The first challenge facing visitors to Charles Jencks’s house is choosing which knob to push on the front door. Two identical brass fixtures flank the entrance to 19 Lansdowne Walk in Holland Park, the first indication that this is no ordinary west London pile. Push the correct one and you enter a bewildering oval lobby lined with numerous mirrored doors and topped with a ceiling of intersecting ovals that appears to taper upwards to infinity. The faces of Pythagoras, Erasmus and Hannah Arendt peer down from a mural, above a frieze of gnomic inscriptions about the cosmos. There’s a lot to digest already – and you’ve barely stepped through the front door.
As an architecture critic, cosmic landscape designer and all-round polymathic funster, Jencks was never one for half measures. His Cosmic House, as 19 Lansdowne Walk is known – which opens to the public this Friday, two years after his death – stands as a madcap monument to his voracious appetite for ideas. As the godfather and chief promoter of postmodernism, or pomo, he spent a lifetime championing eclecticism, wit and meaning over what he saw as the bland, faceless tedium of modernism. And he lived his theories to the max.
“We tried to experiment on ourselves and bring symbolic architecture back,” Jencks says, in an introductory video to the house, which is open to 15 visitors at a time in pre-booked slots, three days a week. “We wanted to see how far we could push it.”
The answer is beyond anything you might imagine. This substantial 1840s end-of-terrace house has become a wondrous, indigestible cacophony of cosmic symbolism, classical references and architectural in-jokes. It samples from cultures, continents and epochs with promiscuous glee, relishing in unlikely combinations of high and low, veering from the sublime to the kitsch. As Jencks would say, it is “pizza with all the toppings” – and then some.
He bought the house with his second wife, the Scottish artist and garden designer Maggie Keswick, in 1978, a year after he published his seminal book, The Language of Postmodern Architecture. Working in collaboration with his friend the architect Terry Farrell, they spent the next seven years concocting what would become a built appendix to the book, a fantasy world of meaning, trickery and allusion.
Designed with a “symbolic programme” for each room, the ground floor is themed around the seasons, with winter, spring, summer and autumn rooms radiating around a momentous Solar Stair. Featuring 52 (ish) steps, with signs of the zodiac etched into their ends, the spiral staircase stands as a vertical calendar at the core of the house. You reach the library landing at around the summer solstice – which was also, fittingly, Jencks’s birthday. Three steel balls adorn the handrails, representing the Earth, moon and sun, orbiting their way to a celestial skylight at the top of the house, from a mysterious mosaic of a black hole at the bottom – designed by Eduardo Paolozzi, whose distinctive head also forms the basis of a bust of Vulcan above the winter mantlepiece, sculpted by Celia Scott.
Jencks was an energetic socialite and the house is full of commissions by his friends. He ran little competitions among his circle of pomo pals, rejecting a design by Rem Koolhaas for one room (it wasn’t symbolic enough!) in favour of a scheme by Michael Graves, whose two oversized fireplaces take centre stage in the living rooms of winter and spring – where springs coil around the lamps in a typically Jencksian pun on the seasons. Nearby stand the London columns, which stop short of the ceiling (“Just like London’s financial system – they don’t hold anything up”), while their fluted bases conceal hi-fi speakers. Precarious pyramidal lampshades teeter above the sofas, forever prone to being knocked off. You begin to sense that Jencks took pleasure in wrongfooting his guests. It takes several attempts, pulling at more false knobs, before you find the right door to the Cosmic Loo.
“He was always for flummoxing people,” says Piers Gough, another pomo architect friend, “and making them feel that they didn’t really know what was going on.” Gough designed one of the most remarkable – and dysfunctional – features of the house: a terrazzo and bronze whirlpool bath built into a bay window, in the shape of an inverted baroque dome. Jencks and Gough had a high old time projecting slides of domes upside down in his study, before settling on Borromini’s church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome. “I put the ‘borrow’ into ‘Borromini’,” laughs Gough in the video.
Lily Jencks – Charles and Maggie’s daughter, who grew up in the house – recalls a few practical flaws. “The jacuzzi was always freezing,” she says. “And it was really difficult to get in and out. Still, you don’t really mind when you’re a kid.” Now director of the Jencks Foundation, Lily co-designed the home’s new gallery with Charles in the last months of his life, converting a former garage with swirling green floors, painted to look like the mineral malachite.
Lily recalls her father’s intense self-discipline when she was a child, beginning each morning by running laps around the bedroom while listening to Open University tapes about quantum physics or philosophy, before setting down to write. She has fond memories of playing in the house, full of secret doors, hidey-holes and places to lose her pet rabbit, but she says her dad took his fun very seriously. “My brother and I were trained to respect the architectural idea at all times,” she says. “I think I was allowed one poster in my bedroom. There was a line where the pluralism stopped.”
Jencks may have been precious about his creation but, as a museum, the Cosmic House is refreshingly laid-back. Visitors will be free to roam, cosmological guide booklet in hand, and allowed to sit on the furniture. “We won’t have teasels to stop people sitting on the chairs,” says Edwin Heathcote, the architecture critic who wrote the guide to the house, and who Jencks anointed as The Keeper of Meaning shortly before he died. “They’re all made of MDF anyway.”
In fact, knock on the richly patterned marble mantelpieces, the pink granite kitchen units or the fine-grained wooden cabinetry, and you’ll find that almost everything is painted MDF. Jencks’ astonishing library with its swooping tent-like ceiling is the ultimate in fakery, where wood grain-painted “bookhouses” are designed around the themes of the books they contain, while his vast slide collection is stored in pedimented “slide-scrapers”, made from off-the-peg Bisley filing cabinets gussied up to the nines in Chippendale fancy dress.
Meanwhile, the “Indian summer” kitchen (so-called because of its location between the summer dining room and autumn utility room) plumbs the depths of kitsch, with appliances – fridge, oven, dishwasher – hidden inside Hindu temple-themed casings and a frieze of painted wooden spoons (or “spoon-glyphs”) above the worktop. Jencks knew it was beyond the pale. “If you can’t stand the kitsch,” he joked, “get out of the kitchen.”
With all the mirrored panels, flimsy latticework screens and upcycled spoons, there is more than a whiff of Changing Roomsabout the whole place. You half-expect Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen to leap out of a Neo-Egyptian wardrobe, stipple brush in hand. It was sometimes too much for the rest of the family. Maggie once injured herself badly in a fall down the concrete cosmic stair, and her study was strictly off-limits from Jencksian whimsy. “The symbolism,” she said, “stops at my door.”
Jencks admits as much in the video. “I’ve gone too far in overdesigning certain rooms,” he says. “That is a problem of this house: it has too many foreground things, where they’re competing so much that, quite frankly, it’s really ugly in parts, and overdone.”
Still, that’s exactly what makes it such a fascinating place to explore. Eszter Steierhoffer, the artistic director of the Jencks Foundation and curator of the introductory exhibition, has done an admirable job of explaining the often convoluted ideas behind the house. She is planning a diverse public programme, touching on Jencks’s broad range of interests, from land art and astronomy to cancer research, and is keen to stress this is not a museum of postmodernism. There are also two residency programmes, one focused on the archive – beginning with Polish-born artist Marysia Lewandowska – and the other an open call to “invent new formats of ‘hosting’ that encourage a meeting of minds”.
Personally, I would start with getting that whirlpool bath back in action – and let the bubbles guide the cosmic conversation to giddy new heights.