July 03: the original stylist

2016/07/03 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1728 Robert Adam was born.

Born into one of those great eighteenth-century builder-architect families who built up most everything in Great Britain, Adam (d. 1792) might have been expected to do something in the line of speculative row houses or overseeing the construction of the occasional manor house.  The brilliance of his achievement threw all the accomplishments of his family, not to mention every other Scottish architect you can name, into murky shadow.  (“Egadz,” the Muse hears you say: “She forgot Mackintosh, peace and blessings be upon his name.”  No, no she didn’t.)

The family’s earned wealth supported young Adam’s travels through Europe in the mid-1750s.  By taking part in the Grand Tour, which was still a kind of novel thing at the time, he was one of the first English-speaking architects to take in the glories of Rome–meaning the empire.  He stayed in the capital for some time, but also traveled as far as Dalmatia (you call it Croatia now), where Diocletian had built a humongous pile.  He also cultivated relationships among people who would be important to his development, including other designers interested in poking around Roman ruins and then doing something with whatever inspired them (like the French Clerisseau and Italian Piranesi); he also met wealthy British Grand Tourists who supported his work once he was launched back in England.

When Adam started his practice, he did not just commence designing buildings for money; he sparked an international revolution in architectural design that was so immediately popular and continues to be so engaging and teachable he became one of the three architects to have a style named after himself.  The Adamesque or Adam Style was his particular brand of Neo-Classicism, that eighteenth-century approach to appropriating the forms and elements of Classicism in an individual, but still methodological way.  Ledoux, Latrobe, and the sublime Soane were all Neo-Classical, but without too much study one can recognize the clear differences between the way each, say, loved on a volute.  Adam’s style drew from a particular kind of Classical remnant in the creation of elegant architecture of powerful but graceful facades and equally exquisite interiors.  It is, indeed, inside, where Adam seems most at home (which puts one in mind of Cecil Vyse, but Adam was never quite so pompous).  Adam’s interiors brilliantly manage domestic proportions and color–two requirements that too many architects tend to forget.  Classical forms are fully recognizable in Adam’s houses (most of his great work was residential), but they have been treated with Adam’s light, elegant hand, cast in lithe, delicate forms and stunning color schemes.  Spend some time with Kedleston, Home House, Kenwood, Osterley and this tea house (or any of the other hundreds of full houses or bits of rooms and furniture out there), just part of the box of chocolates that the first great stylist left to us all.

Image: Osterley


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