Charles Jencks was already well known as an architectural theorist when he came to write Heteropolis: Los Angeles, The Riots and the Strange Beauty of Hetero-Architecture in 1993. As early as 1977 he had written The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, which theorises not only the architectural but also the wider cultural phenomenon of post-modernism. The book was a major success, and if today we have the sense that post-modernism appeared as early, if not earlier, in architecture as in any other field it is not only any actual building but also Jencks’ own book we have to thank. Certainly, Fredric Jameson used Jencks in his ground-breaking (and also early) essay ‘Theories of the Post-Modern’, originally published in 1984. And, more specifically, in his celebrated analysis of the then-recently built Westin Bonaventure Hotel and the way its glass skin ‘repels the city outside’ in ‘Post-Modernism and Consumer Society’ (Jameson 1984, 82), he repeats aspects of Jencks’ own earlier treatment of the building in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture and his description of its exteriors there as an ‘absolute geometrical image, parts of which in mirrorplate reflect like overblown jewels’ (Jencks 1978, 34).
For its part, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture seeks to identify a general style or language of the post-modern that lies behind any of its particular instances. Jencks had previously written a series of well-regarded books on major modernist architects – Alvar Aalto in 1967 and Le Corbusier in 1973 – and so was well attuned to the fact that something new had appeared to be happening in architecture from the early 1960s on. In post-modernism, there is a collapse of the distinctions between univalence and polyvalence, formalism and symbolism and newness and historicism that had defined modernism. Post-modernism, therefore, is characterised by a ‘hybridity’ (Jencks 1978, 87), in that what was previously separated is now brought together. And Jencks sees this collapse of opposites in a whole series of buildings that might at first appear different. Thus in Robert Venturi’s Headquarters Building in Pennsylvania (1960), we have the historical use of ornament. In Kisho Kurokawa’s National Children’s Land Lodge (1964-5), we have a traditional Japanese roof combined with a modernist lack of surface detail. And in Darbourne and Dark’s Pimlico Housing (1961-8), we have heavy bricks coming out into space used as surface decoration. Post-modernism for Jencks is essentially a form of populism, in that the technical distinctions that formerly excluded outsiders in architectural discourse no longer apply and this discourse is now available to a much wider public. This for Jencks has an undoubted ‘political’ meaning and consequence – and he broadly associates post-modern architecture with a strengthening of democracy and the increased accessibility of people to their own culture and transparency of political representation.