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The Architecture of Bond

Spotlight on the work of Sir Ken Adam

Ken Adam The architect, who became an Oscar winning set-designer.

Why does popular culture believe that the world’s super-villains should choose to live in the hollowed out interiors of suitably active volcanoes? The man we must thank is Sir Ken Adam; a former student at UCL Bartlett of Architecture and Oscar winning set-designer, best remembered for his work on Albert Broccoli’s and Harry Saltzman’s James Bond cinema productions.

Adam was so successful at bringing to life a fictional world of international espionage, during an era of tense cloak and dagger politics, that his unreal architecture and interior designs eventually set the tone for how many of us recall the cold war of the 1950s and 60s. In celebration of his achievements, we take a closer look at some of the design lessons to be learnt from the brilliantly talented Mr. Adam.

Moods, Lighting and Reflection

The War Room, Dr. Strangelove, 1963

This iconic sets’ angular ceiling, oval table arrangement, wall sized maps and spotlight caballing – descending into the room like an powerful invisible hand was referenced by Stephen Spielberg as the greatest film set ever designed and built.

Despite the film being shot in monotone, one of its great achievements is the illusion of colour, or rather how Adam manipulates black and white light to reflect the prevailing and particularly tense moods in society during these decades.

As it is when designing a room interior, the choice of lighting doesn’t solely create the intended mood of a space. As a set-designer Adam expertly demonstrated that when one has an intention to craft a specific mood for an environment, it is equally as much about the choice of objects and materials placed into it, that ultimately achieve it. He understood that light is an illusion that doesn’t exist until it is reflected off an object. With the objects, detailing and finishes Adam chose for his sets, he painted with light in a way that set benchmarks in cinema and manipulated its reflections to convey the moods he desired.

Illustratively, in addition to using intense spotlighting to create a halo of luminosity above the actors seated positions; he chose to highly gloss the blacked out floor, which reflected and rippled even the smallest of character movements around the room. The angular ceiling meant that light being projected from behind the enormous, wall-mounted, maps never-endingly stretched into the shadowy depths of the room until blackness was reached. The spectrum of grey is so far stretched across the canvas of the room, that there is an unfathomable sense of scale to a room that clearly must have boundaries.

Design Authenticity

Blofelds’ Volcano Lair, You Only Live Twice, 1967

” I suppose now you’d use CGI but we tried not to cheat the audience. When we showed 500 stuntmen sliding on ropes down from the roof there really were 500 men.

Despite this designs implausibility in the real-world, the success of Ken Adam’s volcano lair is that it fits with the audiences’ preconception of Bond’s arch-enemy. Every design element from; the volcano’s vast multi-leveled interior and brutalist use of industrial materials (aluminum, concrete and chrome) to the space age floating staircases that cut unpredictable angles through the hollowed out chamber, tells the audience that here is a super-villain who is powerful, brutal in nature and intellectually superior to Bond. For a cold war audience, this would have stirred up the feelings of insecurity they were facing in their day to day lives, and no doubt played a role in adding a genuine authenticity to the production.

Set designers have the luxury of being able to design purely from the fiction of their minds, with little consideration for modernist functionalism, yet the most successful designs are always those that feel somehow grounded in reality. The same is true of successful interior design, authenticity must resonates with an individual innately if it is to be a success.

Emotional Reactions

Fort Knox, Goldfinger, 1964

Ken Adam’s design for the home of the United State’s reserve of gold bullion was initially rejected by Bond producers “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Neither Adam, nor allegedly Presidents, had ever seen behind the walls of the building and the producers didn’t think the audience would be captivated enough by the aesthetic of his design.

“I came up with this cathedral-type design. They [the producers] said it looked like a prison but that was the idea.”

The building’s exterior was described by Adam as “1920s art nouveau” and “very dull” so when he sketched another industrial-like interior of concrete and steel, one might share some sympathy with Broccoli and Saltzman’s views.

However, on set and screen Adam’s genius shone, as the eyes were confronted with a forty foot high wall of glistening gold that stretched from floor to ceiling. Having visited the Bank of England Adam knew such precious ingots would never be staked so highly upon each other, but regardless Adam brought to life what the audience wanted to see. He emphasized the alluring qualities of the metal, by coating it and the jet black floors in a highly reflective lacquer.  The continuous shimmering of the gold under spotlight, continually draws the eyes back to it, which is part of the appeal that is heightened by the fact Adam keeps it within touching distant behind bars.

If there designers should learn just one thing from Adam, it is to remember that design should make you feel something, beyond what you see. In fact, Adam’s creation of Fort Knox resulted in a lifetime of being stopped in the street by irate Americans, furiously questioning how he [a British citizen] had been allowed to film inside the vaults.

Remembering Ken Adam

In his later years Mr. Adam could be seen driving around London in a white Rolls Royce Silver Cloud I convertible, puffing on Cuban cigars. Clearly a gentleman, who knew what he liked, his influence upon cinema, architecture and design spans across everything from Pixar’s ‘The Incredibles’ to Sir Norman Foster’s design for Canary Wharf tube station.

Whilst Ken Adam’s approach to design is hard to summise in just a single sentence, the obituary that appeared for him in The Economist characterises it quite nicely: “…dizzying perspectives and elegant elongations. Mr. Adam never saw a circle that he couldn’t stretch into an oval, a right angle that he couldn’t squeeze into a dagger point, a horizontal or vertical line that he couldn’t tip over to a diagonal.”