The Cosmic House
Words by Bertie Russell
The Cosmic House is one of the key landmarks in the development of Post-Modernist architecture. A hugely influential distillation of the ideas at the heart of Post-Modern thought in culture and science.
Lansdowne Walk is a smart street in West London lined with Victorian townhouses. Seen from outside, No.19 looks no different from the rest, except for the words ‘The Cosmic House’ painted on the entrance gate. However, enter the gates and pass through the front door, and you will find a unique monument to postmodern design.
Origins of The Cosmic House
The Cosmic House belonged to Charles Jencks, an American born at the beginning of the First World War.
After studying at Harvard, Jencks moved to London for a graduate degree in twentieth-century architecture. Here he began his career as a critic, writing more than thirty books on contemporary design and becoming a champion of postmodernism. According to Jencks, modern architecture had become standardised, dogmatic and dull, whereas postmodern architecture was diverse, idiosyncratic and witty.
At the same time, Jencks had a parallel career as a designer, becoming best known for his landscape gardens, which were another statement of his postmodern preferences. The gardens consist of spiralling mounds, zig-zagging paths and twisted chequerboard terraces, expressing his interest in physics, cosmology and mathematics. He also designed Northumberlandia, the Lady of the North, a vast landform sculpture of a reclining woman, built from the rubble of a nearby mine and surrounded by ponds and footpaths.
Architecture, design and aesthetics
His home in Holland Park remains the best expression of his views on architecture, design and aesthetics.
The house is four storeys high, with a central spiral staircase rising up through the building. On visiting the property it’s easy to lose any sense of proportion or scale, as internal windows and gaps in the walls mean that, wherever you stand, you can see into other rooms. And, thanks to the range of colours, textures and materials, it’s difficult to work out where the eye should settle or the attention fix. At the same time, there are mirrors set into the ceilings and doors, while the folded roof of the study resembles the flowing fabric of a tent.
In the past, house interiors were often the vision of a single architect. However, in the Cosmic House different rooms features contributions from many different designers, adding to the sense of eclecticism. So, the basement contains an imitation of a Renaissance dome by Francesco Borromini, turned upside down and sunk into the ground to provide a jacuzzi. Meanwhile, the ground floor rooms boast a pair of fireplaces designed by the contemporary American architect Michael Graves, with pillars and lintels painted to resemble marble, topped with busts like a classical temple. And the bedroom borrows from the elegant designs of the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh – all cool white lines and curving patterns – to create a calm, temple-like space.
A living manifesto of postmodernism
Almost every object in every room relates to some larger symbolic structure.
The best example is probably the library, which Jenks called the ‘City of Books’, where each building-like bookcase has a different design to emphasise what’s contained inside. So, volumes about Egypt are housed beneath conical pyramids, while texts on Rome are contained in rounded domes; early medieval work occupies a set of stepped gables, while modernist literature is enclosed in symmetrical slabs. That said, you don’t need to pick up all the references to enjoy the Cosmic House. In fact, the complexity can disguise the fact that wandering round Jencks’ home is fun: like getting lost in a fairground House of Mirrors. At the same time, you leave with a better understanding of postmodernism than any book on the subject might give you.
Charles Jencks was a memorable figure, popular among cultural circles in London. He often in dressed in a suit of purple velvet, with a deep-brimmed hat and a scarf draped across one shoulder. His most lasting legacy was the charity Maggie’s, founded after the death of his second wife, Maggie Keswick Jencks. The charity provides drop-in centres for anyone who has been affected by cancer, and each centre is intended as a therapeutic space. Most are filled with calming furniture and natural light, which Jenks called an architecture of hope, and they have been designed by well-known figures such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers. The centres do not provide medical support, but instead comfort patients and their families through all the other challenges of cancer, so that they do not ‘lose the joy of living in the fear of dying’.
Visiting The Cosmic House
This idea – that architecture and wellbeing are deeply linked – was behind much of Jencks’ writing and thinking. That legacy lives on in the eighteen Maggie’s centres now in operation, as well as the unique museum, archive, and exhibition space of the Cosmic House .
You can buy tickets to visit The Cosmic House here. Tickets for July will be released in early June.