“Can’t you see, we are in a dialogue with the universe?” the late Charles Jencks implored to Kirsty Young while being interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. That was back in 2012, when Jencks, the renowned architectural thinker and grandfather of postmodernism, was still with us and living at what was then the Thematic House: a dwelling of eclectic delights tributing the wonders of the universe, tucked away in west London. Jencks passed in 2019, but his spirit lives on, and his former home does too, set to open to the public later this year as a museum known as the Cosmic House.
Jencks’s former home was completed in 1978 with British architect Terry Farrell and has since become the only post-war home to be awarded Grade 1 Listing status (the U.K. equivalent of landmarking). Work on the house had a profound effect on Farrell, who went on to say the house put the wheels in motion for his split with architect Nick Grimshaw; Farrell deferring to a more postmodern approach with Grimshaw sticking to high-tech. Both benefited, however, with Farrells and Grimshaw becoming the foremost architecture offices in the U.K., and indeed the world, throughout the 1980s and ’90s.
The home, however, was very much a collaborative project and featured work from other prominent designers, artists, and architects: Michael Graves contributed a ‘Spring Room’; artist Allen Jones painted a wall inspired by Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time; sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi chimed in with a mosaic of a black hole, found at the bottom of the ‘Solar’ staircase that depicts the solar year with 52 steps being cast into seven divisions, creating 365 grooves, and in the ‘Indian Summer’ kitchen, the Hindu god Shiva doubles as teapot designed by British potter Carol McNicholl.
“If you can’t take the kitsch, get out of the kitchen,” Jencks once told a journalist on a tour. In the garden, meanwhile, is a jacuzzi by architect Piers Gough (of CZWG) that has an upturned Borromini dome.
The renamed Cosmic House will open to the public on 24 September as a museum and library-cum-archive, hosting exhibitions, talks, and residencies. The newly established Jencks Foundation will work in tandem, promoting critical experimentation in historic, artistic, and scientific research with grants, residencies, and publications as well as further programming, in accordance with the Cosmic House.
“The Cosmic House has always been a place of conviviality where cultural debate takes place in surroundings that were designed to be implicated in that debate”, said Lily Jencks, Charles’ daughter, co-designer of the new gallery at the Cosmic House, and director of the Jencks Foundation.
“My father liked nothing better than to highlight the ideological differences between people, and set up a conversation that would have everyone energised. We hope to continue this congenial provocation in our salons and residencies, as well as through our public program, providing a space for different practitioners or thinkers to host those with alternative viewpoints.”
Eszter Steierhoffer, artistic director of the Jencks Foundation, also described to AN how the Jencks Foundation will act as a “cultural laboratory.”
“To foreground a multidisciplinary perspective on architecture, the public programme will assume a thematic approach. Each year will be dedicated to the exploration of a new theme inspired by the Jencks Archive. The exhibitions, lectures, seminars, and publications will bring together a polyphony of voices that emerge from the research, residencies and conversations hosted at the Cosmic House. This research-led attitude is particularly important for us when planning the future programmes and envisioning our potential as a new institution that is centred around experimentation, openness and bringing people together.”
When it opens to the public, the Cosmic House will offer tours for small groups, providing the opportunity to explore the home’s remarkable interiors close-up.