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Architecture and Design

A sign to me is a one-liner, a symbol is very complex and my house is a series of symbols.—Charles Jencks

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, it is a remarkable testament to the polymathic talents of Maggie and Charles Jencks.

Built between 1978 and 1983 the house subverts the genteel architecture of Holland Park, exaggerating, caricaturing and embellishing the white stucco until it becomes a microcosm of contemporary architectural theory, semiotics and historiography. An almost human character is imposed on the architecture with each element related to the human body and then to the larger cosmos. It is an architectural essay about our relationship to proportion, building, culture and the universe.

Densely packed with ideas, symbols and motifs, its architecture embraces an entire cosmos of architectural allusion, history, metaphor and reference. Switching between pop and classical culture, between high art and accessible kitsch, it became a built manifesto for the architecture that emerged in reaction to the slowly solidifying canon of Modernism as it faded in the late mid-century. Designed in collaboration with architect (Sir) Terry Farrell, and built between 1978 and 1983, the house became a forum for conversation and dialogue at the epicentre of the Post-Modern moment and the cultural discourse around ideas, history, science and aesthetics.

The spaces are characteristically Post-Modern with multiple changes in levels, shifted axes, fragmented forms, architectural quotations, views obliquely across spaces and glimpses of neighbouring spaces enticing the visitor around the interior. 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 Cosmic House represents a synthesis of ideas about science and the arts embodied in everything from its front door to its furniture. It is a true PoMo Gesamtkunstwerk in which the Jenckses and their friends designed everything and integrated art, furniture and ideas into the architecture and design. Michael Graves designed the fireplaces and Piers Gough the jacuzzi. Works by Eduardo Paolozzi and Allen Jones are integral to the design of the interior. Rem Koolhaas was commissioned to design the Spring room, although the design was never executed as it was deemed not suitably symbolic.

The house might be seen as a contemporary parallel to Sir John Soane’s House completed a century and a half earlier. Both houses were intended as expressions of personality, ideas and as tools for teaching and illustrating the history and potential of architecture. Like Sir John Soane’s House, The Cosmic House has its own complex narrative, a story which unwinds as the visitor wanders around and in which the house itself becomes a character.

History

Charles and Maggie Jencks began work on the house in 1978 and set about transforming it into one of the most unique and remarkable domestic buildings of the late twentieth century. Working with architect (Sir) Terry Farrell, their designs played with the formal early Victorian villa architecture of Holland Park and its conventions and motifs and remodelled the interior to create a complex scenography of stories and histories. Treating the interior almost like the romantic gardens of the eighteenth century in which visitors would be taken on a walk through a narrative landscape filled with classical allusions and references to art and learning, Jencks created an interior which (mostly) suited both living and learning.

The Cosmic House became a forum for Post-Modern ideas, a place for parties and dinners, discussion and debate. It became the de facto locus of PoMo where architects and friends from Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster to Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas and Madelon Vriesendorp debated the direction of modern architecture and design.

In 2018 the house was listed at the highest level of protection, Grade I, in recognition as its status as a built manifesto for Post Modernism and a pivotal centre of global architectural culture. Jencks wanted the house to be preserved and to remain as a vital and critical forum for the discussion of culture and cosmology, science and design and, together with his daughter Lily, they sketched out plans for the next phase of its life as a public space. The works were carried out to those designs during 2019–2020. A basement was expanded and redesigned to accommodate a new gallery while the space outside was formed into a miniature theatre, echoing elements of the interior and creating a small forecourt to the new space.

In 2021 the house opened to the public and the new Jencks Foundation will run a cultural programme of exhibitions and seminars, and support research through grants, residencies and publications.

Charles Jencks

Charles Jencks (1939–2019) was a writer, critic, designer and teacher whose work defined and refined the disparate and wide-reaching ideas behind Post Modernism. Arguably the most widely-read and influential writer on architecture of the late twentieth century, his books were pivotal in explaining, illuminating and developing the often complex ideas behind Post Modernism. The Cosmic House was a physical manifestation of those ideas incorporating and metabolising references to developments in art history and science, philosophy, cosmology and the body.

Jencks was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Gardner Platt Jencks, a modern classical composer, and Ruth de Witt Pearl and studied English Literature at Harvard. His interest in architecture piqued by the construction of the Carpenter Centre for the Visual Arts by Le Corbusier, Jencks switched to Architecture, attending Harvard’s Graduate School for Design and leaving with an Architecture degree in 1965. He came to London and continued his studies at University College under Reyner Banham. His 1973 book, Modern Movements in Architecture, became a canonic text, reintroducing a complexity into the history of modernism which had often been seen as monolithic. It was his 1977 book The Language of Post Modern Architecture, however, which crystallised his position at the centre of the new architecture. That work fed into his designs for the Cosmic House (1978) which was conceived as a kind of personal Post Modernist manifesto and an experiment on himself and his family.

In 1978 Jencks married Maggie Keswick, whose interest in Chinese gardens spurred him to take a new look at landscape. He embarked on a parallel career as a well-regarded designer of landforms, dramatically sculpted landscapes which embodied complex cosmological symbolism. The zenith of this aspect of his oeuvre was the constantly evolving Garden of Cosmic Speculation at their house in Dumfriesshire. A rolling, surreal landscape of spirals, swirls, peaks and trenches interspersed with sculptures and other interventions, it was a contemporary riposte to the eighteenth-century narrative garden. Instead, however, of evoking stories and episodes from mythology and classical art it revealed a series of speculations about the universe, its origins, its laws and the evolving understanding of space and time. Not far away, the Crawick Multiverse explores similar scientific themes through land art and terraforming while other projects include Northumberlandia and the Spirals of Time in Milan.

When Maggie Jencks became ill with cancer, the couple embarked on an intensive quest to understand the condition, from emerging science and medical procedures to holistic responses and, critically, to ideas about how architecture and landscape might be employed in the traumatic encounter with cancer. Their experiences and reflections led to the conception of the Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres in which architects and friends including Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Richard Rogers, Kisho Kurokawa, Norman Foster and others were commissioned to create what Jencks termed ‘an architecture of hope’.

Fiercely active until the day he died in 2019, Jencks put in place the framework for the Cosmic House to be preserved as a museum and to provide a forum for the ongoing discussion of ideas in architecture, design, science and culture and particularly the strands of each affected by the Post Modernism he was himself so instrumental in directing. Together with his daughter Lily, Jencks drew up plans for the new exhibition space and, with Edwin Heathcote, ideas for what the Cosmic House might become.

Maggie Keswick Jencks

Maggie Keswick Jencks (1941–1995) was a writer, gardener and designer. With her father, she founded the Holywood Trust (south-west Scotland) and the Keswick Foundation (Hong Kong). Her book The Chinese Garden was the first major western publication on the intricate designs of the Scholars gardens of Eastern China and she worked as a garden designer. Before her death in 1995 she wrote the blueprint for Maggies Cancer Caring Centres, which now support people with cancer in 27 centres throughout the UK, designed by internationally renowned architects.

Post-Modernism

Post-Modernism was a movement which emerged in the mid to late twentieth century and spanned architecture, art, literature, philosophy, criticism and science. It has been characterised by its adherence to a fragmented, ironic view of the world and the re-adoption of historical references, humour, kitsch and pop culture. Jencks defined it as a system in which levels of meaning, sometimes complimentary, occasionally contradictory, might co-exist. It was a self-conscious reaction to the seriousness of Modernism, its intolerance of diversity of expression and its general lack of a sense of humour.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown and Michael Graves in the US and Aldo Rossi, Rem Koolhaas and James Stirling in Europe pioneered the ideas of Post-Modernism in architecture in the 1970s and its theory and scope were codified by Charles Jencks in his best-selling book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977). Jencks suggested that this new architectural language was characterised by its ‘double-coding’, a complex system of signs and symbols which allowed architecture to speak more than one language, to be simultaneously popular and pretentious, embodying high and low culture. Post-Modernism reached its apogee in the 1980s and 1990s when it became almost ubiquitous in popular and commercial culture as well as high art.

Jencks also suggested, controversially, that we are still in the Post-Modernist moment and, by implication, that most architecture remains Post-Modernist, a tag which upset many designers who continue to see it as a style rather than an epoch. Jencks termed the contemporary condition the Heteropolis, a culture in which anything goes.

The Maggie Keswick Jencks Will Trust was established following the death of Maggie Jencks and is responsible for the operation of The Cosmic House.