All photographs taken by Anjali Alappat

Communing with the Cosmos

By Anjali Alappat

When it was built, perhaps the Cosmic House stood out from the landscape of posh homes on Lansdowne Walk. But today, the facade seems unremarkable. At first glance, all you see are stark white walls, a black gate, an intercom, and an entryway that looks quite ordinary. Until you start noticing the details. That’s really a recurring theme with the Cosmic House—everything requires a closer look.

It has been two years since the world shut down, and three years since the death of Charles Jencks, the famous architect, author, and cultural theorist, whose dream the Cosmic House was. The official website describes it as, “an idiosyncratic private house turned museum, in a residential neighbourhood.” From the start, it’s clear that this was a passion project, a dream house sculpted from ordinary beginnings, a Postmodern dream.

Once the residence of Charles and Maggie Jencks and their children, the design for the Cosmic House as it stands today, was created with the help of their friend, renowned architect, Sir Terry Farrell. Together they crafted something fantastical out of the original structure, which was built in the 1840s.

My first impression is of dazzled bewilderment. It seems almost impossible that a family once resided there, that children played on the lawn or peered through the distinctively shaped windows. In true Postmodern style, each room tells its own story, with the structure, motifs and details coming together to provide a unique narrative, bringing together elements of architecture, art, cosmology, and culture. Slowly, I begin to comprehend the intricacy of the design. I find myself swept along on this visual storytelling journey, just as Jencks intended.

A Slice of Architectural History

The Cosmic House is a very real piece of history. At various times, architectural icons like Zaha Hadid, Madelon Vriesendorp, Rem Koolhaas, Michael Graves and Norman Foster spent time there. But to truly understand The Cosmic House, and the Jencks’ vision for it, you have to understand Postmodernism. Not an easy task, given how unconventional and unconfined it is as a concept.

The Postmodernist movement touched almost every creative field: science, literature, architecture, philosophy, music, and art. The movement took shape mid-way through the 20th century, and had its heyday in the 1960s and 70s. Postmodernists were well-known for using historical references, combined with pop-culture of the time. But perhaps what really set them apart from their Modernist counterparts was that they didn’t take themselves too seriously. Postmodernism had a sense of humour.

The Cosmic House is a culmination of Charles Jencks’ passion for Postmodern architecture. It’s flamboyant, referential, and filled with the kind of inside jokes that architects and history enthusiasts revel in.

Jencks wrote in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977) that Postmodernist architecture was defined by ‘double-coding’ or the use of symbols and references that allowed architecture to speak multiple languages and embody both ‘low’ and ‘high’ art. In other words, appeal both to the prince and the peasant.

Welcome to the Show

The entrance, one of Jencks’ last designs, is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the social media-heavy world we live in. The gate is sculpted out of twisted metal strips, inspired by angel wings. A subtle reference to the cultural trend of graffiti wings cropping up in tourist destinations and the number of self-taken portraits with that background. Jencks’ called it ‘my better selfie’. A fitting introduction to a house filled with idiosyncrasies. Wide steps lead down to the new front door, which opens into the former basement, now a gallery that spans the length of the house. The steps themselves have an amphitheatre-like quality. Welcome, they seem to say, to the show.

There’s a timeless quality to the place, it’s a sort of otherworldly pocket in the time-space continuum. Given the circular nature of trends, the Cosmic House is as much a glimpse into the future as it is the past.

Once you walk through the gallery, filled with information and historical nuggets about the house, you stumble upon what is perhaps my favourite part of the house: the solar stair. I spent a lot of time just standing at the base of these steps and gazing upwards, taking it all in. At the top, you catch a glimpse of clear blue sky through the carefully installed skylight. At the bottom, a stunning mosaic paints an abstract picture of a black hole. The piece was designed by Italian-Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi to serve as a counterpoint to the homage to the sun.

The mosaic at the foot of the stairs was designed by Eduardo Paolozzi, and depicts an abstract black hole.

There are 365 grooves, symbolising the days of the calendar year.

There are approximately 52 steps featuring 365 grooves, one for each day of the calendar year. Framed by three stainless steel rails, the stairs are also a nod to the double helix structure of DNA. Look closely, and you will see three globes, each representing the sun, the moon and the earth in their respective orbits. The entire construction— the collaborative work of artists, engineers, scientists, and cosmologists—is a thought-provoking tribute to cosmic time, the human body, and the heavenly bodies surrounding it.

Drawing the Eye

Before it was open to the public, the formal front door opened directly into a space called the Cosmic Oval. It’s a striking hall of mirrored doors, which features several of the themes that are explored in other parts of the house. Over the door is a tribute to the Big Bang, and the creation of galaxies. Portraits of well-known architects throughout history are grouped together over the mirrored doors, a nod to cultures around the world that inspired Jencks’ aesthetic sensibilities. The oval installation, suspended from the ceiling of the lobby, is derived from the Baroque domes designed by Italian architect Guarino Guarani.

The egg-like shape of the cosmic oval is a throwback to the ‘cosmic egg’ which appears in ancient myths across various cultures.

This space also offers a hint as to what to expect in the rest of the house. It’s designed to draw the eye in, and capture your attention. Most of the mirrored doors are playful misdirection. The cosmic broom cupboards rub shoulders with the hilarious Cosmic Loo. Yes, you read that right. The Cosmic cloakroom and WC are decorated with an eclectic series of motifs linking cosmetics, cosmology, and the world we live in. For example, lights shaped like planets, and a series of illustrations of the Jencks’ favourite places and things. I admit that when the museum volunteer first mentioned it, I thought she was joking. I suspect Jencks would have appreciated my amusement. It’s one of the most irreverent, absurd aspects of the house.

Rooms for all Seasons

Jencks was fascinated with the passage of time, and this is demonstrated in the thematic design of the house. Some of the key rooms in the house are reflective of the changing seasons. The north-facing Winter Room is characterised by darker hues. A key design element is the fireplace, envisioned by Michael Graves, featuring a bust of Hephaestus created by artist and architect, Celia Scott.

The sculptural fireplace was designed by Michael Graves and features three busts depicting Roman goddesses.

The Spring Room is also centred around a fireplace. Also designed by Graves, the sculptural piece features three busts: of Venus (April), Flora (May) and June (an older and more seasoned Venus).

The Summer Room, a compact space which overlooks the garden, is essentially the formal dining room. The focal piece is the circular table with planets painted on the legs, which overlooks the garden. The panelling in the room is curved, and centred around a Horus disc. Light flows in from overhead pyramid-shaped plastic panels, and the dining chairs have fan-shaped backs.

The sunny, formal dining room with fan-backed chairs.

The Autumn Room, defined by the rust hue that dominates the season, is possibly the grandest utility room I’ve ever seen. Used as a breakfast room, the heavily decorated doors lead to storage cupboards. This is the room that is at the front of the house, and would have normally been used as the main living room. Known for their subversive views on formal design layouts, it’s unsurprising that Jencks and Farrell chose to upturn the classic arrangements in this way. This room leads into the Winter room, smoothly completing the seasonal cycle.

A Worldly View

In true Postmodernist style, there are references throughout the house to other cultures and fields. A cosmopolitan thinker and visualiser, Jencks’ felt drawn to Egyptian history, and was deeply influenced by it. He believed that Egypt was the wellspring from which all architecture flowed. Featuring Egyptian symbolism, and a subtle Middle Eastern feel, the Egyptian Room reflects his enthusiasm for their culture, cosmology, myths, and design. Jencks used the room as his study, and it contains all his Egyptian influenced books and art.

The Sundial arcade, a semi-circular window seat that overlooks the garden.

Greek myths and mysticism also played a part in shaping Jencks’ ideas. This is showcased in the design of the Sundial Arcade, a low slung window seat with a spectacular view of the garden. The entrance, which contains the Cosmic Oval, flows into this area. The window seat is laid out in a semi-circular shape, mimicking the Greek amphitheatre experience, like the front steps. It’s a warm, sunlit space, intended for socialising. The window can be lowered to allow free access to the garden, a thin and almost non-existent separation between the house and grounds. A sundial table is the centrepiece, tracking the solar path, and lending a historical touch to this modern-day sun temple.

To say I was startled to see a Ganesha perched in the kitchen area is an understatement. It made more sense when I realised that the theme of the kitchen and pantry area was ‘Indian Summer’. With some kitchen Indian-inspired decor elements, and mandalas on the floor and window, the Desi influence is clear. Jencks used to call the area above the stove ‘Temple of Heat’. Imaginatively, the spot above the sink was the ‘Temple of Water’. Holy kitchen cabinets. I truly felt like I’d seen it all.

In contrast to the extravagant spaces below, the family’s bedrooms were compact, and an intriguing mix of Art Deco and Baroque. The most interesting aspect, honestly, were the Jencksiana windows. Seen all through the house, these windows, which were designed by Jencks, have semi-circular openings, which flow into stepped ledges.

The famous Jencksiana windows, which feature semi-circular openings that flow into stepped ledges.

The built-in furniture in these rooms reflect the Jencksiana motif, leaving no doubt that these windows were intended to be the focal points of the rooms. I thought they looked rather like comical, friendly faces, turned up to the sun and stars that Jencks loved so much.

A Timely Rejoinder

Before I left, I wandered into the Time Garden. To the uninitiated, it looks like a carefully maintained lawn, a commonplace feature in most upmarket homes. What sets it apart are the landscaping decor elements, an interest that Charles shared with his wife, Maggie Keswick, a well-known designer in her own right.

The layout of the Time Garden is inspired by Keswick’s interest in Chinese Gardens.

Maggie was an expert on Chinese Gardens, and the layout of the Time Garden is reflective of that. When you look into the garden from the house, the first thing you’ll notice are mirrored panels set in a door-like installation, under an Art Deco style arch. The panels are separated by white wooden planks. Inscribed on one are the words ‘The Future’. The doorway is placed on a step, upon which the words ‘Is Behind You’ are carved.

The doorway to the future, a play on the passage of time.

The garden is meant to be perused in a clockwise fashion. Against the lattice fence lean windows with mirrored panels, surrounded by creepers. Each window denotes a different month, plotting a course through the year.

Surrounded by verdant hedges and trees slowly shedding rust leaves, mirroring the shifting seasons highlighted by the interiors, I felt like I understood a small measure of what the Jencks’ were trying to create.

The Cosmic House is an unforgettable exploration of interests, a home shaped by true passions, and a carefully curated legacy that will extend far beyond the lifespan of its creators.

A mirrored window rests against the garden fence, denoting the month of April.

As I leave, stepping into a street filled with the mundanity of commuters, shoppers and rush hour traffic, I carry a little of its magic with me. The darkening sky will slowly give way to shimmering moonlight punctuated by distant heavenly bodies. But I’ve already communed with the cosmos today, and it will be a hard act to top.