Charles Jencks' Cosmic House to reopen as museum in west London

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) 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) was working with very serious scientists. He worked with the head of the Royal Society  and the Astronomer Royal. On the landscape project, getting them to help him better understand how to represent current understandings of cosmology.

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