Filled with symbolism and reference, Cosmic House opens to the public

The symbolism is often quite literal, intentionally. As Jencks says in the film shown in the downstairs doubles room, some of the “symbolism is so obvious you can’t miss it.” The faux marble frieze in the kitchen, decorated with protruding salad spoons instead of classic triglyphs, is a good example. Jencks calls them spoon-glyphs in the video and adds dryly to the camera, “If you can’t stand kitsch, get out of the kitchen.”

The symbolic heart of the house is its circular concrete staircase whose 52 steps represent the weeks of the solar year and has a handrail with steel balls which represent the sun, the earth and the moon. There’s a dark mosaic at the bottom of the stairwell (designed by artist Eduardo Paolozzi of London tube fame) and a vast celestial glass dome at the top that fills the house with light. Midway up the sculptural staircase (also Jencks’ birthday) you reach the library. Filled with bookcases designed to look like buildings – pyramidal for ancient Egypt, domed for ancient Rome, stepped gables for books about medieval times – it’s a “city within a house within a city “, Jencks’ slide collection is housed in a series of tall gabled towers he called “slide scrapers”. Humor, puns, memes and metaphors are everywhere in the Cosmic House, even in the material palette, which is only deceptively precious. “There are incredible amounts of painted MDF in the house,” laughs Lily.

Now open to the public, Cosmic House will house the Jencks Foundation, which will use it for its residencies, fairs, seminars and exhibitions.

Perhaps the most irreverent mix of high and low culture and iconography is the Water Dome on the ground floor, or more prosaically the jacuzzi. Designed by Piers Gough, it is an upside-down depiction of the dome of the Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome by Borromini. Gough and Jencks selected this particular dome by going through its slide library and returning all the domes they found. The fact that Lily remembers only using it once, and that the water was cold, seems almost irrelevant.

“For my father, post-modernism was a way to free things from the seriousness of modernism,” she says, but, in a neat riddle that suits the house and his versatile ideas, she also says he took jokes and played very seriously. As you wander from floor to floor and from one thematically named space to another, it becomes clear that the house is a living manifesto, an experimental embodiment of a polyphony of ideas, styles and of voices designed to provoke debate and conversation and test various ideas in architectural form. In the film, Jencks admits that his experiment may have gone too far, that he was guilty of over-engineering certain things. He even calls some of his activities around the house “really ugly.”

“He was critical yes, but also as a provocation towards himself”, explains Lily, an architect and landscaper in her own right. “He really appreciated this dynamism of being both an architect and a critic, taking two positions to flesh out an idea. And he liked to take the extreme position. It is this legacy of plurality of thought and open debate that the newly created Jencks Foundation aims to keep alive in the house by hosting residencies, salons, seminars and exhibitions (the latter in a new space carved out of a former garage and designed by Lily and her father before his death). The house library will also be available to the public. Lily wants the family’s old home to be anything but a mausoleum, she says. Charles Jencks may no longer be with us, but through his Cosmic House he still has a lot to say.

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