A Tour Through the London Architectural Marvel The Cosmic House, Charles Jencks’s Postmodern Masterpiece

More than 45 years ago, his theories about the end of modern architecture were among the most important impulses for the emergence of Postmodernism. Today, architect and theorist Charles Jencks and his London home — The Cosmic House — continue to stimulate architectural thinking.

Located in London’s ultra-wealthy Holland Park, the home doesn’t particularly stand out at first glance from the classic row of Victorian brick houses. But a closer look reveals unorthodox details, including circular windows and a metal gate that’s a collage of historical styles — telltale signs of Postmodernism, a movement that arose from the imaginations of young architects in the 1970s, who were resurrecting and remixing various historical architectural canons. Jencks’s work epitomized this change of discourse, bringing eclecticism, symbolism, fantasy, and playfulness to the art of building after it was dominated for more than 50 years by modernity.

Born in Baltimore in 1939, Jencks was not an architect in the classical sense. He studied English literature before taking his final exams in architecture at Harvard in 1965. Five years later, he received a doctorate in architectural history, but by then he was already actively working in the UK. In 1977, he published his seminal book, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, in which he defined what the movement was about and helped to cement the style that’s now so easily recognized and resurgent in popularity.

The Cosmic House was the project Jencks used to symbolically test the language of Postmodernism in real time. In collaboration with architects Terry Farrell and Michael Graves, he created a complex spiritual and philosophical work, full of references to architecture’s historical symbolism and imagination. His wife Maggie — who later died of cancer, prompting the foundation of the UK’s Maggie’s Centres — also contributed to the overall concept of the house. The entire team began work on the house in 1978, and the result was both a personal manifesto and the hotspot of the British avant-garde at the time.

Also referred to as The Thematic House, the project is a remodel of an old Victorian house, with many custom-designed elements. Each of the rooms on the ground floor was intended as a singular symbolic statement, like the Spring Room and Winter Room by Michael Graves, each of which have monumental decorative fireplaces and built-in seating areas. The dining room represents Autumn and the living room Summer, while the kitchen — Indian Summer — is a remix of classical Indian architecture, with rounded columns framing built-in cabinetry.

Jencks’s artist friends also contributed to the interior. Allen Jones painted his own version of Poussin’s famous painting A Dance to the Music of Time, while Piers Gough designed a jacuzzi called Dome of Water that’s inspired by the inverted dome of the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane church in Rome, built by Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. Some sculptures, including a bust of the Greek fire god Hephaestus, were created by Eduardo Paolozzi and Celia Scott. Upstairs, Jencks designed his architectural library with bookcases recalling the various shapes of traditional buildings. His and Maggie’s bedroom was in turn inspired by the geometric Art Nouveau design of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

The house was listed as a cultural monument in 2018, and a year later, when Jencks passed away, his daughter Lily decided to establish a foundation and open the house to the public. Today, it continues the rich cultural program that Jencks ran there during his lifetime — on view there now are installations by the artists Tai Shani and Madelon Vriesendorp — and this architectural novel, as you can read the house, can inspire a new generation of architects and researchers. ◆