Having a building listed for protection as a “Grade 1 monument” in the United Kingdom because it is, as its website would have it, a “built manifesto of Postmodernism” at first seemed a bit too meta: A style that reveled in stealing from monuments and creating a pastiche of different existing building parts is now an object of historical preservation, veneration, and thus, you have to assume, borrowing by a new generation of Post-Postmodern architects. The Cosmic House in London’s tony Holland Park, home of the late critic Charles Jencks and his landscape architect and historian wife Maggie Keswick Jencks, however, turns out to fully deserve the preserved-in-amber treatment. Rarely have I seen a house with as much design intent and experimentation packed into four levels as I encountered there on a recent visit.
Lest we forget, and Postmodernism was indeed all about memory, Charles introduced the word into the field of architecture in his 1977 The Language of Postmodern Architecture, a compendium of then-new and radical designs that went through countless editions in many different languages. Central to the book’s message was that architecture needed above all else to communicate to as wide and diverse an audience as possible (which made it pretty politically correct before its time). The easiest way to do so, Charles pointed out, was to use elements that most people would recognize because they were either part of the vernacular or popular culture, or had been ingrained into our consciousness through the order and organization of important buildings. Charles’s Postmodernism was a mix of Neoclassical pastiche and what architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown called “electronic Expressionism” that drew on the language of the street and advertising.
Although the first editions of the book were thus rather eclectic, over the years Charles allied himself more clearly with one particular strain of Postmodernism: the use of columns, pediments, friezes, poche planning, and other hallmarks of the classical tradition. These were represented as thin scrims, screens, and painted-on pieces and arranged in a fragmented collage version of the geometric precision taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 19th century. Michael Graves in the U.S. and Terry Farrell in the United Kingdom (who collaborated on the design of the Cosmic House) best exemplified the kind of architecture Charles preferred.
The Jenckses started renovating what became the Cosmic House in 1978, finishing most of the work in 1983, although they continued to add elements over the years (Maggie died in 1995, Charles in 2019). When it was finished, it became more than the home they shared with their two children; it was also a salon where they entertained their large network of friends not just in architecture, but also in the arts, philosophy, and politics. It didn’t hurt that they were extremely charming and charismatic, as well as, through Maggie’s family, very wealthy.
I never got to experience that scene, although I did have the pleasure of attending a few parties at their house in Pacific Palisades, Calif., with its pool in the shape of that state and a hot tub that Charles claimed resembled Catalina Island. Now the Cosmic House is owned by the Jencks Foundation, which the couple started specifically to make the building available to scholars and visitors, and to support research on Postmodernism. I was lucky enough to obtain a very hard-to-get ticket—Holland Park is Oligarch Central, and the neighbors have severely limited how many people can visit and when.
The Cosmic House has, as the name implies, a nigh-mystical plan. The rooms are laid out and accoutered to align with the seasons (five, according to Charles, including Indian Summer), as well as to more invisible cosmic forces and historical references. I assume that some of the “17 rules of the thematic house” Charles typed up—and which you can find in the introductory exhibition that takes up the basement—came after the fact, or at least later in his occupation of the house, as they refer to fascinations that were the subject of his last few books after the turn of the millennium. These include the “cosmic law,” which is not quite articulated, but is made up of “spiral galaxy, black holes, DNA, periods of Eres, [and] the Callippic cycle.” There are also references to more general conditions, such as “windows on the world” and the “foursquare motif.”
Not much of that is evident (at least immediately) in the house, but what you do see are a lot of patterns and motifs. The one that recurs most often is a low arch that steps down into a rectangle and then a smaller rectangle below that. It is, based on a drawing in the study, an abstraction of an arched lintel, a double window, and a quoin below that. There is also a lazier, broader arch that tops quite a few of the pieces of furniture and is draped over some doorways. Some of the built-in armoires and storage devices also spawn smaller versions of themselves to create a stepped configuration of this family of objects nestled together.
These kinds of repeating, abstracted bits of a classical vernacular are everywhere you look. In an extreme case, a work surface in the kitchen is held up by three banded Tuscan pilasters that float off the floor and are repeated above the counter in four pairs of two, but not banded. The low arch here occurs right above the surface as a niche for the paper towel roll, and then again cut into an architrave that steps back in seven layers to obscure the exhaust vent. I assume those numbers have great significance. A semi-circular couch in the living room, meanwhile, is designated as a “solar arch,” but appears to be there mainly to enjoy the view of the garden Maggie designed. Michael Graves contributed the fireplace in the adjacent space.
Not only are there grids, arches, and circles throughout the house, but that sense of almost obsessive attention to marking, measuring, and designing continues to the treatment of whatever planes are left empty. Many of the surfaces feature a kind of mottled wash that evokes, but is not quite, weather-worn Italian stucco walls.
And then there are the grand gestures, from the split staircase to the garden around a multi-level, tiled fountain to the heavy swag curtain, drawn back to reveal the main living area as if you were looking onto a stage set—or one of the views Karl Friedrich Schinkel loved and James Stirling (working with Léon Krier) emulated.
My favorite room is the upstairs bedroom, which references the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, especially his work at Hill House. Here all is white, with chrome stripping on the ceiling. Square lamps on openwork stand guard the foot of the bedroom, where a semicircular bench faces a curtained dressing area that is bowed in the opposite direction. The space has a sense of serenity, while the highly articulated furniture elements and grids give rhythm and even an aura of security to this retreat.
There are also wonderful quirks everywhere, ranging from the principal bathroom, which cascades down in stepped terraces clad with blue tile, to the bits of found statues surmounted and partially obscured by geodes. The bravura of the design becomes more pronounced on the top level, where the couple carved bedrooms out of the attic for their children. There, Neoclassicism meets Alice in Wonderland, with the blown-up and cut-out fragments that are strewn around the house becoming even more extreme in their scale and sense of having been jammed into the house and each other.
If it all sounds like a bit of a mess, it is, but somehow the Cosmic House has more order than the description would indicate. Maybe it is all those laws of nature, from proportions to spirals to cascades of numbers governing the relations between objects and grids, that make sense out of what could be a riot of color and form. Maybe it is also the sense that the couples’ taste and delight in both comfort and oddness draws it into a whole that feels almost as autobiographical as its nearest historical precedent, Sir John Soane’s house at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Or perhaps the Jenckses and Farrell were pretty good designers who knew how to make sense out of layers of information and order them into complex, highly suggestive forms. Whatever the case, this “built manifesto” makes a strong argument that at least some Postmodernism is worth preserving, looking at, and learning from—or just enjoying. For that is the last point: Postmodernism was perhaps the last style that foregrounded opening up, communicating, and reveling in the sheer inventiveness and fun of architecture.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
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