October 26, 2021
Filled with Symbolism and Reference, Cosmic House Opens 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”.
More from Metropolis
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.
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.
Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]
Is Coliving Finally Having Its Moment?
Long touted as a housing solution for young people in urban centers, interest in coliving appears to be surging with new projects in the U.S. and Europe that boast affordability and built-in community.
Rediscovering America’s First Independent Woman Architect
An exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design dives into the biography and legacy of a path-breaking architect.
Can the Tech Industry Learn to Be a Good Neighbor?
In Culver City, California, a tech boom has reshaped the urban fabric, and not everyone is happy about it.