The Cosmic House continues Charles Jencks' legacy in its public reopening

Now transformed into a museum, the structure is regarded as a significant part of the postmodern architectural canon in London, having served as the Jencks family home.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Oct 23, 2021

As the first postmodern house to have been designated a Grade I listed structure in the United Kingdom, The Cosmic House in London - once the private residence of the late Maggie and Charles Jencks, reopened to the public on September 24, 2021, as a cultural laboratory and museum, with the support of the newly-launched Jencks Foundation. Regarded as a landmark example of 20th century postmodernism, the residence - which was formerly known as the ‘Thematic House’ - will now serve as an archive and venue for exhibitions, new commissions, residencies, salons, and seminars promoting critical research and experimentation in the artistic and historical domains. Offering a consolidated repository of Jencks’ work as a historian, critic, writer, landscape designer, and the Co-Founder of Maggie’s care centres, The Cosmic House’s tenure as a museum will feature a programme curated by the Jencks Foundation, that catalogues and preserves his multifaceted legacy.

The Garden façade with a representation of the family of four through the repeated 'Jencksiana' motif around windows and terraces| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
The Garden façade with a representation of the family of four through the repeated 'Jencksiana' motif around windows and terraces Image: © Sue Barr

Overturning the genteel architecture of London's Holland Park where it is located, The Cosmic House was designed and realised by Jencks in collaboration with British architect Sir Terry Farrell between 1978 and 1983. Commonly viewed as a distillation of Jencks' own ideals and those of the postmodern movement at large, the structure distorts the white stucco finishes that characterise much of the neighbourhood into an eclectic, frenzied concoction of iconography, architectural theory, semiotics, and historiography that illustrates humanity's relationship with the cosmos through proportion, culture, and architecture. Having served as the backdrop for innumerable conversations between illustrious architects and thinkers of the time including Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas, and MadelonVriesendorp, The Cosmic House is now seen as one of postmodernism's spiritual homes and a melting pot of its various facets, featuring contributions by notable designers and artists.

The Cosmic Oval at the entrance with its epigraphy in the Jencksian script, sets up the major and minor themes that visitors will find throughout the house| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
The Cosmic Oval at the entrance with its epigraphy in the Jencksian script, sets up the major and minor themes that visitors will find throughout the houseImage: © Sue Barr

Embedded with Jencks' wit and wealth of knowledge, the home's interior design employs fragmented forms, a diverse mix of references, dynamic axes, and multiple level shifts that feature not-so-subtle nods to various astronomical and orbital phenomena. Perhaps the most recognisable among them is the iconic Solar Stair - a cantilevered spiral staircase in concrete that is composed of 52 risers, with each corresponding to a week of the year. The trajectory of this twisting, warped architectural sculpture flows down into the Black Hole mosaic by Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi at its base.

The Solar Stair is a cantilevered concrete spiral in the centre of the building, with Eduardo Paolozzi's Black Hole mosaic at the base| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
The Solar Stair is a cantilevered concrete spiral in the centre of the building, with Eduardo Paolozzi's Black Hole mosaic at the baseImage: © Sue Barr

Looming above the entrance is the Cosmic Oval, a decorative ceiling element that provides a preface to the themes explored within The Cosmic House. Further ahead, the rooms on the home's first floor have been designed to reflect each of the four seasons in a calendar year. For instance, the Winter and Spring rooms host fireplaces designed by American architect Michael Graves. Celia Scott's bust of Hephaestus is settled atop the fireplace in the former, above Chinese scholar's rocks that mimic dancing flames. The Spring Room displays Penelope Jencks' sculptural representations of the three months of spring. Alternatively, the residence's jacuzzi is composed of a Borromini-inspired inverted dome, developed by architect Piers Gough.

  • The Winter Room has a fireplace designed by Michael Graves with Celia Scott's bust of Hephaestus looking over the room where Chinese Scholar's Rocks dance as if they were the fire's flames. The view shows the layering of space with glimpses into the Spring, Summer and Autumn rooms| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
    The Winter Room has a fireplace designed by Michael Graves with Celia Scott's bust of Hephaestus looking over the room where Chinese Scholar's Rocks dance as if they were the fire's flames. The view shows the layering of space with glimpses into the Spring, Summer and Autumn rooms Image: © Sue Barr
  • The Spring Room has a fireplace designed by Michael Graves, crowned with female representations of the 3 months of spring by Penelope Jencks, note the spring-ing light detail| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
    The Spring Room has a fireplace designed by Michael Graves, crowned with female representations of the 3 months of spring by Penelope Jencks, note the spring-ing light detailImage: © Sue Barr

Charles' study, known as The Architectural Library, incorporates a system of bookshelves designed to portray the personas and styles of the architects whose books they carry, beneath an undulating, tent-like roof. Evolutions of scientific representations of the sun adorn the ceiling of the new Exhibition Room, which faces the Time Garden. Radial seating configured around a sundial is the defining element of the Sundial Room, overlooking a garden to the home's south. Finally, the Jencks' master bedroom, dubbed the Four Square Room, is characterised by permutations and combinations of subdivided squares - a motif Charles regarded as the most fundamental unit of architecture.

  • The Dome of Water is a jacuzzi designed by Piers Gough, the design is based on an inverted dome by Borromini| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
    The Dome of Water is a jacuzzi designed by Piers Gough, the design is based on an inverted dome by BorrominiImage: © Sue Barr
  • The new Exhibition Room with the evolution of scientific representations of the sun in the ceiling lights, looking out to the Time Garden, with a floor that resembles malachite, and sculpture by Charles and Lily Jencks above| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
    The new Exhibition Room with the evolution of scientific representations of the sun in the ceiling lights, looking out to the Time Garden, with a floor that resembles malachite, and sculpture by Charles and Lily Jencks aboveImage: © Sue Barr

Under its rebirth as a museum, the group of professionals directing programming at The Cosmic House includes architecture critic Edwin Heathcote, whom Charles titled ‘The Keeper of Meaning’, alongside Catherine Ince, Richard Calvocoressi, Madelon Vriesendorp, Artistic Director of the foundation Eszter Steierhoffer, and Director of the foundation Lily Jencks - the daughter of Maggie and Charles.

  • The Sundial Room faces south over the garden room with radial seating around a sundial| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
    The Sundial Room faces south over the garden room with radial seating around a sundialImage: © Sue Barr
  • The Four Square Room was Charles and Maggie's bedroom, designed around many iterations of the subdivided square motif which Charles considered the most elemental form of architecture| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
    The Four Square Room was Charles and Maggie's bedroom, designed around many iterations of the subdivided square motif which Charles considered the most elemental form of architectureImage: © Sue Barr

Lily Jencks, Director of the Jencks Foundation, shares in an official release, “I am delighted with Eszter’s dual approach for the new programme that will spend this first year focusing on the laboratory of salons, seminars, and archiving, to encourage deeper debate and reflection, that will feed into the public programme. Just as my father loved to provoke, the design of The Cosmic House is an obvious provocation; we are committed to seek alternative points of view, and embrace multidisciplinary collaborators and audiences by connecting architectural narratives with their broader cultural meaning.”

Eduardo Paolozzi, Design for the Black Hole mosaic at the bottom of the Solar Stair, 1983. Gouache, pen and pencil on paper| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
Eduardo Paolozzi, Design for the Black Hole mosaic at the bottom of the Solar Stair, 1983. Gouache, pen and pencil on paperImage: Courtesy of The Cosmic House

Furthermore, The Cosmic House has also received a new online presence and identity developed by John Morgan studio. Envisioned as the Jencks Foundation's digital address, the website for The Cosmic House will be launched in two phases - the first of which involves the creation of a platform to disseminate information about the residence and allow the public to book tickets to visit the property. The next phase, which will be launched in January 2022, encompasses the development of a digital archive hosting a larger selection of Jencks' writings and drawings as well as editorial content centered on the foundation's laboratory and public programming.

  • IlincaCantacuzino, Design for Jencks Moon, 1982. Felt tip on paper| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
    IlincaCantacuzino, Design for Jencks Moon, 1982. Felt tip on paperImage: Courtesy of The Cosmic House
  • Piers Gough, Designs for the Dome of Water, Undated (c. 1978-1984)| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
    Piers Gough, Designs for the Dome of Water, Undated (c. 1978-1984)Image: Courtesy of The Cosmic House
  • Charles Jencks, Annotated Sketch for the Cosmic Oval, Undated (c. 1978 – 1984)| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
    Charles Jencks, Annotated Sketch for the Cosmic Oval, Undated (c. 1978 – 1984)Image: Courtesy of The Cosmic House

Conversely, an archival reading space on the first floor within the home will allow the public to directly peruse through the material on display from the Jencks Foundation's collection, as part of the residence's rebranding. It complements a newly designed gallery that will open with an exhibition titled Cosmic, Comic, Cosmetic: Themes and Designs for a House - showcasing drawings, sketches, and models of the influences and collaborations that defined The Cosmic House's design. The venue is also hosting two artistic residencies. Polish artist Marysia Lewandowska is the first artist invited as part of this initiative, with details of the second residency to be announced later. Furthermore, the Jencks Foundation is also continuing its work with RIBA on the RIBA Charles Jencks Award, to further honour Charles' immense legacy. The 2021 RIBA Charles Jencks Award winner is Indian architect Anupama Kundoo, who will be presented the accolade in a ceremony on November 2, followed by a lecture and interview.

Terry Farrell, Axonometric drawing of the interior, showing annex lower-ground floor, Undated (c. 1978-1981). Image courtesy of Farrell (Sir Terry) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
Terry Farrell, Axonometric drawing of the interior, showing annex lower-ground floor, Undated (c. 1978-1981). Image courtesy of Farrell (Sir Terry) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186 Image: Courtesy of The Cosmic House

A true Gesamtkunstwerk from a revolutionary era within the field of architecture, The Cosmic House is the physical manifestation of the theories and design sensibilities of Jencks and his collaborators, in a multifarious blend that will likely exert an influence on the language of building design for years to come - particularly after its latest metamorphosis.

Terry Farrell, Back Elevation of the Cosmic House, 1980. Image courtesy of Farrell (Sir Terry) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186| Charles Jencks' Cosmic House reopens as a museum | STIRworld
Terry Farrell, Back Elevation of the Cosmic House, 1980. Image courtesy of Farrell (Sir Terry) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186 Image: Courtesy of The Cosmic House

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