have lost the art of understanding culture as a whole, of reintegrating its continuum.

Critic: That's a dismissive oversimplification which we will overlook. What was your initial impetus for becoming an architect?

Architect: Two uncles of mine were architects and the man I was named after, Charles Adams Platt, my father's uncle, was quite a famous painter, landscape designer and architect. Platt brought up my father after his father had died and I suppose my love of Italian architecture was inherited through Platt and the family's preferences. When I first went to the Villa Lante at twenty I can remember how satisfied I was to find Platt's opinions confirmed. Building and landscape were interwoven with great sensibility and humour: Platt drew and painted over large photographs of the villa to bring out this natural affinity of the buildings with the garden. A process perfected by the countless application of many minds to the same problem.

Critic: You paraphrase Eupalinos, as did Le Corbusier with his Purism, and we know where that led: to the unfortunately pure vacuity of our cities.

Architect: It was Le Corbusier's Ronchamp that really set me on my career, Ronchamp as seen through the slides and mind of my teacher Eduard Sekler.

Critic: Slides often appear superior to the reality; there’s no heat and dust, no distracting tourists, and just the right composition to contemplate. No wonder you prefer the idea to the fact.

Architect: When twenty-one I drove around Europe paying hommage to the master and spent several hours stalking Ronchamp, seeing it ‘send out reverberant echoes to the landscape’, as he described both the Parthenon and this building. For me it was the Modern Parthenon and for the next few years all my designs were either Ronchampian or Corbusian.

Critic: How very individual. You shared this taste with a few thousand Ivy League students, most Europeans and the best Japanese architects of the early sixties, like Tange and Sakakura.

Architect: I didn't claim to be original, at least not then. My first break with orthodoxy was with ad hoc design.

Critic: Ah, now you are stepping into my territory, the criticism of Modernism which I made with the twin concepts of semiotics and bricolage: the two writings Meaning in Architecture, 1966 (with George Baird) and Adhocism, 1968 (both later published as books) were completed before designs which illustrated the concepts. Concept before design.

Architect: Yes, but design and concept really grew together to reinforce each other. They both were aimed against the negative parts of Modernism: its nihilism, specialisation, utilitarian not to say totalitarian tendencies. ‘Meaning in Architecture’ was precisely the point of the book: to put significance back into an architecture of which Hannes Meyer had said: ‘My League of Nations Building symbolises nothing’. Almost all the modern landscape symbolised nothing, or at best the 'nothing' of utility and economy.

Critic: The architect in an agnostic, commercial society can't put meaning back, only the society can.

Architect: But he can protest and that's what my designs were aimed at: protesting against the simplistic integration of purism by using a bricolage of symbolic elements. My first table design was put together with a classical marble slab, and black mannequin legs, costing almost nothing. It was an idea of the Surrealists crossed with that of the bricoleur and Buster Keaton: that the ‘knowing consumer’ could increase the significance while decreasing the cost of products. The meaning was as important as the cost. The table ‘legs’ revived the oldest metaphor of language and design, the one which the Egyptians exploited with so much humour and delicacy. My ‘legs’ were plastic painted black, proportioned to the slab but also set in contrast to it. The parts kept their identity, but still made a whole. There was a complete philosophy of Counter-Modern design in this table.

Critic: Not Anti-Modern since the prefabrication and irony mark it, like similar Italian design of the time, as Post-Modern. Your other furniture appears Modern, by contrast.

Architect: Partly. The George Chair (each design has always been named) was a combination of Mies's tube and Barcelona Chairs, but it had accompanying elements to make it into a bed. And a ready-made head rest, used on automobiles, which when added gave it an anthropomorphic feeling – like George.

Critic: The extreme separation of structure and body support, cushion and bones, like Mies’s skin and bones, is as Modern as the materials and colour.

Architect: The same is true of the bright red plastic chair, The Racing Chair, which is based on Le Corbusier's Basculant. except that it's an improvement.

Critic: What impertinence! The colour and material are perversions which the master, or at least his refined co-designer Charlotte Perriand, would have never allowed.

Architect: Yes. they are rather late-sixties, but then this was the period of Late-Modernism which you, after all, named and supported. Look at the way the structure of the arms accepts the rubber, tensile arm rests, it's much better than Le Corbusier's solution which always sags down in its good-taste leather.

Critic: Some of the arm rests had springs, thank you very much.

Architect: Which pinched you as much as his miserable, pivoting back rest.

Critic: Corb's Basculant is as taut as a bow and a light-weight glider compared to your blimp.

Architect: My wandering chrome profile makes his assemblage look static and dumpy.

Critic: Have you no respect for authority?

Architect: Yes, exactly, the respect to modify an idea and thereby honour it. After all Le Corbusier quoted Eupalinos to this effect: ‘the best efforts of thousands of men converge towards the most economical and certain shape’; I'm not sure of ‘economical’, but I show my respect by modifying or transforming someone's ideas.

Critic: The black plastic and reflective chrome of your couch is the normal opposition of Modernism taken just that little bit further and I wonder if this contrast – black on white or chrome – isn't a bit too obvious?

Architect: Well, less than the White on White of Richard Meier and other Late Modernists.

Critic: Come now, Rodchenko did a White on White and he was a Modernist.

Architect: Anyway, it's quite true, everything in this room tends to go to one extreme or the other. even including the clip-on aluminium lights set against the dark velvet curtains, white rug on a polished black floor, dark Vaserely print on a white wall. Strong contrasts have, in our century, distinguished the architect from the interior decorator­–

Critic: Not always to the farmer's advantage –

Architect: In any case. the contrasts were a philosophical necessity to point up the differences, the distinctions between the parts from which the things had been assembled. Modernism placed emphasis on visual integration, simplicity, homogeneity, while adhocism placed emphasis on separation, complexity and heterogeneity: the meaning and identity of the parts, their history, their memory, their…

Critic: Yes, well, a rather exaggerated point: the extreme example of this is your Madonna of the Future put together from a headless mannequin, electric cord, electric heater and the book by Henry James, The Madonna of the Future. Shouldn't it rather be called the Pin-Up of the Past, especially after the similar erotic work of Allen Jones?

Architect: Actually it was the same time, 1968, and had less to do with the sensual image than the return of the body to architecture. Think of its presence, from the Egyptians to the nineteenth century, its flowering in Baroque Vienna and Prague so that bridges and doorways and chimneypieces were bedecked with the human figure, a veritable explosion of anthropocentricism onto inanimate architecture so that we could claim it as our own, empathise with it, embrace it mentally, project –

Critic: Our fallacious anthropocentrism onto it –

Architect: This tradition had more or less been censored in our puritan century so I thought it might be resuscitated by the very forces that had supposedly killed it: mass-production, the machine-aesthetic. The pre-fab mannequin crossed with mass-produced heater was meant to simultaneously rob them both of their kitsch banality and give them a human presence. That was one message of adhocism: to put together ready-made parts, which were often vulgar or ugly, to create a new whole that had the integrity of function and a fresh image.

Critic: But they were often ugly, or monstrous, like the Madonna.

Architect: Not always, or necessarily. The dressing table, The Transparent Grid, is really quite elegant and well proportioned. even though it's made from food covers, Tebrax joints and flexing mirrors. Most people say something's ugly when they mean to say it's unfamiliar, or hybrid, and adhocism is both of these.

Critic: This is exactly what I wrote in Meaning in Architecture: ‘Every dead form that one can perceive is a sign waiting to be resuscitated.’ As Braque said: ‘Reality only reveals itself when illuminated by a ray of poetry. All around us is asleep.’ But the problem may well be that, as T. S. Eliot wrote, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’. One could not stand the pressure of noticing how every particular object is capable of being revived, of being placed in a new context whether poetic or not. The possibility is too challenging; it would lead to a radical restructuring of every act down to the habitual grasp of a cup of tea.

Architect: True, but you miss the point of architecture. Just as poetry challenges the expectations of prose and makes greater demands on us, so does architecture challenge the normality of building.

Critic: Of course, but it is the way architecture does this that matters, something that we were exploring in ‘Rhetoric and Architecture’, 1972, the criticism that led to The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. What is the variation from the norm, how far can architecture deviate from building? As Jean Cocteau had put it, rather paradoxically, ‘genius is knowing how far too far you can go’, and this takes a creativity which must be controlled by taste and criticism. The problem with adhocism was that it had more invention than judgement, a problem typical of all avant-gardism.

Act 2: 1972–1978

Critic: Many people were criticising Modernism in the late sixties and this criticism wasn't confined to architecture. Pop Art and Neo-Dada had challenged the cool abstraction of the minimalist strain in art, advocacy planning had attacked the monolithic corporate approach in urbanism, a series of popular movements connected to the Hippies and May Events of 1968 undermined the notion of a single society, a unified taste and the integrated International Style. A radical pluralism was in the air and adhocism was meant to be the design philosophy to give it expression. The opening pages of the manifesto inveighed against the pressure of uniformity and conformity:

‘Ad Hoc means "for this" specific need or purpose. Today we are immersed in forces and ideas that hinder the fulfilment of human purposes; large corporations standardise and limit our choice; philosophies of behaviourism condition people to deny their potential freedom; "modern architecture" becomes the convention for "good taste" and an excuse to deny the plurality of actual needs.’

In art, environment and politics adhocism was promoted as a form of pluralism. It was a social philosophy and yet you have built as an individual, mostly private houses.

Architect: I have been fortunate enough to experiment either on myself or my family, but my ideas remain socially motivated. Had I been able to set up an office at this stage then my work would not have been confined to the house.

Critic: But a curious distortion is caused by this both in philosophy and architecture. The architecture may become a built demonstration of a point, an idea in quotation marks, that unfortunate ‘built diagram’ or ‘architectural statement’ that disfigures so much work today. The number of wives, and mothers, who have to live in an ‘architectural statement’ is legion: Venturi's mother, Mozuna's mother, Moore's mother – it is better to have a doctor for a son. In addition, the private house is not an adequate vehicle for what you wish to give it – public symbolism.

Architect: One can't always design a city hall and besides a new symbolic architecture. or at least one that has fallen into desuetude, can be tested in the house, where one can make mistakes. In any case, symbolism and ornament are appropriate there too, even if in relative understatement. The London Flat I redesigned, with Maggie Keswick., had the beginnings of a scenario. One entered into a tight stairway with an apple-green carpet. A wandering green stringcourse and ornamental blue step-forms – syncopated with the mirrors – were meant to bring a green and blue nature into the heart of a claustrophobic space. The step motif, rather an obvious one used by Theo van Doesburg and Alvar Aalto in similar ways, was then translated into the ornament for the enclosed landing. So this sequence had a theme and variations.

Critic: That's hardly a symbolic programme.

Architect: No, but it's the start of one: the idea of the concetto, of theme, has always been of interest to me.

Critic: How then does it differ from Matthias Ungers's ‘Architecture as Theme’?

Architect: He keeps solely to architectural ones, and non-ornamental ones, whereas the references here and elsewhere are to Nature, the human torso, history, cosmology – many things in addition to architecture. Otherwise I find Ungers's theory very fruitful and correct.

Critic: But your landing here, with its redundant repetition of doorways (one even turns a corner) and extra doorhandles is reduced, thematically, to architecture.

Architect: Yes and no. There is the figure, doubled, of Maggie coming through the door, the colours represent sky and ground, and the lights, doubled, represent the doorknobs (they have similar joints and projections). Furthermore, there is the trompe l'oeil like that in the Villa Valmarana, the image of domestic life relived, which everyone knows.

Critic: You mean architects and artists know. But no one can tell how the doors work and which one is actually the bathroom, a typical example of architectural arrogance masquerading as a ‘statement’.

Architect: Well it is a private flat, and after you've opened the wrong door once, you don't a second time. Besides the trouble with all doors – a truth I have found which I pass on to the world – is that they have a disastrous asymmetry: one, lopsided doorknob. We don't have one lopsided breast, nor should we have a lopsided door; so I have corrected this 5,000 year old mistake in all my subsequent buildings. The world hasn't thanked me.

Critic: And why should it? The extra doorknobs cost money, and these ones don't even turn, as they should, but are put on pressure catches – a double deceit.

Architect: All poetry is a form of lying; the better the language, as Umberto Eco says, the better the lies one can tell in it.

Critic: Again you confuse the poetry for its substance: at least Plato, when he justified lying, said it should be based on the state and be a ‘noble lie’ at that. Your doorknob lie is banal and prosaic.

Architect: But that is their point, they heighten everyday life – remember your quote by Braque. And what is a house or flat if not the celebration of the everyday, the humdrum, the prosaic? This flat tries to make an architecture out of modest, habitual elements rather as Wittgenstein tried to do in a Vienna house.

Critic: You sound again like the Modernist, like Picasso, Léger or Le Corbusier – their ‘heroism of everyday life’.

Architect: They didn't invent this notion; if anyone did, then it was Vermeer and de Hooch, but they didn't either. It's basic to the vernacular.

Critic: It's also based on a mistake, or a confusion of the profane with the sacred.

Architect: All architecture aspires to the condition not only of music, as is commonly said, but sanctity. Architecture always tries to transcend building, the everyday, and to attempt this with routine materials and functions is the paradox I was seeking. The prefabricated Styrofoam mouldings rise and lower in a musical syncopation and they do this around a monumental face, the motif which combines a feminine curve and masculine stagger. This focuses on the sacred family realm, as Frank Lloyd Wright would have it, of the dining table. The face motif is a flexible form, like the Serliana, that can be expanded vertically and horizontally and here, as a record player, even in depth. Because of its bisexuality and anthropomorphism I have used it continuously ever since as an organising element and called it, modestly, the Jencksiana. Every architect/critic should have a motif named after himself.

Critic: It relates to those moon gates, and windows, in a Chinese garden which also focus the view. But yours is ungrammatical, it cuts into the moulding and doesn't relate, on the other side of the wall, to the beams overhead.

Architect: I like the bitten-out moulding, it was a positive act. And besides this room is ad hoc in organisation, being a collection of my wife's furniture and several of my things. Not all the rooms in a house should suffer total design, something I found out, painfully, to my expense. The eclecticism of this room, and its informality, were quite pleasant and domestic and particularly successful was the ad hoc collage of mouldings, brick wall and screens, all painted white.

Critic: The Modernist evasion; and while we are on the subject of evasions, pray tell me what the ornament symbolises?

Architect: You are an old puritan, always looking for a function or symbol: ornament, as T. S. Eliot said of poetry, is a superior form of distraction and it should be judged as good or bad distraction, that is as musical themes. Do the mouldings lead the eye and mind towards the visual goal, the main key, the tonic? Do they syncopate the fillets of shadow in a pleasing way? These are the right questions.

Critic: Once again you substitute a half-truth for the whole: ornament has many functions, some symbolic, some to do with etiquette, mood, biding faults in construction as well as accentuating the structure. Its worth has to be judged on all these levels and I take your single justification as a tacit admission that it is limited in scope to a musical role.

Architect: The studio I built in Cape Cod has a much more symbolic use of ornament with its ‘twice-broken-split pediment’ marking the door that actually works: the others are largely stationary screen doors. Here again the mundane door becomes itself an ornamental motif through extreme repetition – there are thirteen in a one-roomed studio! Other constructional necessities such as the 4 by 4 inch stud are used redundantly to heighten their role. And these ornaments are painted fifteen shades of blue to bring out the Cape Light, that magical changing set of blues which attracts so many artists and photographers. You could say this studio symbolises the Cape myth of ritual purification, the daily act of swimming in the blue sea and nearby ponds.

Critic: This was designed when I was writing The Language of Post-Modern Architecture so it is inevitably a building with a thesis, or rather several theses. The combination of shingle vernacular and classical mouldings, informal porches and Palladian plan, Medusa face and implicit face (on the back), prefabricated garage and sun-shade rotonda – all the dualities were meant to illustrate the double-coding of Post-Modernism. It had to be built by local builders… be accessible and regional, and yet contain refinements and allusions of an esoteric, personal nature. Above all it had to be multivalent, allow the variety of interpretation, breadth of reference and taste which I found in the work of Pre-Modernists such as Antonio Gaudí and Bernard Maybeck. But it also had to have a Free-Style Classical decorum as well as their riotous expressiveness; so there were several theses, not one.

Architect: The other Cape buildings designed at the time, really shacks by the ocean, use the board and batten vernacular, the cheapest solution available here. Everything is stained shades of grey to contrast with the silver-green witch grass; it is also a colour associated with ships and the Navy on Cape Cod. The Face House, with its interior ABA rhythms repeated large and small, has the feeling of those old seaside shacks near which one could moor a boat. I like to think of the interior, with its bunk beds and repetitive wooden dowels, as the bleached sailboat: ‘neat, clean and healthy’, as Le Corbusier termed its moral virtues. The ABA, a crypto-Serliana actually organises the facade too and in this way may be considered an order unifying inside and out. The absolute symmetry is very relaxing .

Critic: Yes, it only engages half the mind, because you can guess the other half. There's a refreshing asymmetry around the other side of the pre-existing shack. A window motif steps up, as trellis, towards the house, and inflects the view towards the sea while hiding the car. Here ornament is thankfully used symbolically: red for ground, green for grass and pine trees and blue for sky. The green trellis frames the pines, in a Japanese manner, and indeed the stone garden represents the waves of the sea in a Japanese way (27,28).

Architect: Actually the purple stones, collected from the beach, like the green and white ones, represent the waves – a kind of dark anti-foam. Our personal labour in constructing this garden was, of course, part of its meaning and helps explain why the gradation and placement of stones is less than Japanese in its delicacy. Nonetheless this dry garden, with its ‘mountains and water’, is in the wider Oriental tradition of representational imagery. Conceptually the asymmetrically placed red stained walkways are a series of mental diving-boards cantilevered over a brown and then white water. These walkways are somewhat protected from the hot sun by the trellis work and form a series of outside rooms decreasing in size until one reaches the house and herb garden.

Critic: Although imperfectly finished it's one of your least unsuccessful spaces, perhaps because it's not immodest.

Architect: Thank you.

Act 3: 1978–1984

Critic: By the late seventies Post-Modernism had become known as a concept and several architects, in different countries, were beginning to practice variations of its approach and style. As a wide-ranging movement, as diverse as Modernism, there were a host of mini-traditions, such as Contextualism, Neo-Rationalism, adhocism, and Neo-Vernacular, which all showed a similar dialectical relation to Modernism, partly accepting and criticising its approach. I was asked to organise the 1980 Venice Biennale on Post-Modernism, but then Paolo Portoghesi, whose idea it was, was asked to put together a broader-based team, and the Presence of the Past was the result. Post-Modern Classicism, the New Synthesis, was also a result – a lecture and book of mine were published in 1980 that outlined this new stylistic consensus. Pluralism was now tied to this loosely shared convention, so evident at the Biennale. While the Venice Show overemphasised historicism and a type of aesthetic one-up-manship it consolidated the movement, especially for the public. By the time the Frankfurt Museum of Architecture opened in 1984, with its Post-Modern collection, it had become the reigning approach in several countries.

Architect: My work since 1978 has become explicitly Free-Style Classicism.

Critic: Critics such as John Summerson consider this a rather illegitimate offspring of the 'classic' Classicism. In fact it has been called Bastard-Classicism by unsympathetic Americans.

Architect: The words that greeted Mannerism, Baroque and Rococo, all ‘anti-classic Classicism’, were not very complimentary. Those who believe in pluralism and heterogeneity do not expect to be embraced by the purists. Nonetheless it is depressing that otherwise balanced critics overlook an extended family in order to make fine distinctions within it.

Critic: How otherwise may standards be kept high? These orthodoxies of taste and usage are necessary (however intellectually false) from a social and productive viewpoint. One would never have had a Renaissance if Brunelleschi, Vasari and Raphael had been fair-minded toward ‘Gothic Classicism’.

Architect: Yes, but the wide classical tradition is all part of the same general bloodline and it is invidious to make fine discriminations within it before acknowledging the general species.

Critic: You are an intractable idealist: the world operates by discrimination, difference, conflict, competition and all these abrasive elements keep our wits sharp.

Architect: But one has to see the idea behind things that relates them, and only with such a synthetic approach can one create; your discrimination is ultimately sterile without such combinatorial powers, a point made by many writers on creativity – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Arthur Koestler – who stress its synergy.

Critic: In what way is your Free-Style Classicism synergetic?

Architect: That is rather a portentous question that deserves a pretentious answer. My coffee and tea set for Alessi, for instance, combines the Orders – Ruined Tuscan, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian – with a new function, pouring liquid and it does this in an ingenious way: you hold the volutes, or Ram's horns, and pour out of the mouth opposite.

Critic: I would call that clever rather than creative, the idea of opposing handles and spouts is an old one.

Architect: Yes, but not combining this idea with volutes and capitals. The four columns are put on a tea tray which is the plinth of a temple; the handles are the steps. I think this bisociation, as Koestler calls the bringing together of pre-existing matrices, is rather brilliant!

Critic: The volutes, according to rumour, burn your fingers.

Architect: Well, not as I designed them, in black plastic and ebony. I gave Alessi four versions of a design with the understanding that we would work out these problems, recognised at the beginning. Unfortunately I was never consulted again.

Critic: Architects fail to recognise the Wyatt Law of Architecture: ‘If a building can fail, it will’. The likelihood of error and misunderstanding in any design process is in direct proportion to the absence of the architect from the job.

Architect: How could I be in Italy? I was never sent models, detailed drawings of the version they were building, or even a letter confirming its production. The first time I saw it was on exhibit in the San Francisco Museum, a few years later.

Critic: Wyatt's Second Law is: ‘In the Era of Fast Food Architecture, quality falls in proportion to the number of middlemen on the job’. Both the first and second law show why it is important for the designer to be present at all stages of production. Architecture which is supposed to resemble the legal or medical profession is closer to warfare, as described by Hart Crane; generals, sergeants, gunners, infantrymen all think they know how the battle is going, and some have the illusion that they are in charge, but in many respects battles just ‘happen’ and the outcome is due to a lot of independent action which no one controls. In architecture there is an inevitable conflict between builder, supplier, quantity surveyor, planning official, designer and client – however much they want to work together. And the process of building is complicated enough before human error, strikes and material delays further mess it up. A completed building is always a miracle, and one which carries through the designer's intentions even rarer.

Architect: That's why Mies and Norman Foster favoured minimalism; it increased their control (until the latter's Hong Kong Shanghai Bank). I favour, by contrast, a sort of maximalism where other designers and artists can influence my work and be influenced in turn. But it does make certain details rather approximate. The Elemental House, a series of seven pavilions, was purposefully done in an elemental style to keep this heterogeneity under control. I tried to base each pavilion on Laugier’s Primitive Hut and a very archetypal church plan because these were the simplest forms. Through a series of ‘quick logic’ studies, which I use to understand the most obvious, logical possibilities, each elemental idea is clarified.

Critic: Form as a consequence of logical operations, an idea which unites Peter Eisenman, Christopher Alexander and Classicists such as Quinlan Terry. How does your process differ from that of these designers?

Architect: It is less obsessive and ‘decompositional’ than Eisenman's, uses opposite patterns unlike Alexander, and often has a symbolic basis unlike Terry. The Elemental House was based, after all, on the Four Californian Elements: Terra, Aer, lgnis and Aqua as worshipped and feared by a Californian, not a Greek.

Critic: What's the difference?

Architect: For instance the Terra Gate symbol, a pyramid, is split showing the ‘terror’ of Earthquake. The earth, in red brick, also cracks apart in the shape of California to reveal water, the swimming pool. So Aqua is given specific meaning, it's not left as a classical cliché. The same is true of Charles Moore's personification of Aqua in the adjacent water pavilion: it's a reworking of Cesare Ripa’s figure which holds a sailboat over her shoulder. Moore changes this to a steamboat and he and I together layered her so she fits six times between the roof trusses. The challenge is to use contemporary materials to reinterpret traditional programmes and, at the same time, reunite the programmes so that they are relevant today.

Critic: This is the opposite of fast-food architecture.

Architect: Precisely, slow-food architecture. It can't be rushed, you have to be on the site, often, and then in the library or university, consulting specialists.

Critic: This is a curious approach to design.

Architect: It probably was the traditional one up to the eighteenth century. In any case, as Mark Girouard has shown in his book on Robert Smythson, it was common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of my favourite symbolic buildings is Thomas Tresham's triangular lodge designed throughout around the motif and number 3, the Trinity (36). When one has a symbolic programme which is credible, then design, detailing and particularly ornament, become possible. Without iconography ornament becomes mere decoration.

Critic: That was exactly the point I was making previously – you are clearly getting closer to the critic.

Architect: In our London house, the Thematic House, many rooms have a symbolic programme which is written before and during design, as an idea unfolds. Thus the main bedroom, The Foursquare Room, is designed around the number 4, not Tresham's 3, partly because it is the most common number in architecture.

Critic: Ah, but Fuller's tetrahedron has, only three edges on four sides, and the triangle is superior, as a structural shape, to the square.

Architect: True, but if you count the number of four-sided figures – squares and rectangles, crosses and quadrants – that exist in any room you will reach nearly infinity. The amount of circles and other polyhedra are statistically insignificant. Therefore the square is the essence of architecture.

Critic: You are always the Modernist; you must realise that ‘the greatest number’ does not make for the greatest significance, quite the reverse. One curve in a room of squares is good news: a whole room of rectangles is no news.

Architect: Yes and no. One can increase perception both through contrast and repetition. In the Foursquare Room I've repeated right angles, crosses, quadrants, 4 by 4 inch studs, window crosses, ceiling crosses, rug crosses until the room seems to spin with fourness.

Critic: It sounds rather too busy.

Architect: Only at first: when you become accustomed to the space it is quite relaxed, partly because it is painted in three shades of white.

Critic: Ah, the Modernist again.

Architect: Post-Modernists are always partly Modern, in spite of a common misunderstanding to the contrary.

Critic: I see you have smuggled some curves and even 'threes’ into your Foursquare Room.

Architect: Yes the ABA motif, which holds the curtains and defines space, is in a curve because of the stairway behind. Also it diminishes in a proportional relationship, like Palladio's frontispiece to Il Redentore: each big element becomes a figure in the next smaller triad. But these 'threes’ and curves are exceptions to the general rule. the tetramorph.

Critic: Iconologists contend that the concept of fourness is one of the strongest in all cultures. We are acquainted with the Four Seasons, the Four Evangelists and the Four Elements…

Architect: But I stencilled on sayings which deflect these traditional points in a more exact way: ‘The earth has four elements, one hundred and four’. Or ‘The earth has four seasons, more or less’. The Thematic House actually has five seasons represented, among them Indian Summer.

Critic: Don't you think the lettering might detract from the meaning of the architecture, make it into a one-liner?

Architect: No, because it is kept on a secondary level in colour and tone; one doesn’t perceive it until after the shape, space and surface and, in any case, the written meanings are often ambiguous.

Critic: Your alphabet is in the same style as the buildings and makes use of the stagger and curve motif, the Jencksiana. This lettering, combined with the furniture – the Window Seat Window – and the room, makes it another Modernist example of total design, the very thing Adolf Loos lampooned in his parable about the architect. You even have a suit and shoes designed in the same style – the integration is at once impressive and depressing.

Architect: Oscar Wilde said: ‘One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.’

Critic: Such integration would be more appropriate in a church; art and life should otherwise be separated, each given their own realms.

Architect: Theoretically that may be true, but practically speaking it's hard to stop designing in our culture because mass-produced items are often more expensive, or inappropriate, or hard to find. The most convenient thing, if one is working closely with carpenters, is to build it yourself; it saves money. On the other hand, I have again made extensive use of the pre-fab doorway, both as an Order and functional element.

Critic: The implications of total design are always Fascist, or at least Totalitarian, because they entail a single goal and total control. One has to allow for the uncontrolled variety that Jane Jacobs shows accompanies any lively culture. Economic and city life are profoundly non-artistic by nature and the attempt to make them otherwise is always repressive.

Architect: What about the Renaissance idea of the city as a work of art?

Critic: It should only happen, as a byproduct of an integrated culture, not the enforced programme of an omniscient class, or individual.

Architect: It never happens by accident; look at Kyoto or Venice, where sumptuary laws, or their architectural equivalent, produced harmonious wholes.

Critic: Certain minimal rules are desirable, but this is quite different from the Gesamkunstwerk.

Architect: Well, if ‘total design’ is my crime then I'm only partially guilty. Many other designers have impressed their views on the Thematic House: Terry Farrell, Michael Graves, Piers Gough, and a host of specialists. If there is one way my work is unique, and asks to be judged by new criteria, it concerns the nature of the symbolic design.

Critic: Ah, but how does it differ from Robert Venturi's use of symbols?

Architect: First of all it is programmatic, which means that it is ordered throughout the building or site. The Four Elements and the various Orders of the Elemental House follow a sequence, whereas Venturi's columns are collaged here and there without a narrative or syntactic sequence. Secondly, the signs which I use are integrated, or related, to the building; it's not a ‘decorated shed’, but more like Gaudí's architecture, a multivalent work.

Critic: I ended the first edition of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture with Gaudí's Casa Batlló because of its multivalent, as opposed to Venturi's attached, symbolism. But this kind of integrated work is hard to achieve in a society that treats symbols with contempt. It's much easier to dissociate them, or slip them in commercially, as Venturi proposes.

Architect: But how banal. A symbol is only resonant when people believe in it and it affects the whole building, like Gothic ribbed tracery – a functional sign and symbol at the same time.

Critic: Venturi actually followed our earlier interest in semiotics and symbolism with his book in 1972, but he did show more practically what could be done with Meaning in Architecture than we did: his practice was reductive, however.

Architect: The way beyond a dissociated symbolism is through a credible symbolic programme and this can often be written best by a few experts. For the Solar Stairway and entrance oval, for instance, various specialists were consulted who knew a lot more than I did about cosmology and astrophysics. The programme that was written, and rewritten with the artists and craftsmen, was thus a collective endeavour, albeit steered by me. Design was sometimes also a collaborative effort under my direction. Thus we aim at a certain pluralism and heterogeneity apparent within an overall thematic and stylistic unity – Free-Style Classicism. The Black Hole at the bottom of the fifty-two steps was specified by my programme, and designed by Eduardo Paolozzi after we read several books on the concepts of time. This stairway naturally represents time – as it also does whirlpool galaxies and spiral forms – like the double helix. When a group is working together, under the direction of a symbolic programme, it can achieve more than any individual designer alone. I contend that this Solar Stairway shows the synergetic virtues of such symbolic architecture carried through as a whole programme, unlike Venturi and not unlike the Gothic cathedral.

Critic: That is for others to judge; modesty has never been an architectural virtue. What role has furniture played in all this?

Architect: Either it is designed for a specific room and symbolic role, such as the Hermitage Chair with its window and LA Order inscribed on the piers, or it's built ad hoc from inexpensive subsystems like the Face Chair. The latter is a wicker sunburst chair, mass produced in the Philippines and sold in the United States for 25 dollars, with a Jencksiana attached as a frame. The whole is still cheaper than most large chairs and it fits the sunburst and Californian motifs of the room. The Breuer-Jencks Chair is yet another example of the same principle: improving a mass-produced cliché by adding things to it.

Critic: You can't be serious? It's a macaronic monster.

Architect: Well, the proportions of Breuer's original are inept, needing a top and weighty sides. It's quite true my solution is hardly perfect, but the idea of restyling ready-made parts is essentially correct for an industrial society.

Critic: It would be revolutionary – not to say, perhaps, illegal.

Architect: You want a legal revolution? Anyway, it's one perfectly valid direction, and practically the only defence we have against the execrable taste and mass-produced cliches that are poured over us.

Critic: As I wrote in Adhocism: ‘how to consume without dying of consumption’. But it's still, again, a Modernist position.

Architect: But complemented by the traditional one; my other furniture, some of it based on the potentials of fibreboard which is painted to look like wood, is sober and monumental. The symbolism is there, but understated, only apparent on second glance. The equation I've aimed at is a balance between many forces that seems effortless. A harmony of symbol and form which while related to the old blood group of Classicism is not, I hope, a cliché.

    Charles Jencks
    An Internal Dialogue: Architect vs Critic
    The Cosmic House, Elemental House, Adhocism