Léa-Catherine Szacka

Writing ‘from the Battlefield’: Charles Jencks and The Language of Post-Modern Architecture


In 1977, in his ‘Language of Post-Modern Architecture’ Jencks declared the death of modern architecture. For many decades to come, in seven subsequent editions of this seminal book, he kept refining, mapping and diagramming his theory of Post-Modern. To revisit Jencks’ definitions of Post-Modern and debate their relevance to today’s architectural and broader culture, we have invited a number of authors – scholars, architects, curators, and writers – to respond to the question ‘What is/was Post-Modern?’ Lea-Catherine Szacka’s essay traces the evolution of the term in Jencks’ writing and questions how his medium and working method might have been a crucial influence on his theories of the Post-Modern.

Charles Jencks was an exceptionally prolific writer. In a career spanning almost six decades he published more than 40 books and countless articles and papers. Yet The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, his plea for pluralistic and double-coded design, originally issued in 1977, remains Jencks’ most renowned, accessible, and widely distributed book. It is mainly through this unconventional publication – part book, part glossy magazine, lavishly illustrated and, most importantly, in constant evolution – that the architect, historian, and polemicist exposed and, over the years, refined, his definition of the contested and controversial term ‘post-modern’ in relation to architecture. If the medium is the message (or the massage), could it be that the confluence of the medium of the book with that of the cheap repro- glossy magazine, in constant reissue, even helped Jencks to consolidate his idea of post-modern – a word that he always insisted on hyphenating, thus emphasising the hybridity of the term – as a constantly evolving cultural phenomenon?

Published by Andreas Papadakis1 then editor-in-chief of Academy Editions, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture went into six re-editions (in 1978, 1981, 1984, 1988, 1991, and 2002) as well as many official and unofficial translations.2

Over the years it became an international reference work that marked the emergence of the age of globalisation while exploiting the possible connection between language and architecture. Not anecdotally, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture emerged in the radically political context of Britain‘s 1970s, the gloomiest period of the Empire since the Second World War. Set between Harold Wilson's ‘swinging sixties’ and Margaret Thatcher’s ‘divisive eighties’, the 1970s were marked by economic stagnation, a first and second oil shock, a public black-out and unparalleled strikes. An architectural, as well as rhetorical and political project, Jencks’ book followed the growing criticism of Modernism that had already become apparent in the UK in the 1960s, ‘when the social problems of post-war housing – especially large or system-built estates – became apparent’. 3

The Language of Post-Modern Architecture’s noteworthy publishing history – both its form and content – reflects Jencks’ critical working method: the constant writing and rewriting, in quick succession, as the movement unfolded, and in response to a fast shifting architectural, public and socio-economic contexts. The book became an ‘evolvotome’ through which Jencks refined his definition of the term ‘post-modern’ while mirroring his modus operandi as an architectural historian and critic.

Towards a New Paradigm

After graduating from Harvard University with a BA in English Literature in 1961 and a master’s degree in Architecture in 1965, Jencks won a Fulbright scholarship, and in 1966 left for London, to undertake a doctorate under the supervision of renowned critic and historian Reyner Banham at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL.4 While writing his PhD, Jencks was also a regular of the AA where he taught (since 1968),5 lectured and took part in the vibrant social life of the institution. In 1975, in the in-house magazine – at the time called Architectural Association Quarterly (AAQ) - Jencks published ‘The Rise of Post-Modern Architecture’,6 a ten-page illustrated paper in which he commented on what he saw as a growing tendency in architecture: ‘a series of fragmented alternatives all claiming primary place’.7

‘The Rise of Post-Modern Architecture’ was Jencks’ first attempt at defining a term he admittedly borrowed from literary criticism.8 Yet ‘post-modern’, Jencks immediately specified, was an evasive term: ‘If I knew what to call it I wouldn’t use the negative prefix “post”. It is rather like defining women as “non-men” - not a useful or complimentary definition [...]’,9 Jencks wrote, before concluding that the only way to ‘kill the monster’ that was modern architecture was to ‘find a substitute beast to take its place and decidedly “post-modern” won't do the job’.10 Initially treated as a temporary label, the term was to stay and influence the discipline for decades to come.

If the term ‘post-modern’ remains associated with a myriad of concepts and realities in architecture, it almost inevitably refers to a criticism of Modernism, perceived as dogmatic and subject to a series of standards and rigid set of norms. Partaking in this early criticism, Jencks decried the (conventional) vision according to which a unified theory and practice called Modern Architecture actually existed.11 In his text, Jencks started to expand on what he saw as the failure of the first large critique of modern architecture – formulated in the mid-1950s by the members of Team Ten. He wrote: ‘The whole force of Team Ten was directed towards giving the city identity and a humanity of scale.’ In his text, Jencks started to expand on what he saw as the failure of the first large critique of modern architecture – formulated in the mid-1950s by the members of Team Ten. He wrote: ‘The whole force of Team Ten was directed towards giving the city identity and a humanity of scale.’ But if these ideas were exemplary, ‘they remained abstract, impersonal and often inappropriate.’ It was thus the contradictions between the statements and buildings that constituted, according to Jencks, the biggest problem of Modern architecture: ‘Wherever you look, you find an extraordinary discrepancy between intentions to provide identity and actual impersonality.’ The Smithsons, Aldo van Eyck, Herman Hertzrberger, Jaap Bakema had all failed to deliver ‘the search for identity through space’ and remained committed to ‘an abstract language of identity as opposed to a concrete language of historical convention’.12 Therefore, claimed Jencks, if the late Modernist had the intentions right, it took more before the real shift could happen.

In 1975, Jencks wrote that Post-Modern architecture was hard to define for it was pluralist and constituted a series of fragmented alternatives to these shortcomings of Modern Architecture: ‘There are many historical movements countering the trend towards an abstract and supposedly universal architecture,’ he wrote. ‘Each one is relatively minor, but taken as a whole they amount to a strong movement awaiting formulation as a new paradigm.’13

An (Accessible) Language

In 1977, Jencks published his fourth book, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, a publication in which, besides announcing the death of modern architecture, he defended the idea that architecture was a language made up of components comparable to syntax, semantics, metaphors and other elements that could, if used in a coherent way, make architecture more readable by speaking on, at least, two levels at once: to other architects and to a concerned minority who cared about specifically architectural meanings, and to the public at large.

In this book, Jencks built on the interest in ideas of semiotics and structuralism that was emerging in late 1960s and early 1970s London and apply them to concrete example of buildings around the world. Jencks was also quick to capture the growing importance that neoliberal economy would have on architecture. According to the architectural critic Paul Goldberg, beyond language one of the main theme of Jencks’ book was the understanding that architecture constituted ‘an embodiment of political and economic power’ and that ‘Real-estate developers, politicians and bankers make more architectural decisions than architects’ [...] ‘a truth that’, he wrote, ‘however discouraging, is pleasing to see acknowledge’.14

Extremely brief, the introduction to the first edition of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture did not go into many details as to what the term ‘post-modern’ really meant. After mentioning that architecture should suit different cultures and that the failure of recent architecture had been one of communication, Jencks insisted on the visual meaning of buildings. This insistence on the power of images, also translates on the book‘s content and layout: Although bearing the word ‘language’ in his title, the book was much more concerned with images than words. As an example, the first edition counted around 160 images spread over approximately 110 pages.

In his introduction, Jencks also mentioned that this work on Post-Modern architecture came ‘after questioning the theory of communication that supported modern architecture’ and, from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, he moved from the academic study of semiotics and its possible applications in architecture,15 to a form of writing and publishing that was more accessible and dedicated to students and scholars, but also to practising architects, and even, the general public.16

Rise and Fall

By 1984, the architectural landscape – at least in the US – had started to change, as Post-Modern architecture slowly ‘triumphed around the world’. New Orleans’s Piazza d’Italia by Charles Moore (which appears on the cover ofthethird edition) was inaugurated in 1978, the Portland Municipal building by Michael Graves (published on the cover of the fourth edition) had been completed in 1982, and the AT&T tower designed by Philip Johnson for a site located at 550 Madison Avenue, was almost finished. These early built examples of iconic Post-Modern architecture meant that the movement was gaining momentum and legitimacy. But they also were the commercial and successful harbingers of the end of the movement, as an architectural style. Closely following all these changes and writing ‘from the battlefield’, Jencks was self-conscious of his modus operandi: ‘Indeed’, he remarked, ‘the book is also strange, and not only because of its long-winded title. It is unusual because it has been written and rewritten over a period of seven years as an architectural movement has taken shape.’17

From the second to the fourth edition, Jencks considerably modified and expanded the introduction of the book – now with the subtitle ‘The Paradoxical World of Post-Modernism’. According to Jencks, the implications for architecture of a world where new communication technologies connected cities in a global ‘world-village’ were ‘instant communication, instant word eclecticism and overall mutual influence'. ‘The new technology stemming from the computer has made possible a new facility of production’ – more geared to change and individuality, and closer to nineteenth-century handicraft than Modernist superblocks. It is this ‘highly developed taste for paradox’18 which, according to Jencks, best characterises the architecture of the mid-1980s.

In the introduction to the sixth edition (1991) of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture – ‘Death for Rebirth’ – Jencks aimed to prove that Post-Modernism was far from deceased. The same Jencks who had polemically pinpointed the death of Modernism to 15 July 1972 with the blowing of the Pruitt–Igoe housing estate, now paradoxically claimed that ‘if ever there were proof of a movement's continued vitality it was these obituaries and attacks for who is going to waste time flogging a dead style?’19

If the early 1990s corresponded to the beginning of the end of Post-Modernism’s first period of glory (as an architectural style rather than a cultural movement), Jencks most probably felt under attack, and, more than ever, had to define and defend Post-Modernism. By then Jencks claimed that ‘if anything reigns it is pluralism’ and, reminding us of the success of the 1980 Strada Novissima at the Venice Biennale – a display which, he wrote, was comprised of a system of differences, he reminded readers that ‘pluralism is the Post-Modern ideology above all others.20’ For Jencks, the radical eclectism of Post-Modernism cuts across ‘the spectrum of tastes21’.

Visualisations and Predictions

In Modern Movements in Architecture, Jencks wrote that ‘as a historian one can either look at the standout individual buildings of an era, or look to the general themes and “connective tissues” in order to search for the evolution of thought that buildings represent.22’ It is this later approach that Jencks pursued in order to craft his constantly evolving definition of the term ‘post-modern’. And, in addition to providing written definitions through the many different introductions to The Language of Post-Modern Architecture and other texts, Jencks crafted, over the years, a visual explanation of the movement, in the form of diagrams. Called ‘evolutionary trees’, these visual devices elaborated on Jencks’ world view and mapped the buildings and architects he discovered around the world, while embodying his critical methodology based on constant revisions.23

The evolutionary trees published in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture form a core element of Jencks’ thinking, visually demonstrating the gradual coming together of disparate classifiers of Post-Modernism – historicism, straight revivalism, neo-vernacular, urbanist ad hoc, metaphor/metaphysical, Post-Modern space – showing the plurality of narratives over a chronological period starting sometime in the 1950s or 1960s, and making sense of history and time period in the most inclusive way.

Beyond a confusing quantity of data, what these evolutionary trees ultimately show is Jencks’ continuous obsession with mapping, naming and classifying. The diagram acted as a tool for Jencks, a device that helped to unify and make sense of the disparate traditions that characterised Post-Modern pluralism. And it was this action of mapping, naming and classifying that has progressively and unremittingly shaped his changing definition of Post-Modern architecture.

Another obsession of Jencks was predictions. In 2002, more than a decade after the sixth edition of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, and the year following the collapse of New York City’s Twin Towers, Jencks published a final iteration of the book, albeit under the different title of The New Paradigm in Architecture.24 With this publication Jencks announced yet another paradigm shift: ‘My argument is that we are at the beginning of a new way of constructing architecture and conceiving cities, that has grown out of the Post-Modern movement in the sciences and elsewhere, but that it has not yet grown up.’25

By the early 2000s, complexity theory and the science of complexity were dominant threads to Jencks’ text: ‘the new paradigm was aided by computer design and production’ writes Jencks. And he continues: ‘I called for it in the first editions of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture in 1977: “computer modelling, automated-production, and the sophisticated techniques of market research and prediction that allows us to mass produce a variety of styles and almost personalised products,”’26 implying that Post-Modernism was characterised by new forms of individualised production. The new architecture was, according to Jencks, ‘committed to pluralism, the heterogeneity of our cities and global culture, and it acknowledges the variety of taste cultures and visual codes of the users’.27 Since the mid 1980s, Post-Modernism has suffered the usual problems of success: it has become mass-produced, clichéd and too big. According to Jencks, the problem has been the reduction of Post-Modernism to historicism and the commercialised cliché and superficial façadism of ‘giant commercial commissions and the Disney Corporation’.

In 1971, Jencks had published Architecture 2000: Predictions and Methods, a small book intended as a form of forecasting and prediction for the built environment. In this book he included a collage that illustrated a ‘telephone, light pen computer and TV screen all hooked up to an information bureau containing the society’s products’.28

In 2002, Jencks republished this collage but with the caption ‘prediction of a future “Internet” made for Architecture 2000 in 1969’ and wrote: ‘This ironic critique of the defence department accidentally stumbled on a truth, and the Pentagon accidentally created the World Wide Web some years later.’29 It could be argued that The Language of Post-Modern Architecture was as prophetic as this early collage – constantly evolving, based on a visual language, and promoting (in no particular order) ideas of identity, pluralism, organised complexity, fragmentation, communication, and individualised production.

Natural Selection?

As we have seen, the evolution of ideas was at the core of Jencks’ definition of Post-Modernism. When a student at Harvard University in the 1960s, Jencks befriended physicist and historian of science Gerald Holton.30 It is reasonable to think that Holton's ideas on the evolution of scientific thought had a great influence on Jencks. Constantly re-written and visually reassessed, over a period of twenty-five years, ‘as Post-Modernism waxed and waned in all the arts and sciences, and changed shape’,31 The Language of Post-Modern Architecture could be seen as an evolvotome or evolving treatise. Visually and materially closer to a magazine than a book – at least for the first few editions, its size, format and graphic identity was very similar to issues of the magazine Architectural Design (AD) then also published by Papadakis: it implied a certain sense of immediacy and a lack of historical insight, it was written ‘from the battlefield’, in real time and as the story of Post-Modernism was unfolding. The critical method was, for Jencks, a way of honing his thoughts and provoking a refinement of architecture and architectural culture in general. Like a species evolving from natural selection, each iteration of the book responded to a critical attack, and showed an evolution of thoughts. But if Jencks’ definition of the movement adapted and changed positively, it also became more and more inclusive rather than selective.

In the introduction to The New Paradigm in Architecture (2002), Jencks retrospectively looks at the different covers of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, which, over the years, revealed the changing patterns of the movement. He wrote: ‘Each one of these buildings, and editions of the book, is a modification of a previous position and in this sense a ceaseless critical dialogue with the immediate past.’32 This idea of a ‘ceaseless critical dialogue’ with the immediate past, but also with critics, public, architects, socio-political contexts, ongoing intellectual discourses – and, ultimately, himself–is what best characterises Charles Jencks’ definition of Post-Modern architecture.

  1. Andreas Constantine Papadakis was born in Cyprus on 17 June 1938, almost a year to the day before Jencks. He arrived in London in 1956 to study physics, first at Imperial College, then at Brunel University. In 1964, while studying for a doctorate, Papadakis bought a house on Holland Street, in the upscale district of Kensington, a stone's throw from Kensington Palace, without realising that the space on the ground floor, which then hosted a laundry, could not be used for residential purposes. Papadakis therefore decides to open a bookshop, which he called Academy Bookshop. Following this, in 1967, Papadakis started to publish his own books, and founded Academy Editions. The Academy's monographs included all architecture rising stars such as Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Daniel Libeskind as well as architects supported by the Prince of Wales such as Léon Krier and Demetri Porphyrios. Much of Papadakis’s success lay in assembling an extensive portfolio of illustrations, both photographs and drawings, which he inexpensively used in richly illustrated books and magazines. In 1975, Papadakis bought the magazine Architectural Design (AD), which was experiencing financial difficulties at the time. Under Papadakis, the magazine shifted, from a technocratic style to a much more historicist orientation. By the end of the 1970s, when he published The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Papadakis had become the biggest noise in architectural publishing, capitalising on a specific formula that involved the production of large (11.5 x 8.5 inch) paperback books, wonderfully illustrated with the best continental colour prints, beautiful to look at and not too expensive and printed in 10,000 to 20,000, sometimes up to 30,000, copies (against the average print run of an architecture book between 1750 and 2000 copies). See for example, Stephanie Williams, 'Beyond the Bookshelves', Building Design, 15 April 1977, pp.22-23.

  2. The book was translated into German, Spanish, French, Polish, Russian, Japanese and Chinese, and circulated through many other unofficial translations.

  3. See 'Post-Modern Architecture: Introductions to Heritage Assets', published by Historic England, December 2017, p.6. Available here.

  4. Jencks’ PhD Thesis was successfully defended at the Bartlett UCL in 1970 under the title of 'Modern Architecture – The tradition since 1945'.

  5. Jencks was a part time lecturer at the AA since August 1968. He was first employed for 6h/week and the AA extended his contract to two days a week in August 1969. In the mid 1970s he was teaching lecture courses such as 'Modern Movements in Architecture' and 'Semiotics and Mass Cultures' (see AA School prospectus from 1974–1975 and 1975-1976). Archive Architectural Association Box 2006 S22.

  6. Charles Jencks, 'The Rise of Post-Modern Architecture', Architectural Association Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 4, October/December 1975, p.3-14.

  7. Charles Jencks , Ibid. p.3. The issue of AAQ, titled 'The Menopause: Beyond Modern Architecture', included, apart from Jencks, contributions by Conrad Jameson, Maurice Culot, Lucien Kroll and Gerald Foley.

  8. A few years later, and building upon these previous works, Jencks coined the term 'post-modern' in reference to the new attitude towards architecture that he saw emerging around the globe.Although the first use of the word 'post-modern' in an architectural context dating back to 1949, when the then Dean of Harvard GSD, Joseph Hudnut, used it in his article 'The Post-Modern House'.

  9. Charles Jencks, 'The Rise of Post-Modern Architecture', p.3.

  10. ibid.

  11. Meaning in Architecture was published in 1969 by London-based publisher Barrie & Jenkins following the editing, by Jencks and Baird, of the June 1967 special issue of the journal Arena (the AA in-house publication between 1965 and 1968). The book included texts by Jencks and Baird but also by Francoise Choay, Gillo Dorfles, Geoffrey Broadbent, Reyner Banham, Martin Pawley, Kenneth Frampton, Aldo van Eyck, Christian Norberg-Schulz, Joseph Rykwert, Nathan Silver and Alan Colquhoun. Following that, in 1971, Jencks published Architecturte 2000: Predictions and Methods with Studio Vista London. And in 1973, Penguin published Modern Movements in Architecture, a book resulting from his doctoral thesis carried out under the supervision of Reyner Banham at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

  12. ibid, pp. 4-6.

  13. ibid., p.6.

  14. Paul Goldberger, 'Do Churches Need Towers?', New York Times, 5 November 1977.

  15. In the late 1960s, Jencks, together with his friend and colleague George Baird, edited both an issue of Arena and the book Meaning in Architecture (1969).

  16. The book also capitalised on the potential of a new form of communication: an affordable publication (£4.95/10$ for the first edition) that could circulate widely.

  17. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1977 (fourth edition, 1984)), p. 6.

  18. ibid, p.5.

  19. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-modern Architecture (London: Academy edition, 1977 (sixth edition 1991)), p. 9.

  20. ibid, p. 9.

  21. For more on this see Lea-Catherine Szacka, Exhibiting the Postmodern: The 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale (Venice: Marsilio, 2016).

  22. Charles Jencks, Modern Movements in Architecture (London: Penguin, 1973).

  23. One could speculate on Jencks being inspired by another famous diagram, produced in 1936 by MoMA's inaugural director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. as an argument and pedagogical tool charting the sources and evolutions of modern art. Yet, although Barr's diagram (famously printed on the front-cover dust jacket of the catalogue of Cubism and Abstract Art, an exhibition presented at The Museum of Modern Art, from 2 March to 19 April 1936) was talking about convergence, Charles Jencks was talking about divergence.

  24. Two other books by Jencks – Critical Modernism (London/New York: John Wiley, 2007), and The Story of Post-Modernism (London: John Wiley, 2011) – can be seen as direct sequels to The Language of Post-Modern Architecture.

  25. Charles Jencks, The New Paradigm in Architecture (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), p.1.

  26. Charles Jencks, The New Paradigm in Architecture., p.2.

  27. ibid p.1-2.

  28. Charles Jencks, Architecture 2000: Predictions and Methods. (London: Studio Vista n, 1971), p.56.

  29. Charles Jencks, The New Paradigm in Architecture, p.203.

  30. Charles Jencks, The New Paradigm in Architecture, p.203.

  31. In 1973, Holton published the book Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

  32. Charles Jencks, The New Paradigm in Architecture, p.7.

  33. ibid.

Léa-Catherine Szacka
Writing ‘from the Battlefield’: Charles Jencks and The Language of Post-Modern Architecture
What is/was Post-Modern?