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Issue 48: the Cosmic House museum
A peek inside the ‘idiosyncratic private house-turned-museum’ in a residential neighbourhood of west London.
Welcome to Born Free Press, a fortnightly newsletter delivering a free-range collection of interesting stories for interested people. Currently focusing on quirks and curiosities from the UK’s history.
The UK is home to many world-class museums – institutions like the Natural History Museum and the British Museum, which care for important and unique specimens and artifacts. It also boasts many attractions that are equally significant, but slightly more vernacular – like the former homes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Robert Burns. And then there’s the ‘idiosyncratic private house-turned-museum’, the Cosmic House, in west London. Opened to the public in 2021, it accepts visitors for just four and a half hours a day, three days a week, eight months of the year.
The Cosmic House is the brainchild and former family home of writer, critic, designer, and teacher, Charles Jencks (1939-2019). Created between 1978-1983, the adapted three-storey 1840s end of terrace house is an experiment in Post-Modernism and a hybrid of ideas, featuring design details and philosophies from opposite ends of the spectrum (ancient and modern, Eastern and Western). It was a collaboration between Jencks, architect Terry Farrell, and Jencks’ wife, Maggie.
Now Grade I listed (the highest level of protection), the house is a mix of art and science, philosophy and literature, cosmology and the body, landscape and engineering.
Steps, arches, and glimpses into other spaces feature heavily throughout the house. As do themes of the solar system, the seasons, the elements, and the passing of time. But importantly, it doesn’t take itself too seriously; there’s a healthy dose of kitsch and irony thrown in, too.
In the garden-level basement (now a gallery space) the floor is painted green to mimic malachite. In the ground floor kitchen, the cupboards are adorned with large salad serving spoons and painted in mock marble effect.
In an ‘interview with himself’, Jencks said: “Architecture always tries to transcend building, the everyday, and to attempt this with routine materials and functions is the paradox I was seeking.”
A paradox it indeed is!
The central spiral staircase represents the solar year (52 steps featuring a total of 365 grooves), a cosmic whirlpool (the handrails feature spheres representing the planets in orbit), and hints at the DNA double-helix. At the top is a domed skylight representing the heavens, and a dark mosaic (designed by Eduardo Paolozzi) at the bottom represents a black hole.
Meanwhile, the ’cosmic loo’ on the ground floor was designed as ‘a space in which to display comical, personal, or eccentric artefacts, the leftovers of life’.
The bookcases of the architectural library are ‘an interior skyline, a city within a house’, with the room itself designed as a forum for discussion and debate.
I was lucky enough to visit the Cosmic House last year, and my two favourite elements were (coincidentally?) the ‘sundial arcade’ and the ‘bath pool’ – both sunken spaces:
The sundial arcade is a semi-circular window seat facing out into the garden, intended to invoke a convivial Greek theatre. Apparently (I did not get to experience this) the entire window can be lowered at the flick of a switch.
The bath pool is covered in blue-green tiles and designed to resemble a glimpse into the sea and the idea of a grotto.
Elsewhere, there’s a ‘stairway to nowhere’, and doors which feature two doorknobs – a redress for what Jencks described as “disastrous asymmetry” – meaning you’re never sure which side opens and which is hinged.
Sections of mirrored walls and ceilings emphasise and amplify light. In the ‘time garden’ a mirrored door is inscribed with ‘The Future’.
The Cosmic House is a wonder of concealment and revelation, of the intellectual and the playful, and I would highly recommend a visit, whether you’re interested in architecture and design, or you simply like looking at beautiful and interesting things.
I chose this week to share my visit to the museum because I received an email alerting me that tickets for October-December were now available to book. But unfortunately – such is the allure of the house – it’s already sold out, sorry! (But it’s worth checking in regularly in case of cancellations.)
Like his house, Jencks the man was a spectrum of ideas and impressions. Highly influential – his 1973 book, ‘Modern Movements in Architecture’, is considered a canonical text – and also eccentric – he often wore a purple corduroy suit, and recited Oscar Wilde’s quote: “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art”.
He designed a motif (and a typeface) called ‘Jencksiana’ – “every architect/critic should have a motif named after himself,” he said.
And when his wife, Maggie, was diagnosed with cancer, the couple founded design-focused care centres to offer ‘an architecture of hope’.
There are a couple of other ways to experience Jenck’s vision, in the form of three land art installations across the UK: Northumbalandia, Crawick Multiverse, and The Garden of Cosmic Speculation at another of his former homes, in Dumfriesshire, Scotland (although this last place is only open one day per year!).