words Alex Wiltshire
“We used to have great villains that wanted to rule the world, conquer space, or rob Fort Knox,” says Ken Adam, cutting the end off his fat cigar. “I mean, they were real villains! And I dreamed up their palaces.”
Ken Adam is the most revered film production designer alive. He is the creator of the iconic sets for Dr Strangelove and seven James Bond films, including Dr No, Goldfinger and Moonraker. He won Oscars for his work on The Madness of King George and Barry Lyndon. His theatrical style defined the aesthetic for power in the Cold War era: the opulent secret lairs of megalomaniacs, monumental governmental and military installations, with their accompanying technologies of computers, space craft and gadgets.
Though he is 82, Adam still has a powerful presence. He is friendly, with a loud, confident voice that still holds more than a trace of his German upbringing, and his keen eyes are slightly magnified by the huge lenses of his glasses. He’s holding an unlit cigar in one of his large, strong-looking hands but, incongruously, on his feet is a pair of rather scruffy New Balance trainers, and he sits on an old, plain wooden stool for the interview.
Adam’s studio, in a Georgian townhouse in Knightsbridge, just around the corner from Harrods, looks out over his white vintage Rolls Royce (apparently there are only ten of them in the world). His desk is cluttered with awards – British Academy awards, certificates and those two Oscars – and the back wall is covered in a large bookcase, with subjects ranging from modern art to histories of naval warfare. To the side is a model of a Hawker Typhoon fighter, the aircraft he flew during the Second World War as the only German RAF pilot. The lone nod to the expressive modernist style that characterises much of his best-known work is a simple sweeping arch that he created to enclose the front door when he and his wife moved here in 1949.
Adam is clearly something of a raconteur – his yarns about his eventful life are polished and many are almost word-for-word identical to the interviews he has given in the past. With a loud laugh he tells the one about how when Ronald Reagan became president in the early 1980s he was surprised to see that the war room was completely different from Adam’s depiction of it in Dr Strangelove, and the one about how he had to hurriedly design a satellite and three-stage rocket for showman film producer Mike Todd, who’d bragged to the press that he had invented it before the Russians.
Adam was born in Berlin in 1921 as Klaus Hugo Adam. His well-off family owned a fashionable sports and fashion shop, but when in 1934 the Nazi persecution of the Jews made it dangerous to remain there, the family fled to London. His father died soon after, and his mother ran a boarding house in Hampstead that became a meeting place for other European immigrants.
Having been inspired by the startlingly theatrical sets for German expressionist works like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), he decided that he would like to design for film. At the boarding house he was introduced to one of the Korda Brothers, Vincent, who told him that architecture was the best training for designing for films. So he attended the Bartlett as an external student while working at an architecture firm, CW Glover and Partners.
“At that time the Bartlett was very conservative, and I was a rebel at heart, but the bigwigs seemed to like me because I was always arguing,” he says. Adam’s work was influenced by the Bauhaus, but he was taught that the Queen Anne and Georgian styles would pass RIBA examinations. “I don’t regret that grounding,” he says. “It was certainly useful for teaching how to work with drawings, draft, learn about period and architectural styles and composition.”
Those twin early interests in Bauhaus modernism and expressionism are elegantly fused in his set design, in which highly theatrical and expressive spaces nevertheless appear functional. Adam terms his approach “heightened reality”. He describes his Fort Knox design for the Bond film Goldfinger: “My idea was that it should be completely impractically piled high with gold, 40 foot high,” he says, explaining that it was impossible to get access to Fort Knox to see what it really looks like. “It’s the biggest gold depository and the audience wants to see all these piles.”
Bond was the big break that established Adam’s style. The first film he worked on was Dr No. “It was just a small budget film,” he says. “But I felt it gave me an opportunity. Remember, this was, what, 1962, and something unbelievably exciting was going on – a renaissance, a revolution in the arts, similar to what had happened in Germany between the wars. We were all young, we all thought, ‘Fuck the Empire, it’s over.’ I felt that Bond gave me the opportunity to express a little bit of that period, of technology and computers, and get away from normal film constructions and design. You saw it 30 years before in Metropolis or Things to Come, but that was a long time before.”
Adam decorated the Bond villains’ palaces with a mixture of modernity – notably concrete, stainless steel and gunmetal – and antique furniture and art. It looked distinctive and was tongue-in-cheek, and allowed individual elements, like a sinister aquarium or a stolen piece of art, to appear more evident and help characterise the villain.
A key point that helped Adam develop this “heightened reality” was when he dropped the prim and proper architectural drawing style that he’d learned at the Bartlett. “I felt I had to liberate myself from the rigidity of architecture,” he says. “I used to scribble ideas onto all these little pieces of paper and then show off to the producer or the people that put up the money these enormous architectural renderings which were lifeless and took hours to produce. My wife collected those scraps of paper and told me that those were alive and that they were my real work.”
His signature sketches, which are bold and almost violently dramatic, allowed him to communicate his basic ideas for the feel of each scene. Adam was at the vanguard of the development of the production designer’s role in film. He sculpted his position to work very closely with the director, scriptwriter, cameraman and producer. “What production design meant to me was that I get the script and have to translate that script into visual terms, designing settings, finding locations, costumes and so on. I appointed an art director to be more with the organisation side of things, the nuts and bolts.”
That closeness with the singular creator on films is most clearly demonstrated in his relationship with Stanley Kubrick, which began with Dr Strangelove. Adam drove him on the three-hour commute to the Shepperton studios each day, so they grew to know each other extremely well. Their collaboration resulted in Adam’s best-known and most iconic set, the War Room, a cavernous concrete bunker with one inclined wall covered in a huge tactical map display and in the centre of the black glossy floor a circular table with a ring of light suspended above.
This wasn’t Adam’s first design proposal for the set, though. His first was based around two tiers, which Kubrick initially said that he loved. But he changed his mind three weeks later, when Adam already had his construction team working on it. “You know, I nearly had a heart attack,” he says.
It was a feeling that became a feature of their working relationship: Kubrick managed to drive Adam to a breakdown during the filming of Barry Lyndon in 1973. “I had to try to calm myself down. He was a genius and he knew every technical job in film, but he didn’t know how to design, and I had to justify almost every single line that I had made intuitively.”
Adam launches into what is probably one of his most-told stories. Kubrick watched him doodling a triangle and asked, “Isn’t the triangle the strongest geometric shape?” “I wasn’t going to argue with him!” says Adam. Kubrick asked how the surface would be treated and Adam suggested reinforced concrete. “Like a gigantic bomb shelter?” suggested Kubrick. He then demanded that the central circular table should be covered in green baize, and Adam exasperatedly said that was fine, but reminded Kubrick that Strangelove was a black and white film. “He said, ‘I want it in green felt because I want the actors to feel that they’re playing a game of poker for the fate of the world,’” Adam recounts.
It’s clear that despite all the difficulties he had working with Kubrick, Adam holds him in very high esteem. A large part of Adam’s talent must be in working with people with such strong personal visions. “‘How’ is the big question,” he says. “You need a pretty strong personality and the conviction of your ideas. You have to be diplomatic, but at the same time you have to know the art or the knack of putting your ideas over – and because the film industry is known for people with ego problems, that isn’t always easy.”
Adam continues to work. The afternoon of the interview he has to go to the Royal Opera House to oversee the re-construction of his 1977 design for Puccini’s opera, The Girl From the Golden West. His most recent Bond-related work was for Goldeneye: Rogue Agent, a videogame released this year.
He found designing videogame environments challenging and something of a revelation. His ideas had to be adapted from film, with elements added for the player to hide behind, and interesting side rooms to visit. And he was upset that the developer, Electronic Arts, hid all the gold in his Fort Knox design in crates because it couldn’t render the reflections. “It is, I think, a very important new art form,” he says, but he was disturbed by the lack of artistic control over the project and the pressure that the EA staff were under. It’s not surprising that Adam turned down another game, based on From Russia With Love, on which he had not originally worked anyway.
His experiences at EA underline Adam’s open-minded and forward-looking attitude, which he also applies to the prevalence of CGI in modern films. “I think it’s a wonderful tool, but it shouldn’t be allowed to take over. The technique of acting changes in front of a blue screen,” he warns.
Adam is now sitting in a canvas director’s chair in his back garden being shot for icon’s portraits. He’s calm and natural in front of the lens and the showman in him remains distinct. He shows little sign that he wants to leave the life of the big screen yet. “I love boats and planes and fast cars,” he declares with a twinkle in his eye.