Status symbols: Charles Jencks' townhouse embraces postmodernism, kitsch and theory of "cosmic time"
Corinne Julius gets a guided tour of the designer and architectural historian's home
Friday 07 October 2011
Most homes say something about their owners – but for architect, architectural historian, landscape designer and promoter of postmodernism Charles Jencks, his house is the story.
Jencks wanted a building that would express deep layers of meaning in its layout and details, so his home in west London is, he explains, "A polemic. In 1979, postmodernism lost its understanding of the meaning of ornament. It degenerated into kitsch appliqué. I wanted to show what symbolic design was. I disagreed with my friend [the architect] Robert Venturi's view that a sign and a symbol are the same thing."
He continues: "A sign to me is a one-liner, a symbol is very complex and my house is a series of symbols."
And it certainly is. Everything outside and in has a symbolic meaning. His house is the apogee of symbolic architecture, the eye can barely rest for spotting and seeking out meanings.
Jencks is best known for the extraordinary Maggie's Centres that he founded with his late wife, Maggie Keswick. In her memory he has recruited some of the world's greatest architects and landscape designers to create centres that offer free comprehensive support for anyone affected by cancer.
The buildings all have sympathetic and sensitive interiors; the newest designed by "starchitect" Rem Koolhaas opens shortly in Scotland. Koolhaas was one of five architects who offered to help with remodelling Jencks's London home. Jencks gave each one (they are all friends) a brief to design a room representing a season, but in the end he only used the design for "winter" produced by post–modernist architect Michael Graves.
Jencks designed many of the alterations to the 1840s house with Maggie's help and the assistance of architect Terry Farrell. "I did more than a 1,000 drawings in the process," Jencks says.
From the street, the Thematic House isn't that unusual but gradually the eye sees that the windows and doors are abstracted human forms. The rear windows can be read as a man, a woman, a dog and the sun and moon. The house is entered through a "Cosmic Oval" a hall panelled with mirrored doors over which images of many of the subsequent recurring themes of the house are stencilled.
The two principal ideas expressed in the house are cosmic time (the seasons, passage of the moon and the sun) and cultural time (the creating and passing of civilisations). This sounds very complex and layers of meaning are everywhere, but the house is also surprisingly functional. The ground floor is organised around a central spiral staircase and from each room at least three others are visible, emphasising the cycle of seasons.
The "winter" room is dark and focused on a fireplace surrounded by one of Jencks's passions, Chinese sculptural rocks. These are mounted on ornate carved wooden stands and represent the world. On a pillar, surveying the room, is a bust of Hephaestus (the craftsman Greek god) modelled on the features of artist Eduardo Paolozzi.
The "spring" room is in gentle cream with three busts, of April, May and June, sculpted by Jencks's sister Penny. Jencks designed the furniture down to the light fittings and the columns that are a hiding place for books and a stereo.
Adjacent is the "sundial arcade", a stepped-down window seat that overlooks the garden (also designed by Jencks) via a huge window that descends at the touch of a button. The space itself acts as a sundial.
The "summer" room is in a gloriously sunny yellow, with a huge circular table that can accommodate 13 guests. Each table leg is decorated with nine planets and the top is a giant blaze of sun.
The sun chairs and tables look expensive but are made from MDF. The wall above was painted by Allen Jones and is based on Poussin's A Dance to the Music of Time. The golden theme extends in to the "Indian summer" kitchen. The theme is Hindu architecture, with sturdy pillars that open to reveal capacious cupboards and waste bins. The visual puns include a real floor and worktops given fake marble finishes. Jencks explains gleefully: "If you can't take the kitsch, get out of the kitchen." The Hindu god Shiva turns out to be a teapot, by Carol McNicholl.
The seasons are completed with "autumn", a room decorated in burnt red. The "solar" staircase, which leads to Jencks's office and bedroom are an abstract representation of the solar year. There are 52 steps, each cast with seven divisions to give 365 grooves. At the base is a mosaic by Paolozzi of a black hole. There are three rails up the stairs representing the trajectory of the sun, the moon and the stars, a kind of spiral path through space.
Upstairs is Jencks's architectural office. The ceiling is like a billowing tent, beneath which is a hamlet of building-shaped bookcases and filing drawers based on different western architectural styles. It is here that Jencks wrote his two latest books – The Universe in the Landscape: Landforms, and The Story of Post–Modernism. Glass cut-throughs give a view down to the summer room.
The house works well on a day-to-day level, he insists. "The only mistake we made was that the position of my library meant that when the children were growing up they had to be silent as they went upstairs when I was working," explains Jencks who now lives in the house with his second wife, Louisa. The bedroom, called the Foursquare Room, is a celebration of the square on which most architecture is based.
"This house," says Jencks "is the most intense since Sir John Soane's. It is minimalist with maximalist stuff." Jencks's house is sadly not open to the public, but part of the first house he designed (in Cape Cod) has been recreated at the V&A in its Postmodernism exhibition.
'The Universe in the Landscape: Landforms', by Charles Jencks is published by Frances Lincoln (£40). To order a copy for the special price of £36 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk.
'Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990' is at the V&A until 15 January.
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