While the old sciences “were linear, deterministic and relatively simple,” Jencks said, the new cosmic age brings a cauldron of fractals, spirals, soliton waves and other shapes. He sees their effects everywhere — in the chaotic dance of a hurricane, the stormy Great Red Spot of Jupiter, a draining bathtub or even the nerve impulses of our brains.
The double helix features in a number of his sculptures, including one in Cambridge unveiled by James Watson and in his DNA garden at Portrack House.
In one element of the 25-acre Portrack garden, Jencks designed a distorted checkerboard terrace beneath an old tree. The patterns of aluminum and turf evince the stellar tug of a black hole.
In another part of the garden, Jencks created a stone structure incorporating a seat paying homage to subatomic particles, including bosons. In April 2010, the demure physicist behind the idea of a universal generative particle, Peter Higgs, traveled from Edinburgh, Scotland, for lunch and to pose sitting on the sculpture. If the particle seat “is not quite the cosmos in the landscape I am pursuing,” Jencks later wrote, “then it is at least the cosmologist.”
These cosmically inspired shapes “are increasingly common in contemporary design,” said John Beardsley, landscape historian and director of landscape studies at Harvard’s research center at Dumbarton Oaks. “Everyone is about fractals these days, and Jencks provided a really clear theoretical exposition of how contemporary design related to chaos theory and complexity science,” Beardsley said. He wonders, though, if some of Jencks’s art suffers from being too literal.
Katie Campbell, a landscape historian based in London, said this newfound scientific knowledge of the cosmos is not yet part of the public’s consciousness, and she wonders whether observers of Jencks’s work will get it.
“Half of me thinks it’s pretentious bull, and half of me thinks, how intriguing, and it’s provocative,” Campbell said. For all the abstrusity of Jencks’s work, she said, “that we are talking about horticulture as a contemporary art form is pretty fabulous.”
Richardson, the London critic, finds Jencks’s sculptures didactic (“schoolmasterly”) and their reach so ambitious as to be grandiose, and yet he says the Garden of Cosmic Speculation works as garden design, a place of plants and crafted spaces. “It was the aesthetic beauty of the place that I admired,” he said.
Richardson also admires Jencks as a bulwark against a prevailing view that intellectual inquiry and symbolism have no place in garden design. Moreover, he thinks Jencks’s singular landforms — tiered, grassy, sinuous mounds, often in relationship to water — have made a significant contribution to landscape architecture.