House of fun

The Cosmic House breaks through the orthodoxies of modernism with its game-playing, colour and ornament

On Architecture

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

One of the great pleasures of the autumn is the opportunity to see and study the Cosmic House on Lansdowne Walk in leafy Holland Park, now open to the public for 15 people a day, only on weekdays, subject to the fierce conditions for visitors required by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (you can book on the Cosmic House website).

Cosmic House was designed as a joint endeavour, much of the original work done by Terry Farrell, who was responsible for the elaborate exterior, the central staircase round which all the other rooms revolve, and the overall ground plan.

Charles Jencks, the owner of the house, was the maestro of the ornament and symbolism. Maggie Keswick, his wife, was presumably party to it all and may have paid for it (her father was Sir John Keswick, chairman of Jardine Matheson). She very much influenced Charles in his interest in Chinese gardens, but perhaps did not have quite the same taste as her husband for cosmic symbolism and retreated to a less decorated room upstairs: “the symbolism stops at my door”.

Michael Graves, the American post-modernist designed two fireplaces, Piers Gough the jacuzzi in the basement, based on a Borromini dome (he claimed to have “put the borrow into Borromini”) and both Jeremy Dixon and Rem Koolhaas did designs for rooms which Jencks rejected.

Work on the design of the Cosmic House began in 1978, the year that Jencks got married. He had met Maggie Keswick whilst teaching at the Architectural Association.

It was the year after he had published The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, his architectural manifesto which he published in seven different editions and was the key text of his life, determined as he was to co-opt every architect and every movement in architecture to post-modernism, including Norman Foster.

Jencks was in favour of ornament, colour, complex symbolism and abstruse architectural meaning

The house looks like, and was intended as, the visual corollary of his book, with all the strengths and weaknesses of a manifesto, where every feature, from the two doorknobs on the front door to the triglyphs of spoons on the kitchen cupboards to the design of the jacuzzi, is a sometimes over-elaborate combination of theoretical statement and joke (Jencks was very serious about jokes), all of it made out of MDF.

Jencks was in favour of ornament, colour, complex symbolism and abstruse architectural meaning. In the 1970s he was one of the key voices in rejecting modernism and introducing a change in architectural style, claiming credit in the multiple books he wrote during the rest of his life, although I have a suspicion that Léon Krier was at least as influential within the architectural community and architects were themselves tiring of modernism and its consequences.

It is not clear where Jencks got his ideas. He had read English as an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1960s and remained interested in literary theory, the idea of meaning in design, and became deeply interested in semiotics during the late 1960s, editing a book on Meaning in Architecture in 1969, jointly with George Baird, who, like Jencks, taught at the Architectural Association. As a postgraduate, he switched to architecture.

Walter Gropius was his Professor at Harvard; but new ideas were beginning to swirl about, as demonstrated by the publication of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by the Museum of Modern Art in 1966 (Jencks claimed not to have been influenced by Venturi, but that is hard to believe as their attitude to ornament, mannerism and architectural meaning are so similar).

In 1965, Jencks got a Fulbright Scholarship to do a PhD at the Bartlett School of Architecture, supervised by Reyner Banham, superficially a very unlikely mentor. But he must have been influenced by Banham in being so obsessively interested in contemporary architecture and how to classify it and, also, in believing that the best way to study architecture was to travel.

His PhD was stuffed full of ideas (a bit like the Cosmic House). It was published in 1973 as Modern Movements in Architecture, a key book in undermining modernism by showing the full range of stylistic choices available and by treating architecture as a menu, rather than a discipline dominated by social responsibility and functionalism.

How has his house worn and what is one to make of it after the near 40 years since its 1983 completion? It is hard to imagine living in it because it is so overloaded with symbolism. Each bookcase is in a different style to match the books and it is impossible to walk past one of the table lights without brushing off half a lampshade.

It is hard to imagine living in it because it is so overloaded with symbolism

But in terms of helping to break through the orthodoxies of modernism with its introduction of game-playing, colour and ornament, its belief that design could be interesting and a subject of passionate after-dinner discussion, we all owe Jencks a debt of gratitude — even if he felt, with some justification, that this was inadequately recognised during his life time.

The Cosmic House is a monument to Jencks, left to a charitable trust to perpetuate his ideas. It is a generous mausoleum.

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