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Architecture
The Cosmic House - The Opening of Charles Jencks’ Residence of Over 40 Years, An Interview with Lily Jencks

The Cosmic House - The Opening of Charles Jencks’ Residence of Over 40 Years, An Interview with Lily Jencks

By Von Chua


Stepping into The Cosmic House, I was transformed into another dimension. From street level on a quiet residential street in Holland Park, the only giveaway about this unique internal space to this large-fronted white house is the signage and garage entrance gate. The almost symmetrical signage that says The Cosmic House, in a typeface that has clearly been well-thought about, the wrought-iron double gates gently hints at the circular cosmic reference.

Exterior of The Cosmic House. Photo by Von Chua.


I was greeted at the house's original entrance door and invited into the Cosmic Oval. Seeing the Cosmic Oval in the flesh, walking through it is like walking through a portal. My understanding of a standard house or even a museum's walls, floors and ceiling were challenged, briefly introducing me to another spatial experience. For Charles Jencks and his family, coming home was stepping into this post-modernist space. Charles Jencks (1939-2019) was originally from the US where he studied at Harvard and later moved to London for further studies in architecture. He began designing this house, with his wife Maggie Keswick in Holland Park in the late seventies, during the time which some of his notable publications including Modern Movements in Architecture were published. The house is exactly as it was except for the new exhibition room that used to be the house's garage. 


Lily Jencks, daughter of Charles Jencks, who designed the new exhibition space, and works between architecture, landscape and art kindly gave a tour of the house, shared her thoughts about The Cosmic House through this short interview and what makes it more than just a house museum. 


Von Chua: 

Can you briefly introduce The Cosmic House? 


Lily Jencks:

It is a house that my mother and father built as a manifesto of post-modernism in the late seventies. It was lived in as a family home until 2017 when my father moved out. It's now becoming a house museum that will open to the public through a cultural foundation which we're setting to run the house. We will have cultural programming, residencies, a small run of publications and hopefully connect with academic institutions around issues of the cosmic orientation of architecture - a wonderfully broad and generous position that involves elements of ecological thinking, symbolic universes, the role of craft and ornamentation in architecture, other themes implicit and explicit in the house, and my father's work. 


As you can see, there are many, many ideas in this house; ideas about adhocism, the fun and joy of games, not taking it all too seriously - there are also elements of the absurd or surreal. It feels like the eighties when you walk in here with the colour themes, the artworks, the Allen Jones painting, etc. But it's still relevant today in terms of taste culture. 


Von Chua: 

This house in Holland Park, London was originally called The Thematic House. It was recently changed to The Cosmic House. Can you share what prompted the change and why? 


Lily Jencks:

The iconography throughout the house is relating to the cosmic. My father designed the house working with the ideas of post-modernism and symbolic themes with my mother. It turned out most of the themes they were interested in were to do with providing context and meaning to our place in the world, and wider than that - our places in the Cosmos. 


"It turned out most of the themes (for the Cosmic House) they were interested in were to do with providing context and meaning to our place in the world, and wider than that - our places in the Cosmos."

- Lily Jencks


The change was a key one for my father because if you're interested in ornamentation and meaning, and how architecture communicates, it is natural to ask: What should you be communicating? What should it all be about? For him, it was clear it should be about how we understand our place in the Universe, how we understand our relationship, not just a gaia, but also within the wider cosmic orientation. 


Von Chua: 

When did cosmology come under his radar? 


Lily Jencks:

It's hard for me to pinpoint it. There were two key elements. One, the relationship with my mother and her interest in Chinese gardens. She had an interesting childhood, as her father was the head of a big trading company, she spent quite a lot of time in China in the early eighties visiting Chinese gardens. As you know, these are incredibly, intensely and sophisticatedly designed; microcosms of the macrocosms. They are also about orienting us to our bigger setting; they are very philosophically-inspired places, developing from the rich history of Asian landscape painting. When my parents got together, she wrote a book about Chinese gardens. They lectured a lot together. I surmise exposure to that Eastern way of thinking influenced him.


Secondly, he started landscape design really because of my mother. Here - focusing on the cosmic was an easier, explicit position to take. What should a garden be? Most gardens are about how we orient ourselves to nature on some 'what' - What should we control? What should we let nature control? What should be the combination of meanings and material? 


“He also loved science. The work that he did… he worked with serious scientists… getting them to help him better understand how to represent current understandings of cosmology.”

- Lily Jencks


He also genuinely loved science and was motivated to understand the latest thinking in scientific exploration - be it about cancer care (through the Maggie's Centres: https://www.maggies.org/) or through his work with cosmologists in his garden designs. The work that he did, not so much here in the house but in the gardens (See The Garden of Cosmic Speculation: https://www.charlesjencks.com/the-garden-of-cosmic-speculation) was working with very serious scientists. He worked with the head of the Royal Society (https://royalsociety.org/) and the Astronomer Royal (https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/astronomer-royal). On the landscape project, getting them to help him better understand how to represent current understandings of cosmology.


Von Chua: 

Charles Jencks’ unique position and understanding of architecture - architecturally trained but spent his career as a cultural theorist, landscape designer and architectural historian, and not forgetting Maggie Keswick Jencks’ input on the house, how did these influences have an effect on how The Cosmic House was approached and developed in the late seventies? 



The Architectural Library at The Cosmic House. Photo courtesy of Sue Barr.


Lily Jencks:

Well, his work as a critic and a historian is clear in the Architectural Library*. The whole house was also really a manifesto of post-modernism. He was also helping to define post-modernism in the late seventies. A lot of other people were working on historic post-modernism. If you look around the house, there are some examples of historic post-modernism, but it's pretty wild in terms of his references, eg. both Egypt and PopArt, and both Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement. It's continuously inventive, weird and funny. I think the reason they built this house was to make a point - they really wanted to build a cultural discourse, and used the house as a laboratory to experiment with a symbolic language. 


“The whole house was also really a manifesto of post-modernism. I think the reason they built the house was to make a point - they really wanted to build with a cultural discourse, and used the house as a laboratory to experiment with this symbolic language.” 

- Lily Jencks


*Note on the Architectural Library

Lily Jencks:

The Architectural Library is a really fun room. As my father was working as a critic and a historian, this room is a city of books. Each bookshelf is based on an element from the city; all the 'buildings' relate to the architect whose books are contained in that bookshelf. The library starts with a very modernist grid, very clean, quite precise and evolve through history as it evolves. (Lily points to an icon) My father designed this icon - a circle with a stepped base, which he called the Jencksiana. All the books he wrote sits within the Jencksiana today. The icon can also be seen throughout the house. 

The Jencksiana icon by Charles Jencks. Photo courtesy of Sue Barr.


Von Chua:

With the Sir John Soane's Museum, Soane was known for his experimental spirit and often built things, take them down, then rebuild them again. Was that also something that your father did? 


Lily Jencks: 

No, which is surprising. This house really was like a set piece, except for this sofa (in the Spring Room) that we're sitting on now. Also, the sofa my stepmother installed when she moved in. She said no, we need at least one comfortable sofa to sit on. 


“… the Chinese rocks. He was always repositioning these rocks around the house… From some views they are like an elephant, from another view, they are a face. They have all these different meanings and that was important for him when he was writing about architecture as well, the idea of multiple metaphors and pluralistic meaning."

- Lily Jencks


The things that moved, a bit like Soane, were the Chinese rocks. He was always repositioning these rocks around the house. He loved them for all the reasons that they are a big part of Asian culture. They are a strange combination of dynamic movement but set solid in stone. Also, they are enigmatic signifiers. From some views they are like an elephant, from another view, they are a face. They have all these different meanings and that was important for him when he was writing about architecture as well, the idea of multiple metaphors and pluralistic meaning. 


Von Chua: 

The use of materials and colours throughout the house have been particularly striking to me. To name a few, the fireplace by Michael Graves in MDF was painted to resemble red marble to the use of mirrors at the Moonwell. How did Charles Jencks approach materials and colours? 


Lily Jencks: 

If modernism - in a simplistic view - is about truth to material, pure expression of structure, being transparent with how things are made etc. Post-modernism is a rejection of that, it's about fakery, playful tricks, (some smoke and mirrors), adding ornaments that hide details or express them more, playing with layers of meaning, adding history, adding reference etc. It is always 'more / and'. It's also obviously way cheaper to paint MDF. You can get lots of different colours, exactly as you want them. This allows you to stay more in control of the symbolic programmes, references, and inferences. 


Von Chua:

The Cosmic House is a collection of the work of many architects, designers, craftsmen and artists. Tell me a bit more about the approach.

We sat in the Spring Room with the yellow sofa, fireplace designed by Michael Graves, crowned with female representations of the 3 months of spring by Penelope Jencks. Sketched by Von Chua.

Lily Jencks: 

This floor is organized around the four or five seasons, (for the half-season of Indian Summer). They asked quite a few architects to design the fireplace in the winter and spring rooms. Rem Koolhaas did a design, Jeremy Dickson did a design, and this (fireplace beside the yellow sofa) was built by Michael Graves. Charles and Maggie, as clients, provided a strong symbolic programme of the references - The Three Graces, poems about spring, and then asked architects to respond to those programmes in their design. 


Michael Graves, who was a post-modernist architect was an excellent colourist, using colours to tell 

the story and communicate the programme of the house. He responded to the symbolic programme very clearly. I've been to Michael Graves' house in Princeton, now a house museum - The Warehouse (https://www.michaelgraves.com/the-warehouse-michael-gravess-home-purchased-by-kean-university/). I remember walking into his house and thinking 'Oh! This is so familiar!' For example, the layering of space with interconnected overlapping rooms, which - by the way - is a terrible way to live with teenage children! This house is so noisy, as you have a concrete stair in the middle of it. You hear someone going up and down every time; the reverberation comes right through the house. There are great ideas about in-betweenness but on a functional level with teenage children, it's hard. 


“The first exhibition will be about the design of the house, internally looking to try to explain what the house is. In future years, the exhibitions will be much broader - opening up how we understand the cosmic's relationship to architecture, situating it in discourse.”

- Lily Jencks


The first exhibition will be about the design of the house, internally looking to try to explain what the house is. In future years, the exhibitions will be much broader - opening up how we understand the cosmic's relationship to architecture, situating it in discourse. With the first exhibition, it is more about where we are, what this museum is, as we're all trying to get to grips with it. We have a huge archive, which we're starting to catalogue. It's a lot of work to be done before we've fully explored our own archive. 


Von Chua: 

Charles Jencks worked with several artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Celia Scott. These artworks seem site-specific to me. Are the artworks in the house commissioned art?


“They were friends with lots of different artists who loved to have parties or gatherings, and to have different people who thought different things come together to debate cultural ideas… in the context of this house which had some skin in the cultural game, in terms of marking out his position on what architecture should be." 

- Lily Jencks


Lily Jencks: 

He commissioned most pieces in the house. These sculptures (by Michael Graves' fireplace next to the yellow sofa in the Spring Room) are by my aunt, my dad's sister Penelope Jencks. My father's mum was an artist. They lived in a community of artists in America and that was a big part of his life growing up. They were friends with lots of different artists who loved to have parties or gatherings, and to have different people who thought different things come together to debate cultural ideas. Eg. Why should we have ornamentation? Also projective ideas about what is next and how to evolve as a culture. Artists are the people most engaged with those questions and, naturally, he was friends with many of them. He loved to have people sit down, "You think this, and you (over there) think the opposite. Now both of you have to discuss it!" Of course it would drive people a bit crazy, but it did evoke some fun and interesting conversations. And this was in the context of this house which had some skin in the cultural game, in terms of marking out his position on what architecture should be. 


That's one of the things that we really want to keep alive here. Through residencies, specially commissioned projects, publications, etc to keep that spirit of engaging with and driving contemporary culture. 


Von Chua: 

The yellow sofa here in the Spring Room, it's made for it, isn't it? 


Lily Jencks:

Exactly! Not the most comfortable for lounging around, but very convivial for a debate.


Von Chua:

Charles Jencks submitted a planning application to convert The Thematic House/The Cosmic House into a museum in 2017. When did this intention come to mind? 


Lily Jencks: 

Well, while I worked with my father on the house's conversion to a house museum, I wasn't part of the listing conversation so I don't have the full story. Historic England was doing a series of listings of post-modern buildings. There has since been one other - John Outram's house has been Grade I listed, so there are now two. With the listing, we decided to set up The Cosmic House to open it to the public for others to enjoy. 


“Although we want to preserve the house, that's our primary aim, we're also very open. We want to keep the house alive, to keep it being a place that can help develop spaces for artists, writers and architects to come together and explore ideas. A platform and forum for debate. It's important that it doesn't become too preserved in aspic and that it stays alive."

- Lily Jencks


I wasn't necessarily going to be involved in the project, but when my father died, he asked Edwin Heathcote (the Financial Times architecture correspondent) to be the 'Keeper of Meaning', and Eddie needed more feet on the ground, to set things up. We've always talked about wanting the house not to be a mausoleum. We don't have a massive conservation department. Although we want to preserve the house, that's our primary aim, we're also very open. We want to keep the house alive, to keep it being a place that can help develop spaces for artists, writers and architects to come together and explore ideas. A platform and forum for debate. It's important that it doesn't become too preserved in aspic and that it stays alive. 


Von Chua:

Were there any house museums in the world that provided inspiration and guidance?


Lily Jencks: 

I would love to have spent a year looking at other house museums but we had no time at all. Although certainly, the Soane Museum influenced my father in the design of the house. The use of mirrors, the use of layering of space, using a private house experiment to teach about Architecture - all of that is very Soanian. We looked at that a bit but obviously, we live in a different period, so it's just been about defining what we want to be, rather than looking back at references. We want The Cosmic House to be more than a house museum. We want it to be more than a place that is just about a man, or family, that lived here. It's more ambitious than that. We want to act more like a cultural institute. 


Von Chua:

The Cosmic House is the first post-war home to be Grade I listed, and also one of only two Grade I listed post-war homes in the UK. The listing, at the highest level as a Grade I listed building is of exceptional interest (only 2.5% of listed buildings are Grade I), is a testament to Charles Jencks’ philosophy and work. From your perspective, does this heritage listing change how you and the Jencks Foundation look after the property? 


Lily Jencks: 

I suppose we're lucky. We've already started doing the building works in the garage when it was listed, so we were allowed to finish that building work. It’s partly because we had a big garage and we weren't using it. It's complicated when you plan to have visitors in, with wet umbrellas and coats. You can't have that many people coming in through the original front door at the Cosmic Oval before it gets quite complex. It's already pretty complex taking people around the house, particularly in groups of people more than six. I don't think the heritage listing will change us that much, I hope. 


Though what's great about the listing is that as we're applying to be a charity, the Grade I listing helps in that application because the house is certified as a place of value. It's not just that we think it's a cool place and we want to open it. The house is accepted as something of value, therefore, opening to the public as a charitable object.


Von Chua:

With the new green flooring in the new exhibition space, was it your take or a collaboration between you and your father? 


Lily Jencks: 

The whole conversion of the garage into a new exhibition space was a collaboration. We worked on that in the last year of his life. He didn't see any of it built sadly. He didn't have input in the floor finish although he really wanted the floor to look like malachite, which bits of it does, that green rock. I hope he will be proud of it. 


Von Chua:

What is your favourite space in the house? 


Lily Jencks: 

My favourite room is the cosmic loo (toilet). There is an interactive frieze around this small room - you can take the postcard ornamentation, replace them and move them around, a never-ending artwork on the wall. But they're only postcards, so you can get new ones and change them. I like that use of ad hoc, what he termed as ad hoc use of ornamentations. For example, buying a spring to make a lighting fixture in the spring room, and adding it in. I really like that attitude - not too precious, kind of interactive but quite sophisticated too, playful. 


Von Chua:

The Cosmic House is not a typical family home. On Wallpaper* magazine (https://www.wallpaper.com/architecture/charles-jencks-cosmic-house-reopens-as-museum-london-uk), you mentioned that you want to make the Cosmic House “an intimate setting for a strictly limited number of visitors” even if you remember from your childhood as a place you were "reluctant to bring school friends.” Do you have any memories of when you realised that you have grown up in a unique house? 




Lily Jencks: 

So hard to tell! One of my childhood memories, I really wanted to have pets. I was obsessed by having animals and there was no way that I was going to be allowed to have a dog. Eventually, I was allowed to have a rabbit and then a hamster. My father designed this post-modernist rabbit hutch for the rabbit, which it hated! It had a tower but all the rabbit wanted was to be down in a hole where it's dark. It never enjoyed the hutch. It's so funny. I used to play with the hamster everywhere in the house - tons of fun. You can imagine, the holes under the furniture here or in his study. It used to make him crazy. My family didn't like animals at all. 


Now, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do this. It's a wonderful way to stay connected with him, and my mother in some ways too, she died a long time ago now. But just, being part of staying in conversation with him. 


Von Chua:

Congratulations on the upcoming opening of The Cosmic House in September 2021. It is a significant time not only to showcase the epitome of a post-modern home but also to challenge what a home represents to an individual or a family as we now spend more time in our homes. I look forward to seeing the rare opening of this house museum. Can you reveal some of the long-term plans for The Cosmic House? 


“We are refining our idea of the cosmic orientation of architecture. Therefore, we are looking at who we want to collaborate with and the types of residencies we want to run. The public programme, publications and hopefully, reaching out and being able to connect with the international audience."

- Lily Jencks


Lily Jencks: 

We are refining our idea of the cosmic orientation of architecture. Therefore, we are looking at who we want to collaborate with and the types of residencies we want to run. The public programme, publications and hopefully, reaching out and being able to connect with the international audience. 


“We want to position ourselves more as a learning environment, rather than a commercial one - using the archive, having scholars come in to use it for research, and also supporting research that is looking outwards beyond the walls of the house museum."

- Lily Jencks


People want to visit for all sorts of reasons. Some people will come because they are interested in post-modernism, interior design or have just heard of this eccentric house. We want to position ourselves more as a learning environment, rather than a commercial one - using the archive, having scholars come in to use it for research, and also supporting research that is looking outwards beyond the walls of the house museum. We will also provide grants for research outside of the institution. It's really important to find a balance. We really don't want to be an inward-looking organisation. We have to be for this year, by necessity, to open the museum. But then I hope to be able to reach out more. 


This is a big private house in Holland Park. We're very aware that it has a certain elitism built into it, and we want to break that down as much as we can. One of the things we're really interested in is how we can have different people host events here. By allowing different people to be hosts, and use the space as they wish, we can open up the house as the setting for new conversations and different types of audiences. 


"We shape our homes and then our homes shape us." 

- Winston Churchill


For Charles Jencks, the home that he shaped and subsequently invited many into, shaped many critical conversations. Through those conversations and debates, I trust he influenced the work of many contemporary architects and artists, challenged them to think harder about their work and the wider purpose of what they do. Through the opening of The Cosmic House and its ambitions, led by Lily Jencks and artistic director Eszter Steierhoffer, the strong team are continuing Charles Jencks' legacy in creating the opportunity to continue shaping us as well as the future generations in an intimate setting, plus creating a rare opportunity to take a glimpse into Charles Jencks' home of over 40 years that is his manifesto for post-modernism. 


With sincere thank you to Lily Jencks for taking the time to introduce The Cosmic House, share some background to the creation of the house and reveal the ambitions for the house museum.


If you are in London and interested in post-modernism, spatial design, interior details, creative use of materials or simply to visit a lived-in house of a playful creative who collaborated and curated work by others in the Jencks family home, The Cosmic House (https://thecosmichouse.com/) will be opening on 24 September 2021. As there is a limit to the number of allowable daily visitors, do pre-book ahead to avoid any disappointment. Further information and a full public programme will be released in September 2021.


First published on ADF Web Magazine on 29/08/2021. If you have any questions or would like to further discuss this interview about The Cosmic House, please do not hesitate to contact me via email at von@vonxarchitects.com

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