Cosmic Architecture

November, 2021

The Cosmic House, the West London home of the late theorist and architect Charles Jencks and his family, has just opened to the public. First completed in 1985 as a manifesto for postmodernism, the house is rife with symbolism and a treasure trove of architectural wit. Architecture, Jencks believed, should be a talking point and not just fade into the background. He intended his humorous home to be an icebreaker that would generate a convivial atmosphere and spark conversation and debate. 

Gentle jokes are built into every nook. The ground floor rooms each represent one of the four seasons; in the Spring room the lamps are made from actual springs. Their paper shades easily topple off as you walk past, which Jencks apparently enjoyed because it meant visitors were forced to interact with the architecture. The Indian Summer kitchen is entirely panelled in beautifully crafted MDF painted to match the marble countertop, teasing you with the artifice of it all. A matching frieze of wooden spoons that runs around the top of the cupboards is similarly painted in travertine. The garden jacuzzi designed by Piers Gough is painted to look like an upturned dome by the Roman Baroque architect Borromini, and if the 1980s excess becomes a bit too much a mirrored door exiting the bottom of the garden is simply labelled ‘The Future’.

Humour comes and goes from the toolbox of architects and designers, but is certainly a hallmark of postmodernism. The Cosmic House is a reminder of how rarely invention and delight are allowed across the threshold of contemporary architecture; the thrill of visiting is a prompt for how uplifting they can be. Perhaps amusing interiors can enhance wellbeing? Over the 30 or so years since the Cosmic House was first created, science has gained a better understanding of the many physical and psychological benefits of humour. Leading humour researcher Dr Paul McGhee reports that being amused improves health both directly by increasing levels of immune-boosting immunoglobulins, and indirectly by mitigating stress levels that are so harmful to health. A paper published in Nature journal about ‘The neural basis of humour processing’, reports that humour ‘can enhance social functioning, ease negotiation and mediation, and support leadership’. Jokes aside, these are all qualities that would enhance most office and workplace environments, and homes alike. After so much gloom and as winter approaches, it could be time to turn up the delight. 

The Cosmic House

Miranda Vane

All photography by Sue Barr

The Garden facade with a representation of the family of four through the repeated ‘Jencksiana’ motif

The new Exhibition Room with the evolution of scientific representations of the sun in the ceiling lights, looking out to the Time Garden, with a malachite floor and sculpture by Charles and Lily Jencks of the sun and earth above

The Spring Room with fireplace designed by Michael Graves, crowned with female representations of the 3 months of spring by Penelope Jencks, note the spring-ing light detail.

The Cosmic Oval at the entrance sets up the major and minor themes that visitors will find throughout the house. 

The Dome of Water is a jacuzzi designed by Piers Gough, adapted and inverted from dome by Borromini.

The Four Square Room was Charles and Maggies bedroom designed around many iterations of the subdivided square motif which Charles considered the elemental form of architecture, with mirrors and split levels creating spatial jokes and ambiguities.

The Architectural Library is Charles’ study with a tent-like roof painted like the sky; it is a ‘City of Books’ designed by Charles so that each bookshelf relates to the thematic style or individual architect whose books are collected therein.