Friday, 1 June 2012

M/M Interview with Robert Adam

Image of Robert Adam provided by ADAM Architecture and may not be reproduced without prior authorisation. All rights reserved.

Interview with architect Robert Adam of ADAM Architecture was conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö in Winchester, Hampshire during March 2012.

Interview with Robert Adam

What does architecture mean to you?

A way of life and an opportunity to improve the world in which we live.  At the same time, it is important not to be too arrogant or imagine that architecture is more important than it is.  Architecture (and in this I include urban design) are not primary activities.  Architects don’t generally commission buildings, they take instructions from people who want to occupy or generate income from buildings.  Consequently, architecture will follow – inevitably - social, political and economic change and will - also inevitably - reflect them. Architecture is also an art.  It is also possible to relate art to social, political and economic change (for example, the primacy of modernist art can be traced to state patronage) but architecture is more intimately linked to social trends, finance and the market and government control than the studio arts.

For all that, architects do have a responsibility to society at large.  I take this very seriously.  That responsibility is to serve the public - that is to give the public what they want in the best way possible. 

When you started practice as an architect was traditional architecture your main  focus?

My architectural training began in 1967.  By this time, all traditional training had been completely banished from all schools of architecture, not only was it not on any teaching agenda it was simply never discussed, it was as if it never existed.  Then – and indeed still to this day – to attempt to design anything traditional was simply to invite failure and the end of an architectural training. 

I was at that time living in London in a flat with ‘normal’ people not involved in any way with design, let alone the type of design I was being told was the ‘only’ way.  They thought what I was doing was mad and really quite unpleasant.  This led me to question what I was being taught. 
Ironically, I was being presented with modernist architecture as radical and avant garde (ahead of its time and so perpetually seeking something different) and this position could be supported precisely by reference to the negative attitude of ‘normal’ people but, as this supposed radical design was normal and established in my isolated teaching environment, any attempt to do what ‘normal’ people liked was radical in that environment.  This irony remains.  45 years later, modernism is even more the establishment within the design professions and is directly based on historic thinking and forms from the 1920s.  The only way it can maintain its avant garde credentials is to strive to be ‘ahead of its time’ and so, almost inevitably, be disliked by a generally visually conservative public - and yet the profession crave public acceptance.

In the later years of my course I actively questioned modernist orthodoxy, my tutor refused to tutor me but I persisted.  In the end, in my final year a sustained effort was made to fail me solely on design grounds (I made sure I was technically fireproof).  One external examiner insisted that they pass me and then encouraged me to enter for a Rome Scholarship (which I won).  I also won the Bannister Fletcher prize for my dissertation.

In your career, the sustainability and ecological movement have come to the fore, how has this affected your work?

Sustainability is exactly one of the social, political and economic forces that affect architecture and urban design.  It has now moved from a crusading movement to a regulatory obligation.  It is bound to affect my work and did so from quite an early stage in this movement.  I was engaged by a private client to design an experimental house that employed passive solar gain to its maximum but used the traditional design vocabulary in 1992.  This was the year of the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ which brought the sustainable agenda to the fore. 

Architects generally, were very keen to take on the sustainability agenda at its early stages.  The poor outcome of post-war modernism and the turn to post-modernism in the 19080s had undermined all the moral pretensions whereby architects believed they were saving the world by changing design, consequently the profession were hungry to take on another moral stance and saving the planet came along at just the right time.  The modernist establishment, as believers in the redemptive power of technology, saw their current high-tech philosophy as a perfect fit for making buildings sustainable.   

At first, traditional architects, foolishly defining themselves as the opposite of anything modernist, stood back from this.  In time, it became apparent that, in fact, sustainability was more about lifestyle and longevity than expensive and complicated technical products and then traditional architects woke up the fact that they were on the moral high ground.  We were in the forefront of that movement as we had never been averse to new technology.

Is there a past architectural period which you see as an ideal?

I think it is foolish to identify any past period as an aspiration.  The past is the past, each period is an inseparable mix of social life and design.  If the late Georgian period is an ideal it has to be seen in relation to endemic typhus, elite politics and public executions.  Each period is modern in its own time but his does not mean that, in being modern, we have to reject all the things that come from the past.  Each period of history is not a complete transformation. Generally, more stays the same than changes; it is just that we notice the changes.  We are still the creatures that evolved in the Pleistocene era, human relations are the same, we may have mobile phones to communicate but inter-personal communication is still a core human desire, we may have social media but we still cannot know personally more than about 150 people.  Society also defines itself by its past; it does so through our traditions.  But traditions are not history: history is always what it was; tradition evolves retaining its identity with its past.  This is what I try to do with traditional design: evolve the best things from the past; keep the things that people use to maintain their identity; and make something modern in the true sense of modern – something right for what people want today.

Do you incorporate new technology in your new classical and traditional designs?

At one level, except in very extreme restoration or archaeological reconstruction, all architects will use new technology.  There is, however, a common misunderstanding about new technology which has been adopted by modernism, which was in part a style that devoted itself to adopting new technologies as a matter of principle (this was a technical version of being avant garde). New technology has no life of its own; it is a servant to human aspiration and endeavour.  New technology does what you want to do better and more economically.  There is no inevitability about using technology because it is new; nuclear weapons were new, it did not mean it was right to use them.  Innovation is not necessarily good; computer viruses are innovative, it does not make them good.
New buildings use new technology that delivers a product that people want in the best way available.  If people like the quality of stone, it should be used.  Few people would choose to omit instantaneous circuit breakers in their electrical equipment just because they are a recent technological development.

Your work seems to bridge modernity and tradition, how do you see the relationship between them?

Much of this has been answered above but modernity is often misunderstood.  Being modern, in one sense, is inevitable.  I live in the 21st century, I build for twenty-first century people and I build using twenty-first century industry, this means that, unavoidably, what I am doing is part of the nature and character of the 21st century.  Anyone in the future looking back on today would see that my work and work like it is part of the mix that makes up this period.  Making a fetish out the things that are new such that they are used regardless of whether they are wanted, appropriate or efficient in order to be modern it not modernity, it is modernism – quite a different thing.  
It is possible to be deliberately not modern and reject those things that are recent on principle, but I do not fall into that category at all. Indeed I think would just be a foolish eccentricity, rather like refusing penicillin because it is from the late 20th century and dying of an infection.   I like and am excited by new things and new inventions but that does not mean that I think their use should be in any way obligatory.
Tradition is a part of all modern conditions.  Language is a tradition, cuisine is a tradition, clothing is a tradition, social behaviour is a tradition and so on.  It is my mission to bridge modernity and tradition.

The above interview with architect Robert Adam 2012 © Manner of Man Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.