Filled with Symbolism and Reference, Cosmic House Opens to the Public

Visitors to the home Charles Jencks designed for himself and his family will find a Postmodern polyphony of ideas and icons.

“In some ways the house is like a hypertext,” says Lily Jencks, of the dizzyingly postmodern West London home her late father, the architect and critic Charles Jencks, created in the 1980s with his designer wife Maggie. “You get into one thing, open up that reference, find another set of references and then within those references a whole other set of references. It’s like a Russian doll of symbols.” The Cosmic House, which recently opened to the public as a museum and salon space, is indeed so rich with postmodern flourish, decoration, inscriptions, and symbolism, that it can be hard to keep up.

Fortunately, there’s a neat little booklet written by architecture critic Edwin Heathcote, who was given the enigmatic title of ‘Keeper of Meaning’ by Jencks shortly before he died, which details the home’s dense and experimental program based on cosmology, the seasons and the history of science and architecture. It is peppered with many inimitable Jencksian one-liners and stories of the collaborators involved in creating the home—Charles and Maggie collaborated with Terry Farrell on the elevations and interiors for instance, while Michael Graves created two fireplaces and Piers Gough an opulent jacuzzi.

For my father postmodernism was a way of freeing things up from the seriousness of modernism.”

Lily Jencks, architect and daughter of Charles Jencks
Cosmic House exterior
Charles Jencks’ Cosmic House is the home he and his wife Maggie built in West London in the 1980s. It is now open to the public.

The symbolism is often quite literal, intentionally so. As Jencks says in the film on view in the Room of Doubles on the lower ground floor, some of the “symbolism is so obvious you can’t miss it.” The mock marble frieze in the kitchen that is decorated with projecting salad spoons instead of classical triglyphs is a good example. Jencks calls them spoon-glyphs in the video and adds drily to camera: “If you can’t stand the kitsch, get out of the kitchen”.

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The symbolic heart of the house is its circular concrete staircase whose 52 steps represent the weeks of the solar year and features a handrail with steel balls that stand for the sun, earth and moon. There’s a dark mosaic at the bottom of the stairwell (designed by artist Eduardo Paolozzi of London tube fame) and an expansive celestial glass dome at the top that fills the home with light. At the mid-summer point of the sculptural staircase (also Jencks’ birthday) you reach the library. Filled with bookcases designed to look like buildings—pyramidal for Ancient Egyptian, domed for Ancient Roman, stepped gables for books on the Medieval era—it is a “city within a house within the city,” Jencks’ slide collection is kept in a series of tall gabled towers he referred to as “slide-scrapers.” Humor, puns, memes, and metaphors are everywhere in the Cosmic House, even in the material palette, which is only deceptively precious. “There are incredible amounts of painted MDF in the house,” laughs Lily.

Interior living room including fireplace.
Now opened to the public, Cosmic House will house the Jencks Foundation, which will use it to hist residencies, salons, seminars, and exhibitions.

Perhaps the most irreverent mash up of high and low culture and iconography is the Dome of Water on the lower ground floor, or more prosaically the jacuzzi. Designed by Piers Gough, it is an upside-down representation of the dome of the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane church in Rome by Borromini. Gough and Jencks selected that particular dome by going through the latter’s slide library and turning all the domes they found upside down. The fact that Lily remembers using it only once, and that the water was cold, seems almost irrelevant.

“For my father post modernism was a way of freeing things up from the seriousness of modernism,” she says, but, in a neat conundrum that is befitting of the house and its multivalent ideas, she also says he took jokes and play very seriously. As you wander from floor to floor, and from one thematically named space to another, it becomes clear that the house is a living manifesto, an experimental embodiment of a polyphony of ideas, styles and voices designed to provoke debate and conversation and test out various ideas in architectural form. In the film Jencks admits that his experiment may have gone too far, that he had been guilty of over-designing certain things. He even calls some of what he has done in the house “really ugly”.

“He was being critical yes, but also as a provocation to himself,” says Lily, an architect and landscape designer in her own right. “He really enjoyed that dynamism of being both architect and critic, taking two positions in order to flesh out an idea. And he liked to take the extreme position.” It’s this legacy of plurality of thought and open-ended debate that the newly created Jencks Foundation aims to keep alive in the house by hosting residencies, salons, seminars, and exhibitions (the latter in a new space carved out of a former garage and designed by Lily and her father before he died). The house’s library will also be made available to the public. Lily wants the family’s former home to be anything but a mausoleum she says. Charles Jencks may no longer be with us, but through his Cosmic House he still has a great deal to say.

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