Status symbols: Charles Jencks' townhouse embraces postmodernism, kitsch and theory of "cosmic time"

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Corinne Julius gets a guided tour of the designer and architectural historian's home

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.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable