The Architecture of Robert Adam(1728-1792)

Robert Adam's Castle Style

Adam's Design for Airthrey Castle


History of Airthrey Castle




Robert Adam's Design for Airthrey Castle.

Essay by Iain Anderson. May 2003

Airthrey Castle is one of the final buildings in the Castle Style by Robert Adam, finished in 1791, the project having been abandoned by Adam earlier that year. The finished building executed by the Russell brothers seems to have stayed fairly loyal to the Adam design, as published by Alistair Rowan , but without several improvements it is thought Adam intended to make .


Airthrey Castle in its context within the Airthrey estate. The Ochil Hills sit to the north of the castle, and to the south, man-made lake.

Façade Composition
The building is a D-shaped plan sitting on a roughly north to south axis, the south façade being a sweeping 180 degree curve. Both façades are classical in its composition, symmetrical and centralised. The North elevation was designed by Adam with a central drum at the entrance flanked by two projecting pavilions. The central drum is topped by a conical roof, whilst the end pavilions have rectangular pyramids shaped roofs. Each corner pavilion has castellated turrets applied to its corners.

The original Adam drawing for the north facade of the building. The entrance was placed on this side, with a classically-derived ramp up to it.

 Soane Museum Catalogue Vol 48/82. North Elevation Copyright: Trustees of The Sir John Soane's Museum

The façade is divided horizontally by two moulded courses, the first one running directly underneath the windows of the principal floor, and the second, double course running roughly level with the floor of the first floor. This divides the façade into three parts, a slightly projected half basement level and then an equally sized principal and first floor. The central entrance drum breaks this hierarchy, continuing up into an attic level that takes the drum higher than both flanking wings, acting as the focal point of the facade. The building is entered through a door, with classical fan-arched window above, positioned in the centre of the drum and elevated above the courtyard level. It is reached by a ramp that curves up from both the east and west sides, allowing coaches close access to the front door. The use of an elevated principal floor allows the basement level, the servants area, to be partly hidden.


The north facade as executed, without the supervision of Robert Adam. This facade was later completely obliterated by a large extension in the c.19th.

The south façade is a large curve, offset on each side to allow for the castellated turret of the corner pavilions. These turrets frame the façade when seen in elevation from the south. The curved façade is split into three sections, the east and west curve, and the central projected drum. This central drum again reaches higher than its curved flanks, and is framed on each side by defensive turrets of a similar height, emphasising it as the centre of the facade. It is topped by a conical slate roof.


The original Adam drawing for the south facade.

Soane Museum Catalogue Vol 48/89. South Elevation Copyright: Trustees of The Sir John Soane's Museum

 The east and west curves are each sub-divided into three sections by the projection of the central bay in the curve. Horizontally, the same moulded courses from the north continue around the façade, dividing it into three layers, except on the central drum where a third coursing is added below the attic windows. In a clever detail, the moulded course of the principal floor leaves the façade to form the hand railing on the balustrade of a fan shaped stair, which connects a small balcony outside the drawing room windows to the south lawn below.


The central projecting drum of the south facade, connected to the lawns by an elegant fan-shaped stair.

The concept of movement is critical to Adam's designs. He subtly layers the walls of Airthrey, projecting central areas by a single brick course or pushing back an area of wall into shadow, so that his facades are full of light and dark areas of contrast, projections and recesses. Sharp edges create shadow and break up the expanses of wall into smaller areas. The moulded courses that run horizontally around the castle do a similar job, breaking the façade into a hierarchy of layers.

The Plan
The plan of Airthrey is a complicated composition, where Adam has had to work hard to fit the requirements of his client into his overall vision. He has retained overall symmetry in the plan whilst accommodating, albeit awkwardly in places, a series of typical Adam-style rooms where of centralised classical design. The use of thickened walls, partitions and columns to mould the space means that Airthrey had oval, round, square and even octagonal rooms inserted into the D-shape of the plan. The interiors have very little relationship with the external form of the castle, and Adam seems to have had two agendas at Airthrey, the creation of grand classical spaces internally the realisation of his castellated picturesque vision externally. For this reason there are several dummy windows used to preserve the symmetry of the façade, a technique also used at Dalquharran.

The plan of the principal floor of Airthrey, showing the various room shapes incorporated into the overall d-shape plan.

Soane Museum Catalogue Vol 48/83. Ground Floor Plan Copyright: Trustees of The Sir John Soane's Museum

The Courtyard
Adam's complete design for Airthrey included a courtyard to the north of the building, which was never executed. Unlike the courtyards of other Castle Style designs, the design at Airthrey served no practical purpose other than to increase the drama of the approach to the building, and to provide a sense of enclosure at the point of arrival. It was however critical to the concept of the building and its relationship to the landscape. The small castellated pavilions that are incorporated into the perimeter wall are simply places to sit, those along the north side have wondows that frame views to the exterior. Despite their unimportance, each has its own scheme of defensive elements, at the scale of the pavilion. This creates a game of scale and contrast between these and the main house. From afar, the pavilions may seem larger than actual size, in which case the presence of the house behind becomes monumental in comparison. In contrast, the house may be seen as being at a correct scale, thus making the pavilions tiny castles where the scale becomes almost child-like and playful.


The courtyard to the north of the castle, as recreated from the original Adam drawings. The courtyard was not built in the executed building.



History of Airthrey Castle





Multimedia Catalogue


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