Writer Charles Jencks on hope

Charles Jencks spoke at length on The Architecture of Hope. Picture: Gary Doak/Writer Pictures
Charles Jencks spoke at length on The Architecture of Hope. Picture: Gary Doak/Writer Pictures
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“HOPE,” said Charles Jencks, “is a hard-won thing, something you have to work at. Optimism is a lightweight version of it, but hope is an active verb as well as a noun. It’s always in a dialectic with fear.”

He knows whereof he speaks, this Baltimore-born septuagenarian architectural theorist and critic, landscape artist and designer, and he know this because of the buildings the charity he and his wife set up when she was dying of cancer 20 years ago: the 20 Maggie’s Centres now up and running and helping those who are now in her situation then.

That’s why he calls his book The Architecture of Hope, because these centres – individually designed by some of the world’s leading architects – have to play their part in that dialectic with fear. Such buildings have to be able to distance themselves from the rushing utilitarianism of the mega-hospitals in whose grounds they often stand, and open up the possibility of thinking about spirituality and nature. Touring the world with Maggie, they’d seen such places together: the fourth-century BC Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus, perhaps, or the 15th-century Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy.

Their own versions would, of course, be different, based on informality, welcome, openness – everything you’d expect to find around a kitchen table, and everything that was lacking when Maggie Keswick, Jencks’s wife of 22 years, was told in Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital that the cancer in her body had spread so far within her that she only had two months to live. Within seconds, the oncologist who told her that had to to deal with other patients, leaving them to cope with the news in a hospital corridor. There wasn’t even anywhere to go to have a little cry, by oneself or with a loved one.

The first dilemma Maggie and her husband had to answer was whether they should draw up a blueprint that could be applied anywhere in the world for the drop-in centres they envisaged for cancer sufferers and their families. It would, after all, be cheaper that way. That’s what the Cistercians did and nobody minded too much.

But they opted for individually designed architecture of hope and it seems to be paying dividends. The one designed by Frank Gehry in the grounds of Ninewells hospital in Dundee, for example, may have cost 
£1.75 million but media coverage would equate to at least three times as much in advertising, and advertising means more funds for more centres (another four are being built right now). As a landscape architect, Jencks has caused massive bits of Scotland to be shifted around; it was a privilege to listen to someone who has done the same for our inner selves too.

Fear figured a lot larger than hope in the questions Peter Pomerantsev faced after his rapid-fire talk about contemporary Russia. As anyone knows who has read Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, his memoir of working in Moscow’s manic media circus for a decade, this is one of those books whose essence is perfectly captured (like Jencks’s, come to that) in its title.

“Russia,” he noted, “has seen so many worlds flow through in such blistering progression – from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-ruch – that its new heroes were left with the sense that everything is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position and belief is mutable.”

At first, he was captivated by such bewildering change; later he became disillusioned by its cynicism and the impossibilities of working even in the middle reaches of entertainment TV without being able to tell the full stories, because that depended on being able to bring in politics at the margins, and doing that in turn demanded impossible levels of double-think and psychological compartmentalisation.

Pomerantsev’s memoir is both hilarious and frightening, but from the questions he faced, some of the audience seem to have forgotten that it IS just a memoir, not a book of contemporary geopolitics. The question tugging around the minds inside the Garden Tent was quite simple – is Putin’s Russia going to push for war? – but for that Pomerantsev couldn’t really supply the answers.

The only answer he came up with was the one in the first part of his book’s title. Because that’s the thing about Putin’s Russia, he insisted: everything really is possible. The regime, no matter how solid it looks right now, could change direction in a minute. Look at that quote from his book about all its many recent transfigurations. Remember how much of a shock it was when the Berlin Wall came down. But would you really want to bet on it?