Tall and willowy, Jencks is dressed entirely in black, and he suggests an interview in his Sundial Arcade, a small conservatory overlooking the garden and centered on a half-moon table painted to function as a sundial. Nearby sits his collection of Chinese viewing stones, mute but powerful memory sticks of sacred rock placements through history and prehistory.
Jencks speaks softly, in a posh East Coast accent edged a little by his time in England, and he appears to be a self-contained man who is often aghast but never enraged. He exudes a smooth urbanity in his measured speech and manner, and this softens the effect of his polemics, which can veer from examples of architecture to U.S. foreign policy. The Greco-Roman architecture of civic Washington? “My old professor called it pluperfect, dead on arrival.”
Jencks settled in Britain in the mid-1960s, fleeing the cultural turmoil at home. Even if he had not left for political reasons, it seems likely he would have joined the ranks of expats in London. There is something Jamesian about him.
“Europe has been in my bones,” he said. Art and design are in his genes. He is named after his great uncle, Charles Platt, an artist and engraver turned landscape architect. Platt is remembered as the influential champion of the Italian villa style in the Country Place Era a century ago.
Jencks moved from Baltimore as a young child and grew up in Westport, Conn., and Cape Cod, Mass. Packed off to boarding school when he was 12, he studied English and architecture at Harvard.
His family had been independently wealthy — a forebear had invented the safe-deposit box — a condition that no doubt opened creative avenues to the clan. Platt lived in the artist’s colony of Cornish, N.H. Jencks’s father was a pianist and composer. His mother, trained as a biologist, became a serious painter. His sister, Penelope Jencks, is a sculptor. His daughter, Lily Jencks, is a landscape designer who has teamed with her father for several international commissions, including a cosmically symbolic garden at the CERN Super Collider site near Geneva.
Campbell said she found Jencks’s writings pompous, but when she heard him lecture, her view changed. “He’s not arrogant. He’s sweet and naive and earnest,” she said. “It makes one feel less antagonistic towards him.”
Exploring primal landforms
For Jencks, Northumberlandia was a chance to explore the primal landforms that connect him not just to the cosmos, but humankind’s long-standing need to talk to it. The White Horse of the Berkshire Downs in southern England may have been formed in the 5th century B.C.; Jencks conjectures that its original users were farmers who used it in ritual celebration of the sowing or harvest, marching to a tune or chant.