On a recent bumpy flight to London Heathrow, I drew comfort from my travel companion, Hugh Grant. In addition to my usual vodka cran and SunChips, my inflight experience is always made more serene by the floppy hair, wit, and familiar swell of coziness that comes with rewatching Grant’s ’90s rom-coms. Watching Grant and Julia Roberts scramble over the gate of a private garden in Notting Hill, I was reminded of another flight on which I read cultural theorist Charles Jencks’s 1977 illustrated tour de force The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. “I think there’s a notable PoMo house in Notting Hill you can now tour,” I leaned over and said to my husband before asking him to book us tickets to visit Jencks’s Cosmic House.
The Cosmic House, the Jencks family home and an opus on postmodernism, opened to the public in 2021 following Jencks’s death in 2019. The house, museum, and archive—folded together and inscribed with both personal and universal symbolism—sit on a posh but unassuming residential corner in west London. Jencks and his wife Maggie Keswick Jencks began their house remodel the year after The Language of Post-Modernism was published. Jencks saw architecture through a lens colored by everything from environmentalism to ecstasy, Lascaux to Le Corbusier, Minoans to the multiverse. Jencks would go on to publish some thirty books, academic yet dotted with cheeky captions and surprising metaphysical connections—a fun read for all. Though mainly a critic, Jencks’s ideas took physical form in numerous built environments and gardens as well as Maggie’s Centres, the esteemed cancer support network he and Maggie co-founded following her diagnosis in 1995.
Just as early postmodernism was meant to be playful, the Jencks family home is full of lampoons. In each room layers of complex symbolic structure are offset by whimsical ironies: a hot tub that looks like an inverted Borromini dome, bookshelves that resemble a little town, a “spoon glyph” edging the kitchen ceiling mounted with salad spoons and washed in faux-marble finish. (“A very stirring mixture. It brings out a bad taste in people. . . . If you can’t stand the kitsch, get out of the kitchen,” quipped Jencks.) Continuing into the children’s bedrooms, the Jenckses employ customized MDF cutouts and trompe l’oeil the way the Addams family uses wrought iron or the Swiss family Robinson bamboo.
On the Cosmic House tour, their material and rhetorical practices swirl together. Just as 18th-century formal English gardens often contained tongue-in-cheek “follies”—faux ruins built for romance and amusement—the house contains follies such as a Colosseum-shaped sofa arrangement in front of a fireplace by Michael Graves topped with three oversize busts of spring goddesses. It’s Kenneth Clark’s BBC series Civilisation meets Peewee’s Playhouse, reconciling kitsch and camp with the eternal. Assembled during a very special moment in a couple’s life, The Cosmic House feels like the embodiment of a script that spans PoMo rom-com, family sitcom, and educational program hosted by a loving couple of intergalactic timelords who seem to have momentarily stepped off set.
Walking up the fifty-two steps of the central spiral Solar staircase, I was struck by the bright Charles Rennie Macintosh–inspired bedroom, one of the few spaces visitors are not allowed to enter. I began to understand the house as a poetic rhapsody composed by this young intellectual couple, their children, and their community of illustrious friends, schooling and sparring with one another amid constellating esoteric interests, inside jokes, domestic bliss, family joy and sadness. The romance and the comedy remain intact.
Travis Boyer is a New York–based artist, curator, and textile educator.