Designer of country house Ashley Park and commercial building 198-202 Piccadilly on a life spent working to make the traditional an accepted type of architecture
Robert Adam is founder of classical and traditional architecture practice Adam Architecture and INTBAU, the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism.
Knowing what you know now, did you make the right decision to be an architect? When did you decide you wanted to be an architect?
When I was at school, art was what I did best, and architecture came to the surface as a way forward. But I wasn’t really decided on architecture until a few years into my course at Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster). It was studying design in the third year after two rather boring years that really turned a page for me. My tutors Mike Foster and Hans Haenlein were open minded and were key figures in my education. They helped me realise that architecture was a great thing.
However I very nearly failed. My fourth year tutor was Rick Mather and he and I didn’t get on big time - he was a Corbusian and I was experimenting with traditional architecture at a time when anything to do with traditional architecture was out of the question. I sacked him as my tutor and was grateful to be taken on by Bernard Lamb, who was also a rabid Corbusian, but said that, even though he didn’t like what I was doing, he’d support me because no-one else was doing it and he thought it was important. The college still tried to fail me on design, but the external examiner, Robert Payne, made sure I passed and suggested I apply for a British School at Rome scholarship. So I went from nearly failing to becoming a Rome scholar in a few months - quite a transformation of fortunes. I also won the Sir Banister Fletcher Prize for my dissertation.
Looking back on your work over the years, who or what have been your biggest influences?
Mike Foster, Hans Haenlein and Bernard Lamb were key figures in my education - they supported me when no one else did. My time as a Rome Scholar in 1973-4 also gave me a big boost. I wasn’t really a classicist before but, when I was in Rome, I realised that classicism underlies almost all subsequent architecture, even Gothic. At the British School at Rome, I also entered into a community of academics and artists whose tentacles stretched far and I ended up as chairman of the Faculty of Fine Arts.
My approach is traditional, but traditions are not history; they move on. So I’m influenced by different people at different times. Classical architecture is huge - from antiquity right through the Middle Ages and up to now. It’s like an enormous battery you can plug into at any time and get a charge. I’ve recently become more aware of some great early 20th century classicism, Sigurd Lewerentz and Jože Plečnik in particular were fantastically inventive. It’s a wonderfully rich field.
What ambitions and priorities did you have when you started out in practice and how have those changed, over the years?
I had an ambition to become a partner in practice by the time I was 30 and to publish my first book by the time I was 40. I was offered a partnership in a small practice in Winchester when I was 29. It was a provincial practice, designing nose-to-the-grindstone stuff that gave me a very practical grounding. I built up my own reputation gradually, designing a substantial office building in Winchester [Sheridan House] that was quite Romanesque. When that was picked up in the press, I realised the power of getting our buildings out there. After a case of mistaken identity, we set up Robert Adam Architects in 1997 as a parallel practice and that took off while the original name withered away. In 2010 it became Adam Architecture. Our aspiration was simply to design good buildings and to serve our clients. We also began to take on broader objectives. We had ambitions for traditional architecture to have a place at the table as one of the accepted aspects of architecture. I believed in engaging with the profession more widely, so I become a RIBA Award assessor, a RIBA councillor and set up the Traditional Architecture Group at the RIBA.
My approach to practice didn’t change but, as opportunities arise, so your work develops. For example, I became very closely involved in urban design following Prince Charles’ Mansion House speech, including some projects for the Duchy of Cornwall.
Planning authorities couldn’t understand that skyscrapers could be traditional when in fact early skyscrapers in Chicago were traditional buildings
You stepped down from Adam Architecture in 2020 after more than 40 years with the practice and now have your own consultancy. How did this come about?
My fellow directors decided it was a good time for me to sell my shares, which they were entitled to do. Although I wasn’t that happy about it at the time, it all worked out very well. I have a lot of work on with my new consultancy - urban design projects, houses in India and Hampshire, a commercial project in Oxford and some housing schemes. For one person, that’s quite busy, so I’m also collaborating with another small firm, Mangnalls Architecture. And I’m still on good terms with the directors of Adam Architecture - in fact I had dinner with them last night.
How hard has it been working as a traditional and classical architect?
The biggest obstacles to overcome have been attitudes in the profession, rather than those of the public.
As a small provincial practice, most of our clients wanted traditional buildings so it was never really a problem and we were never short of work. However, the minute we got into competitions, we’d know we had no chance when we saw the judges, as they’d be drawn from the architectural establishment.
Everything changed in the 1980s with the arrival of postmodernism. The idea of architectural diversity became important, so competition lists made sure they included a postmodernist or traditional architect. That was a good moment - everything opened up. But in the early 1990s, which were thin for all architects, those opportunities closed up again and I wasn’t let into architecture schools in case I corrupted people.
However John Gummer’s Country House planning clause in 1997 was a great boost.
More recently, sustainability concerns have helped our cause - traditional architecture is on the side of the gods when it comes to longevity, flexibility and thermal mass.
What do you regard as your breakthrough projects?
Sheridan House, an office building in Winchester (1984) because it set off my public reputation, later on the country house Ashley Park (2004) and 198-202 Piccadilly, a commercial building in London (2007). Another key building is the Millennium Pavilion for Lord Sainsbury. He wanted something to celebrate the Millennium that matched his classical house but clearly could only have been designed in the late 20th century. Working with engineer Tony Hunt, we evolved the classical vocabulary so that the dome appears to float above the columns.
What projects are you most proud of?
Throughout my career I’ve believed in intellectual advancement. A key article I wrote was Tin Gods (1989), which was very well received - even Martin Pawley said it was very important. I realised that everyone talked about technology but didn’t really understand it as a phenomenon. Traditional architects aren’t meant to be interested in technology but I’m very interested in it and how it applies to architecture.
I also wrote The Globalisation of Modern Architecture (2012). Architecture is at best a tertiary activity after politics, economics and social change, so how can you understand it without understanding the primary movers? So I researched these, and how they influence architecture, for the book. My last book, Time for Architecture (2020), sums up many years of theoretical work on modernity and tradition.
What has given you the most satisfaction in your work as an architect?
I founded INTBAU (International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism) in 2001. It’s grown to 37 national chapters and has become important as a community of traditional designers and enthusiasts. I also founded the Traditional Architecture Group in 2003 when I was honorary secretary at the RIBA because I took the view that the institute should encompass traditional architecture. It’s still going strong. I feel that traditional architecture is now accepted as a legitimate type of architecture, which is good to see.
I also get huge satisfaction from writing and from being able to support artists through commissions for architecture, which is such a great thing to be able to do. I also enjoy designing furniture, although opportunities come up rarely, I have a Pembroke Table in the V&A permanent collection. One’s very lucky to be in this business. The opportunities for satisfaction are huge, as of course are the opportunities for disappointment.
Has it got easier, or harder, to get high quality buildings built over your time in practice?
Planning and the burden of regulations have become more problematic - it’s nuts what’s now involved. Outline planning used to be a red line around a site when I started out - you can forget that now. At the Office for Place [part of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government], we’ve been trying to introduce coding into the planning system to tackle this and the government is running some pathfinder projects with local authorities to refine the process.
Do you think the profession took too long to get to grips with the need to design sustainably?
I don’t think they were slow to pick it up - architects have been incredibly enthusiastic. But they’ve elevated their own importance to think they can save the world when they are really not the prime movers in the reduction in carbon consumption. This doesn’t make it any the less important, but a lot will have to be done with legislation.
Do you have any regrets?
I’m very lucky - I’ve done a lot of country houses and a lot of urban design - but it’s frustrating not to have done more commercial buildings. Property agents just don’t believe traditional architecture can be commercially appealing.
And I’d like to have built a skyscraper. I actually designed three projects but none got built. Planning authorities couldn’t understand that skyscrapers could be traditional when in fact early skyscrapers in Chicago, for example, were traditional buildings. Then modernist architects decided skyscrapers were their territory and traditional architects backed off.
Do you have a dream project you’d still like to achieve?
A tall classical building. I’d like to show it can be done and done well.
What is your most treasured possession?
There are a few. A wonderful little bronze miniature of a Greek temple awarded as part of The Richard H Dreihaus Prize in 2017 [a $200,000 prize given for contributions to traditional, classical and sustainable architecture and urbanism] and a figure presented to me by former colleagues by Alexander Stoddart, a great sculptor with whom I work whenever I can.
To see more reflections on architectural careers see.ribaj.com/hindsight