Robert Adam and building beautiful

The elegance of Georgian architecture, best exemplified in Bath and Edinburgh, can inspire a modern Renaissance in British housing design.
Famous Georgian terraced houses in the Circus, Bath, England. Credit: Alastair Jennings/Digital Camera Magazine/Future  Images via Getty Images.
Famous Georgian terraced houses in the Circus, Bath, England. Credit: Alastair Jennings/Digital Camera Magazine/Future Images via Getty Images.
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Few architects in history have given a lasting name to their design style. One exception is Robert Adam. Adam was born in Edinburgh in 1728 and, after a Grand Tour of Italy, largely based in London until his death there in 1792. Today, some elements of interior design in Britain, chimneypieces in particular, still deploy his name, even though the shallow-relief urns, festoons and other features of ancient Roman derivation that characterise his work are not currently in fashion. Adam’s name alone continues to serve as a byword for qualities of beauty and elegance indelibly associated with the buildings of the Georgian era, qualities believed to have stood the test of time. 

Adam lived on the cusp of modernity. The eighteenth century witnessed not only the intellectual freedoms and political aspirations brought about by the Enlightenment but also (especially in Britain) the technological, economic and social changes of the Industrial Revolution. Building elements that previously depended on hand manufacture could now be mass produced to well-established patterns, rendering them quicker to make and cheaper to buy. It is this commodification of architecture (and of artefacts such as Wedgwood vases) that makes the revival of ancient Graeco-Roman architectural forms in the neoclassical eighteenth century fundamentally different from that of the Renaissance – and also recognisably modern. Modern, too, was the way Adam created a highly effective office of architects and artists in London who divided design work between them under his watchful eye. Beyond that, some 140 craftsmen on his bankroll managed a 3,000-strong workforce throughout the country, constructing the actual buildings.

In 1773, together with his brother and architect-partner James, Adam published the first instalment of their Works in Architecture, a striking example in large-format architectural publishing of blatant self-advertisement designed to engage with a new market. It included seductive illustrations of the superb interior designs made for the Duke of Northumberland’s Syon House, two of them etched in Rome by Giambattista Piranesi, the greatest printmaker of the century (whom Adam had befriended in Italy in the 1750s). But the Works also included an explanatory preface articulating the new principles of design that underpinned the signature Adam style. 

It may well be that Adam’s claims to originality were exaggerated – and that the Works was published in an attempt to recoup custom lost to competitors. Nevertheless, the publication demonstrates to us that, by the 1770s, Adam was a victim of his own success. His principal rival, James Wyatt, returned from Rome in the late 1760s, and later told King George III that on arrival he had ‘found the public taste corrupted by the Adams, and he was oblig’d to comply with it’. Wyatt was far from alone in being compelled to come into line in this way and, although he and others adapted it, the Adam style had become a phenomenon that now extended beyond its creator and would, indeed, outlive him.

The majority of Robert Adam house interiors may dazzle and thrill us with their decorative brilliance, but the underpinning causes of their appeal are simple. However large or small the rooms, their careful, classical proportions are always satisfying – ceiling heights in particular. Homes built today in ‘traditional’ styles often display lowered ceilings, in pursuit of some reduction in cost to the developer, ending up uncomfortable or even oppressive spaces. A concomitant effect is created by windows that are too small – both for the rooms (over-limiting light in northern European climates) and in the external elevations. Adam was also ingenious in the way he planned and varied internal spaces, however large or small the footprint of his buildings. In all these respects, he offers valuable lessons for a post pandemic existence, given it is likely that millions will continue to work largely from their homes in the future – homes that need to provide pleasant and functional spaces for the co-existence of professional and domestic life.

Today, given that Adam is best remembered as architect of some of Britain’s most celebrated country and London houses, it could be argued his ideas are of little relevance in a world so badly in need of affordable housing. But Adam did also show how his ideas could be simplified and reduced without the loss of their essential character. His design for a house in London, for example, commissioned by the middle-class Scots-born bookseller Andrew Millar, was plain in elevation with just a pedimented doorcase and two simply ornamented stringcourses over its four storeys.

At number 6 Charlotte Square in Edinburgh, begun for the shoemaking entrepreneur Orlando Hart, the ceiling of the principal reception room was given a comparatively limited amount of decorative plasterwork. Situated in the centre of the square’s north side, however, the house still presents an impressive street frontage. In the 1960s it became the official residence of the UK government’s secretary of state for Scotland and, after devolution in 1999, it was ceded to the first minister of Scotland, a Georgian house of relatively restrained elegance, like London’s 10 Downing Street, where the business of government still takes place. 

Charlotte Square, commissioned directly from Adam by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh in 1791 as the culminating feature of the city’s First New Town, was the last of his urban housing schemes. The first had been the Adelphi development between the Strand and the Thames in London, begun in 1769. Compared to earlier speculative developments with familiar West End squares designed to attract middle-classes becoming prosperous on the back of trade and the Industrial Revolution, the remarkable innovation of the Adelphi was that it was always intended to be a mixed community. Houses of different grade attracted the newly wealthy with a range of budgets, but there were also houses for tradesmen, a tavern and shops. 

In this respect, Adam was surely inspired by the plan for the New Town in Edinburgh, formally adopted just two years previously on the recommendation of his older brother, John, and the then Provost. The agreed plan similarly envisaged housing for workers and shopkeepers on the streets between grander blocks. This ideal of social cohesiveness stemming from mixed economic communities, where homes and commerce sit side by side, is still very much with us. Indeed, it is likely to become a more pressing concern in debates about existing city centres and new-build housing developments.  In the aftermath of Covid-19, as well as in the pursuit of carbon neutrality, commuting will reduce, and people will increasingly need shops and services within walking or cycling distance from where they live.

Sadly for the Adams, the financial crisis of 1772 coupled with misplaced confidence in their own business acumen led to near financial ruin – and almost all the buildings of the Adelphi ended up being demolished in 1936.  Edinburgh New Town, by contrast, expanded to north and west in the first half of the nineteenth century to become what the American architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock called ‘the most extensive example of a Romantic Classical city in the world.’ Its survival largely intact today is due to the evident sustainability of its durable eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century construction, to the way the buildings have proved constantly adaptable to local needs, and to the fact that, for most of their history, they have held aesthetic appeal.  Later developments in Victorian and Edwardian eras were largely made in harmony with the New Town already in place.

However, in common with the Georgian fabric of cities elsewhere, even Edinburgh New Town began to suffer unwelcome interventions across the middle of the twentieth century, as many frontages on Princes Street and the south-west quarter of St Andrew’s Square attest – a result of the Modernist mindset among planners and architects at the time.

The English architectural historian John Summerson trained as an architect and became a member of the Modern Architecture Research Group in the 1930s, before he turned to historical study and writing. His 1945 book, Georgian London, remains the authoritative source on the city’s eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century architecture. None the less, in that same year Summerson wrote of the half-mile straight stretch of Georgian houses comprising Gower Street in London: ‘imagine the unbearable oppressiveness of a landscape in which such architecture represents the emotional ceiling’. Then, in the early 1960s, when asked to give his opinion on the mile-long, entirely Georgian Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin, where Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board was proposing to demolish sixteen houses to build a head office, he famously dismissed the group as ‘simply one damned house after another’. Despite strong local opposition, the demolition went ahead. (Half a century on, the nondescript head office that replaced the houses is itself to be demolished, whilst Dublin’s Georgian houses are being reconditioned for sustainable re-use.)

Despite his admiration for Georgian architecture, Summerson could not reconcile himself to what he rationalised as a lack of a controlling, unifying architectural mind in Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Street – or to what he instinctively felt to be a stultifying uniformity in London’s Gower Street. But these were judgements emanating from his own rather snobbish sense of superiority, and his admiration for ‘great’ architects. In fact, the ultimate success of Georgian housing in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not lie in the outstanding examples of one-off set-pieces, wonderful though these are. It lay in the way that, within its parameters, the system provided for a wide range of form and cost, spanning the whole gamut from the splendour of the terraces designed by Robert Adam, to the plain but nevertheless commodious work of unidentified local builders. 

Moreover, the long straight runs of houses that struck Summerson as architecture with a low emotional ceiling only represent one aspect of the full Georgian urban identity. Other characteristics that make it so worthy of our attention now are the squares, circuses, crescents and other sinuous lines of building that interlock cleverly to give a resident or visitor spatial variety and a sense of openness. It is also true to say the Georgian system of housing proved highly amenable to the creation of different character in different places and geographies. The white-brick architecture of London’s Bloomsbury, for example, has a very different aspect from the red-brick of Liverpool’s housing of the period, as does the stuccoed, white-rendered Belgravia (or the similar but bow-fronted houses of marine Hove) from the honey-coloured limestone of hillside Bath.

The model of Georgian architecture teaches us how houses of diverse sizes can make functional but also pleasing homes; how urban plans can be intriguingly varied; how layouts can mix domestic and commercial activities; and how whole developments can be suited to very different local contexts. It also teaches us, however, that at times of unregulated capitalism ‘beauty’ does not necessarily occur of its own accord. 

Two factors help explain Robert Adam’s final and finest urban intervention in the Edinburgh New Town. Firstly, the land was managed under the Scottish system of feuing, whereby landowners could sell land for development yet retain rights over what was built without paying for it. The town council used parliamentary acts under this system to purchase the entire site for the first phase. They then managed what happened on each individual plot so as to ensure overall harmony, their theory being that the quality of people’s houses and living environments were the most important preconditions for the creation of national wealth and prosperity. The New Town was developed in order to draw enterprising Scots back to Edinburgh from London – where many had gone after the loss of political power under the 1707 Act of Union. The role of the capital invested by speculative builders who usually controlled such developments in the eighteenth century, whilst critical, was secondary to this bigger socio-political and economic objective. The plan to use architecture to generate national renewal was successful, contributing to Enlightenment Scotland’s emergence as a world-leading intellectual and industrially enterprising force.

The second factor was the consensus that existed politically about architectural design, and the moves made to enshrine this in legislation. Thus Edinburgh town council insisted on: ample width for the principal streets and for service lanes to be protected for their intended purposes; specific overall heights and roof pitches for the houses of different grade; and approval of all plans and elevations prior to building commencing. Within these parameters, the elevations ended up displaying the wide variety possible within the vocabulary of neoclassicism that existed between 1750 and 1850, so that no two streets or districts look quite alike. 

This consensus was made possible not because of a singular concept of beauty but because of a wider, collective concept of taste. Individuals and groups of people have, since time immemorial, developed preferences around things they take pleasure in seeing or owning. However, when Dr Johnson came to define the word ‘taste’ in terms of ‘intellectual relish or discernment’ in his Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755, he took the meaning from the poet Alexander Pope who had died only eleven years before. Even today the Oxford English Dictionary does not trace use of the word – in connection with this meaning – back further than the late seventeenth century. The great English architects of that period – Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh – did not subscribe to any such notion of a ‘taste’ held in common. 

That a particular, collective understanding of taste became a dominant aspect of élite Georgian intellectual and cultural life is apparent not least from the vigour shown by some, such as the painter William Hogarth, in fruitlessly opposing its hegemony because of its ‘foreign’ origins. None the less, in architectural terms taste did take on a clearly recognisable identity in the form of buildings promoted from the 1720s by Pope’s great friend Richard Boyle, the architect Earl of Burlington. Their hero was the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, like Robert Adam one of the few architects to have given his name to a whole style of architecture. It is from Palladio, via the seventeenth-century English architect Inigo Jones, that the Georgians – including Adam (reluctant though he was to admit it) – acquired their notion of what a house ought to look like.

The Georgians could perhaps be considered fortunate to have had a notion of architectural taste to which many (if by no means all) could subscribe, since it lowered the temperature around disagreement. The aesthetic success of Georgian town developments depended on those who either understood or agreed with aesthetic choices made within certain parameters. As Adam put it in the preface to his Works, ‘the rules and orders of architecture are so generally known … that it would be tedious, and even absurd, to treat of them in this work.’ Today we do not have certainty of this nature. Modernist architects across the middle of the twentieth century believed they had succeeded in producing a hegemonic taste for their time, but it was never shared as widely as Georgian taste and consequently did not last as long. 

Frank Salmon

Frank Salmon is Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St John’s College. His many publications have largely been on the architecture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He will shortly become Director of a new research Centre at Cambridge for the study of classical architecture.

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