Sets appeal

A new book celebrates the production designer Ken Adam, whose elaborate concepts for films from Bond to Dr Strangelove influenced the likes of Norman Foster – and it all started with a felt-tip

Words: Oliver Wainwright





Villains hiding out in underground lairs, councils of war meeting at spotlit circular tables, bank vaults full of gold bullion piled high. The popular imagination of what these secret, off-limits places might look like has been shaped, more than anything else, by the dramatic visions of the late production designer Ken Adam. As the creative mind behind seven James Bond films across the 60s and 70s, and numerous other movies, from Dr Strangelove to Addams Family Values, Adam dreamed up the look of nuclear submarine bases, mountain laboratories, hi-tech space stations, glamorous Las Vegas penthouses, and missile launchers hidden inside volcanoes. In doing so, he built some of the most memorable and influential spaces, not only in the history of cinema but also in the history of architecture, real or imagined. Today, his influence can be felt whenever you walk into a soaring office atrium, take a vertiginous escalator ride into a cavernous subway station, or even get shuttled through a tunnel between airport terminals. He was the master of a style he termed “heightened reality”, taking everyday spaces and giving them a theatrical, supercharged glamour. Countless architects have copied it since. Norman Foster’s design for the cone-shaped room at the top of the Gherkin is perhaps the most Adamesque space in London; his Faustino winery in Spain could be a Bond baddie’s lair. A longtime fan, Foster once described Adam as “a master of space and light”, who realised the kinds of spaces that the 18 thcentury architectural draughtsmendreamers, like Giovanni Piranesi and Étienne-Louis Boullée, had only imagined. “Those legendary architectural figures” had “hypothesised visually, graphically, environments of awesome power”, he said. “Ken Adam builds them.” Seven years after his death, the workings behind the magic have been brought together in a mammoth new book, The Ken Adam Archive, featuring interviews and production sketches from some of the 70 completed and 15 unrealised projects that he worked on over his 50-year career. Weighing in at 4kg, with the dimensions and heft of a paving slab, it feels like a suitably colossal tome to mark the mind behind the most ambitious film sets ever built. Edited by the film historian Sir Christopher Frayling, a longtime friend of Adam’s, the book is peppered with revealing conversations between the two. The Bond series, for example, almost didn’t happen for Adam. When he received the initial treatment for Dr No in 1961, he wasn’t impressed. “You can’t possibly do this,” he recalls his wife, Maria Letizia, protesting at the time. “You would prostitute yourself.” Bond writer Ian Fleming himself admitted that his trashy spy novels had been conceived for consumption on “railways, trains, aeroplanes or beds”, while the producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli described his own films before Bond as “profitable crap”. But Adam saw the potential and went on to conjure some of the most striking spaces yet on the silver screen. Dr No’s underwater apartment was a fantastical mashup of fashionable mid-century style and heirloom antiques – some of it from Adam’s own house in Knightsbridge – with fake rocks framing a magnificent aquarium, and a real tree in the middle of the room. The film also featured a nuclear water reactor in a slick laboratory with dramatic, slanting columns and hi-tech control panels, with every detail supervised by scientists from the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Oxfordshire. “I knew nothing about reactors!” Adam recalls in the book. “And it had to work. Even though we didn’t use radioactive material … It was really frightening, actually! We knew so little about it.” You can see why he was nervous: this was his first film for Broccoli, and, in today’s money, the set for the reactor room alone cost more than £110,000. Still, that was nothing compared with what he would concoct five years later, at Pinewood Studios, for You Only Live Twice. In this epic, Bond tracks down Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the shadowy chief of criminal organisation Spectre, to his headquarters inside a dormant volcano in Japan (from where he is launching rockets to capture superpower space hardware and trigger a third world war, natch). The gargantuan set for the volcano lair included a movable helicopter platform, a working monorail system, a launch pad, and a full-scale rocket mock-up that could simulate lift-off. Visible from three miles away, it used 900 tonnes of steel and 200 tonnes of plaster (before a carbon footprint was anyone’s concern), and cost the equivalent of £7m today. The book shows Adam’s initial sketches for the sets, drawn with the characteristic high-contrast, energetic strokes of his black and brown felt-tip pens – his dynamic, layered lines emphasising the extreme-perspective views. And those felt-tips, it turns out, were crucial to the evolution of the Adam style. Born in Berlin in 1921, as Klaus Hugo George Fritz Adam, he arrived in London in 1934 after his family fled the Nazi regime. He went to St Paul’s school, then attended evening classes at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture – then a hotbed of fussy beaux arts classicism – while working as an architectural draughtsman during the day. As a result, his early drawings tended to be precise and technically proficient, made with pen and ink and a T-square. He would draw a neat plan and elevation to scale, before projecting it into a sketch, as architects are taught to do. “I was afraid to let go and express myself,” Adam recalls. “The drawings were a kind of self-defence.” But everything changed with the arrival of the Flo-Master marker pen in 1951. “I had to try and find some way of releasing myself,” he continues. “With the help of felt pens – which had recently been invented – I changed my drawing technique completely.” He settled on the wedge-shaped tip. “Its broad strokes forced me to loosen up and made me design more boldly,” he recalls. “One or two lines might form the basis of my design, and often it is the imperfections of the sketch – with a bold treatment of light and shade – which creates interesting compositions and atmosphere.” Flipping through the book’s 360 pages, you can see Adam’s style evolve from the uptight technical drawing of the early years, to the later exercises in chiaroscuro that flow with expressionist glee, as atmospheric and emotionally charged as any Piranesi etching. In particular, his designs for the war room in Dr Strangelove, created for Stanley Kubrick in 1962, exude cold war menace in their thrusting triangular geometries. As Frayling describes, it was one part concrete bomb shelter, one part oval light-ring, one part animated map of the world showing the flight paths of nuclear bombers, and “three parts paranoia”. It went on to become everyone’s idea of what the underground inner sanctum for plotting global warfare must surely look like. When Ronald Reagan, as newly elected US president, was given a tour of the Pentagon by his chief of staff in 1981, he is said to have asked: “But where is the war room?” “Mr President,” came the reply, “there isn’t one”. Ken Adam’s imagination continues to live on long after his death, inspiring the villainous look of movies, video games, buildings and space stations. The Ken Adam Archive, edited by Christopher Frayling, is published by Taschen.