The Cosmic House is the first Post-Modern house in the UK to be given Grade I listed status (meaning it must be preserved). Once the private residence of the late Maggie and Charles Jencks, the eccentric home opened to the public in September 2021 as a “cultural laboratory” and museum.
From the outside, it doesn’t necessarily stand out from all of the other large brick and white stucco terraced townhouses. But that formal facade conceals extraordinary interior design.
It represents architect Charles Jencks’s attempt to recreate symbolic architecture for the modern era. This was his Post-Modernist experiment yet also his family home. Today, the Cosmic House is one of the world’s most important examples of Post-Modern architecture.
Charles Jencks (1939–2019) was a writer, critic, architect, designer and teacher. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland and grew up in an artistic household. He read English Literature at Havard and then switched to Architecture. He continued his studies in London and married designer Maggie Jencks in 1978.
No.19 Lansdowne Walk is an end-of-terrace Victorian townhouse built in the early 1840s with a 1950s garage. In 1978, the Jencks’ commissioned the architect Terry Farrell to transform the architectural shell of the property. The standard staircase was removed and a central spiral staircase was installed with rooms flowing around it. A second light shaft was added plus a two-storey annexe.
It was the vision of Charles Jencks that created the interior design but he collaborated with like-minded artistic friends including Piers Gough, Eduardo Paolozzi, Michael Graves and Allen Jones.
The Holland Park home was carefully designed as a manifesto of Post-Modern architecture – a movement that Jencks, at that time working as a historian and writer, was responsible for defining, developing and disseminating. It was completed in 1985 and was a kind of sequel to Jencks’ 1977 seminal work, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. While the book was Post-Modernism in theory, The Cosmic House put it into practice.
Unusually for an interior of this period, it remains substantially as it was designed, built and lived in, with all its original bespoke furniture and fittings intact.
The home-turned-museum uses rich symbolism and wry humor. This landmark example of 20th-century Post-Modernism was previously known as The Thematic House. Those themes include cosmology, the seasons, Egypt, China, architectural history and Jencksiana.
Jencksiana is a personal motif modeled on the Palladian Serliana window (also known as a Venetian window). The stepped motif with a semicircular arch was designed both as Jencks’ personal trademark and as an anthropomorphic symbol. It is intended to evoke a face and act as a representation of humanity within the architecture. It can be seen throughout the interior and exterior of the house. There is also a Jencks Typeface which was used for the many inscriptions inside the house, the gallery, and on the furniture.
Open to the Public
Charles Jencks would show every visitor around his home with passionate enthusiasm which did not diminish over time. Shortly before his death at age 80 in 2019, he resolved to make his home a museum. This has been realized by his daughter, the designer Lily Jencks, and the writer Edwin Heathcote, who Charles appointed ‘Keeper of Meaning.’
The house features a new exhibition space dedicated to exploring the connections between cosmology, architecture, science and design. The alteration was approved before the house was listed by Historic England as a monument of outstanding architectural and historic importance in 2018.
The Cosmic House is a unique visitor experience but the Jencks Foundation archive and library will also be available so the house can continue its role as a space for discussion and ideas around contemporary culture.
Head inside with me now…
The Exhibition Room
The public entrance arrives at the basement gallery that was designed by Charles and Lily between 2018 and 2020. The floor is a swirling sea of malachite-like green and the ceiling is mirrored.
Also on the lower ground level, The Room of Doubles has been a spare bedroom, a playroom and a study. It is now where you watch an introductory film before being given an explanatory booklet to then explore freely.
Dome of Water
This is actually a basin and not a dome. It is a jacuzzi designed by Piers Gough, situated at the back of the house looking out onto the garden.
The large oval accommodates six people and is made to look like the inverted dome of a Roman baroque church. Its shape takes cues from the Francesco Borromini–designed dome of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome (1638–1646).
According to Gough’s recollection, Jencks was immediately taken by the idea and the two spent an entire afternoon looking through Jencks’ lecture slides of Roman Baroque illusionist domes turned upside down. Gough said he “put borrow back into Borromini”.
The Time Garden
Maggie designed a clockwise route around the garden using topiary and planting to define the path. Its shape is influenced by the Chinese gardens she had studied (and written about).
At the back of the garden is a door with mirrored panels beneath an arch. Inscribed on it are the words ‘The Future’.
The Solar Stair is a top-lit cantilevered spiral staircase in the center of the house. Engineered by David French, it has 52 concrete treads, each with seven facets in its riser, representing one year. Each step bears a sign of the zodiac/Jencksian astrological signs. Steel balls threaded onto bannister rails depict the sun, moon and Earth. The structure of the stairway is intended also to suggest the double helix of DNA.
To work out the cosmological program of the Solar Stair itself, Jencks consulted with Derek McNally, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory, who proposed a set of interpretations that referenced the cycles of the solar system.
The Solar Stair was inspired by a trip Charles and Maggie took to Inigo Jone’s seventeenth-century Queen’s House in Greenwich. The cantilevered stone Tulip Stair there is stunning.
Jencks certainly wasn’t the first architect with a strong fascination with the sciences. Sir Christopher Wren was an astronomer and it is no coincidence that St Paul’s Cathedral is 365 feet high (one foot for each day of the year).
At the top of the Solar Stair is a domed skylight which brings light and heat into the house above the staircase symbolizing the sun. The ground floor rooms reflect the four seasons and there is a constant feeling of openness as there are no doors to block the views to the next room.
At the bottom is a dark mosaic abstraction of a black hole by Eduardo Paolozzi who was a close friend of the household and a frequent visitor at the house. The mosaic references themes of the cosmos and time by incorporating spirals and other motifs such as clock wheels. The dark of the Black Hole at the base of the stair creates a contrast with the light disc at the top, suggesting Christian symbolism of ascendance.
At the original entrance of the house is the Cosmic Oval in the original lobby. The mirror-lined walls have a poem-like epigram that lists the themes of the house. And frescoes introduce two principal themes that recur symbolically on the journey through the house: cultural time and cosmic time.
The ceiling renders a cosmic oval based on the seventeenth-century Baroque domes of the Italian architect Guarino Guarini (1624–1683) and the pattern is echoed in the inlaid floor.
Next to the high-minded Cosmic Oval is the Cosmic Loo, where the toilet has two handles. The enforced symmetry continues with a real bar of soap and a matching marble ‘soap’ on the sink.
This sitting room at the front of the house has an imposing fireplace designed by American architect Michael Graves. Above sits a bronze bust by Celia Scott, portraying Eduardo Paolozzi but representing Hephaestus. Jencks insisted she added a beard, even though Paolozzi was clean-shaven, to make him look more classically divine.
“I’m very serious about jokes.”
Throughout the house, there are witticisms and linguistic puns to spot such as the lamps mounted on coiled springs in the Spring room.
Here primrose-yellow furniture and classical architecture come together. The six Dice Table-Seats are real-sized copies of the triglyphs of the Parthenon. And the ceiling is disco-mirrored in classical panels.
The fireplace in this room is also designed by Michael Graves with three busts atop attenuated plinths depicting April (young Venus), May (Flora) and June (older, wiser Venus Humanitas) and sculpted by Penelope Jencks.
The Egyptian Room is a small study area off the main living space with a window to the garden. This was where Charles’s assistant often worked. And the Sundial Arcade is a semi-circular window seat around a table sundial. Facing the garden, the seating is sunken and the entire window can lower to the floor. It’s a social gathering space dedicated to the sun.
Summer – Dining Room
Summer is the bright dining room with Greco/Egyptian-style fan-shaped chair backs. The dining table, with planets painted on its four legs (around a central hole representing the sun) is in itself a miniature cosmology and a piece of subtle sun worship. This was where Charles would often sit when designing.
Indian Summer – Kitchen
The kitchen represents an Indian summer inspired by Hindu temples. MDF cabinets are painted to resemble marble and a frieze is decorated with salad serving spoons (in place of triglyphs) to symbolise the pleasure of eating. A kitsch collection of teapots, crockery and a Ganesha complete the decorative scheme.
As Jencks liked to say, “If you can’t stand the kitsch, get out of the kitchen”.
The pantry/utility room at the front of the house is Autumn. The MDF doors hide the washing machine, etc. This was the room that most reminded me of the BBC home improvement show Changing Rooms (1996–2004) as they always seemed to love a terracotta rag-rolled paint effect as well.
Heading up the Solar Stair, the half-landing is where you’ll find Charles’ study, known as The Architectural Library. Beneath an undulating, tent-like roof, the books are thematically arranged in a small city of building-like bookcases. These Slide Scrapers were made from elements of cheap pre-fab office furniture, with their original aluminum surfaces repainted to imitate wood. Somewhat like a city skyline it also reminded me of the children’s section of a public library.
At its core is the curving wall of the Solar Stair with an elaborate window carved layer by layer into the surface in receding planes.
Four Square Room
Moving up to the first floor, the Jencks’ master bedroom is known as the Four Square Room. The bright white room (painted in three shades of white) is obsessively-themed around the square and its four sides. Squares, usually grouped in sets of fours, appear everywhere. The furniture is all built-in and bespoke.
This floor also has the Moonwell – the second light shaft in the property that lights up an area that would otherwise be a dark section of the house. Plus you get to look down onto Bathpool with its green/blue tiles designed to resemble the sea. This room was mostly designed by Maggie who wanted a bathroom with views of the garden. Maggie’s Study is a relatively restrained room at the front of the house as Maggie would say, “Symbolism stops at my door.” But it does have the Jencksiana symbol variations on one wall.
Up onto the second floor, John’s Bedroom is one of the most complex rooms in the house. The bedroom is set under the roof space and a dormer is carved out of the pitch in a large, bright barrel vault. The window is based on the Jencksiana motif.
There’s also Lily’s Room (the smallest bedroom as she was younger) and Nan’s Room. The nanny’s room is one of the larger upper-floor spaces and is centred on a deep dormer with a window seat framed by stepped cabinets to either side.
Does It Work?
Charles Jencks thought of himself as a critic who architects, rather than an architect who critiques. Yet the house is generally quite practical and all of the furniture was designed for the spaces.
From the two front door knobs, there is symmetry everywhere. There are references to quantum physics, theories of the universe and architecture from ancient Egypt. You can spend time looking for the symbolism or you can simply enjoy the design. Charles Jencks certainly didn’t take himself too seriously and that playfulness is here too.
The Cosmic House Visitor Information
Address: 19 Lansdowne Walk, London W11 3AH
Nearest tube: Holland Park
Open: Wednesday, Thursday & Friday
Tour times: 12:30 & 15:00.
Admission: £5 Booking essential.
Only 15 people are allowed on each tour.
Visit duration: 1.5 hours.
Official Website: www.jencksfoundation.org/cosmic-house
Ticket booking link: https://artsvp.co/thecosmichouse.
Tours are often sold out a long way in advance so it’s best to sign up for the newsletter for ticket news.
Five minutes walk away, is the Samarkand Hotel at 22 Lansdowne Crescent which is where Jimi Hendrix died on 18 September 1970.
Marysia Lewandowska‘s site-specific sound installation opened on 10 October 2022. It continues her practice of recovering women’s cultural contributions through the use of voice. The title – How to Pass Through a Door – is borrowed from one of Maggie Keswick Jencks’ notebooks. It is the culmination of the artist’s one-year-long engagement with the Jencks’ archives in London and in Portrack, Scotland. The work activates Maggie’s voice by relying on archival records, both spoken and written, spanning from her formal lectures on the Chinese Garden to the more intimate letters and notes related to the construction of the house. Lewandowska proposes an alternative encounter with the space and acknowledges Maggie’s role and contributions.
The installation will be at The Cosmic House until 8 September 2023.