Building cosmic visions

August 6, 1999

Charles Jencks believes that a new architecture is emerging, one based at the cutting edge of chaos theory. John Kelleher reports.

The new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is casting long shadows in the twilight of the 20th century. Frank Gehry's titanium-clad structure has achieved iconic status.

Postmodernist theorist and architectural historian Charles Jencks is enraptured by the building too - it features on the covers of his two most recent books - for its arrival is the first sign of what he believes is a significant shift in architectural ideas and, perhaps, our world view.

Jencks argues that, until recently, scientists, cosmologists and theologians could not even begin to agree on the nature of the universe, and many architects were content to celebrate "relatively trivial subjects". But a new school of architecture is emerging - what Jencks calls "complexity or non-linear architecture", architecture that "extends ideas at the edge of knowledge".

Jencks believes the present consensus of scientific knowledge is being challenged by ideas emerging from complexity theory, fractal geometry, quantum theory and non-linear mathematics. He argues that mainstream scientists who view the universe as developing gradually and deterministically are at odds with the postmodern "sciences of complexity" that, "taken together, paint an entity that is more like a dynamic organism than a dead machine".

Complexity theory, the Gaia hypothesis, chaos and quantum theories all point towards the idea that "the universe is a single, unfolding self-organising event, something more animal than machine, something radically interconnected and creative, that jumps suddenly to higher levels of organisation and delights us as it does".

For Jencks, this new understanding of reality overturns "the four great enslaving 'isms' of modernity: determinism, mechanism, reductivism and materialism. The concepts that have replaced them are emergence, self-organisation, evolution by punctuated equilibria and cosmogenesis - creativity as basic in the universe."

The overall effect is to negate the nihilistic view that our place in the universe is accidental, that instead we are "built into the laws of the universe in some fundamental ways".

So what kind of buildings emerge from this cosmogenic world view? Well, there is the Guggenheim, Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin and Peter Eisenman's school of architecture in Cincinnati. All three "confirm the paradigm of I complexity architecture or non-linear architecture".

Architects as diverse as Frank Gehry, Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Libeskind and engineer Cecil Balmond share common ground in investigating new mathematical and scientific ideas. In Bilbao, for instance, the curves and folds of Gehry's museum echo the way that patterns in nature are constantly similar but never identical - representations of an underlying order propounded by chaos theory. Libeskind's forthcoming spiral extension for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London will treat the idea differently in its form and its tile cladding - a fractal non-repeating pattern based on the ideas of the Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose.

What they all have in common, as Jencks points out in his recently revised book, The Architecture of the Jumping Universe, is a willingness to accept and to describe grand visions. "For the first time in the West since the 12th century we are beginning to construct an all-encompassing story that could unite people across the globe, a metanarrative of the universe and its creation."

Born in New England and educated at Harvard, Jencks moved to London in the 1960s to study architecture. Since 1969 he has produced nearly 30 books on architecture and on postmodernism including, perhaps, the movement's most lucid manifesto, his 1986 book What Is Post Modernism?.

Now nearly 60, Jencks has spent much of the past decade gardening on a grand scale. It is through his gardens rather than through his buildings that he explains cosmogenesis. The gardens in the grounds of his late wife Maggie Keswick's family home in Scotland were initially conceived as a response to the lack of a shared global philosophy or uniting metanarrative. The largest is the Garden of Cosmic Speculation - a landscape transformed with spirals, fractal patterns, soliton waves, folds and other metaphorical representations of such non-linear concepts as complexity theory and chaos.

"We have lived through a modernist, Darwinian, nihilist period that denied there was value in the universe I We were the great accident because we could speak and think and see our own mortality. Yet it all added up to nothing. I think they were wrong. The universe has meaning," he concludes.

John Kelleher is a writer and filmmaker who has made several films about architecture.

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