The Architecture of Robert Adam (1728-1792)



Essay by Julian.Small. Photographs and 3D computer visualisations by Sandy Kinghorn.






The University of Edinburgh was founded by King James VI in 1582.1  The site it occupied had formerly been occupied by the church of St Mary in the Fields, or Kirk o’ Field, which had become ruinous after the Scottish Reformation in 1560 and which the King had later granted to the city specifically for the foundation of the new university.  Other former Church property within the Edinburgh boundaries was also granted to the city authorities and was used for various other civic purposes, such as the Edinburgh High School and the first Surgeon’s Hall.  The University was known as "the Tounis Colledge" (the town’s college) and was the responsibility of the city, the Lord Provost and Council formally being the University’s Patrons, responsible for its buildings and most academic appointments as well as its finances.  The University possessed certain endowments and other sources of income, but any shortfall between expenditure - mainly consisting of salaries to the professors and bursaries to students - and income had to be made up from the Council’s revenue.2 The relationship between Edinburgh and its University was therefore much closer than was the case with the three Scottish Universities which had been founded before the Reformation, at St Andrew’s, Glasgow and Aberdeen, which had all maintained their medieval status as autonomous institutions.  Edinburgh University remained the responsibility of the Lord Provost and Council until 1858.  The wealth and position of the various colleges of Oxford and Cambridge Universities were unknown in the Scottish universities, particularly in Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh University, "the Tounis Colledge", was founded in 1582 by King James VI.  The present buildings were designed by Robert Adam in 1789.  The dome is later.
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When Robert Adam attended Edinburgh University between 1743 and 1745,3 it was housed in a disparate collection of buildings of a number of different dates, housed within the precincts of the former Kirk o’ Field.  The buildings had been enlarged and extended over the years, in a very similar fashion to many of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges but - unlike some of the colleges in England - lack of money had led to this being carried out on an ad-hoc basis, and the results were not only inconvenient to use, but the accommodation was very cramped for the numbers of students and professors involved, despite the fact that only a tiny minority of students lived within the college.  Almost all of the students lived in lodgings elsewhere in the city.  Edinburgh University had a high reputation for its teaching, particularly in medicine and the natural sciences, and rising numbers of students, but this was not matched by its buildings. 

Entrance front of Edinburgh University from the south-east.  Apart from the dome, most of this wing of the University was built during the 1790s, although it was an empty shell for over twenty years.
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The construction of  South Bridge in 1785-8 was closely connected with the improvement of the University buildings.  The new road was constructed immediately to the east of the University.  It cut directly across the College garden, separating what remained of it from the college buildings.  It also turned the University’s orientation around.  Access to the University buildings had always been from the north-west, from the narrow Horse Wynd and Jamaica Street.  Adam’s scheme for South Bridge included a new, monumental entrance to the University from the new street, and even though his scheme was not adopted, the Act of Parliament authorising the construction of the South Bridge had linked the reconstruction of the University with that of the Bridge, appointing a single set of Trustees with responsibility for both projects4 (although ultimately, a different set of Trustees were appointed to take responsibility for the University project).  The construction of South Bridge had also made it sensible for the University to stay on its existing site, now much more easily accessible than it had ever been before, rather than to move to a new site, as had been suggested more than once during the previous twenty years, in answer to the demands from the University for more appropriate accommodation. 

As part of his proposals for South Bridge in 1785, Robert Adam included a design for a new entrance facade for the University, seen here from the same viewpoint as the previous illustration.  Many of the ideas in this design were re-used in the executed version of 1789.
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This twenty-year campaign had been fought not least by the Principal of the University, William Robertson,5the historian and leader of the Moderate faction within the Church of Scotland.  In 1768, he had published a pamphlet entitled "Memorial relating to the University of Edinburgh," arguing for the rebuilding of the University "according to a regular plan, and in a decent manner," and he had continued to urge the merits of this proposal ever since.  The city authorities agreed that a new building was needed, and with the completion of the South Bridge the new Lord Provost, Thomas Elder, threw his weight behind the campaign.  Nevertheless, the historical record is almost silent about progress until, in October 1789, Robertson and some of the professors were informed at a meeting with the Lord Provost that the Council had resolved to lay the foundation stone of  "a new building for the University, designed by Mr Robert Adam, Architect, on the 16th day of next month."6

The process by which Robert Adam was appointed as architect to the University is obscure.  The fact that he was a cousin and a lifelong friend of the principal, William Robertson, and uncle by marriage to another key personality at the University, Andrew Dalzel, the Professor of Greek, may have had some bearing on the appointment.  However, Adam’s relations with the new Lord Provost and with the highly influential Henry Dundas, MP for Midlothian (MP for Edinburgh from 1790 onwards), and a government minister, may have been more efficacious.  Although Adam was no longer such a dominant architectural figure in England as he had been twenty years before, he was even there still one of the most fashionable architects of his day and he was indisputably the leading architect in Scotland.  He did not lack work, either in Scotland or England.7  The commission was prestigious, but equally, the university gained one of the leading architects of the day to design its new buildings.  The example of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, where many of the buildings were the responsibility of leading architects of their day, must have come to mind. 

Above the entrance to the University is an inscription recording its rebuilding and referring to Robert Adam as the architect.  Adam's drawing of the Calton Hill Viaduct includes a similar inscription.
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It is clear that considerable discussion had taken place before the meeting between Robertson and Lord Provost Elder in October 1789.  Robert Adam was already in Edinburgh, and had travelled from London, as he told a relative in a letter on 3rd October,8  principally on the business of the new University buildings.  He had already drawn up his plans, and brought them with him from London.  He added in the same letter that he had already shown them to a quite a number of people, including the Professors at the University, and that they were generally approved of.  The resolution of the City Council to which the Lord Provost referred in speaking to William Robertson, must have been a formality, with the real decisions having been taken long before. 

This was a commission which must have given Adam particular satisfaction.  All through his life, Adam wanted the opportunity to design a large-scale public building, which he felt would be a suitable vehicle for his talents.  He had had some success with Register House in Edinburgh, although this was not a large building, and funding would only allow the completion of half the original plan during Adam’s lifetime.  Edinburgh University was a building designed on an entirely different scale, the largest public building in Scotland to that date (unless one includes Fort George, near Inverness, under that heading), and easily the largest single building in Edinburgh, and the fact that he had himself studied there as a youth must have made the triumph all the sweeter. The pride he took in the commission is demonstrated by its inclusion in Volume Three of  The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, despite its occurrence at such a late stage in his career.9

For such a prestigious commission, Adam wanted to ensure that his designs would be properly executed.  He wanted to make sure that, as in the case of Register House, he and his brother would be appointed supervising architects, and not just be the providers of plans for local contractors to build, and possibly to alter at will, without supervision.  Adam had had abundant experience of this happening, usually resulting in the mutilation of his designs.  There was significant opposition to this enhancement of Adam’s role, however, and it took the threat from Adam to retire from the scheme altogether, which would mean withdrawing his plan, to carry the day.10  On 19th November, the terms of Adam’s employment were agreed, and at his recommendation John Paterson was appointed Clerk of Works for the construction of the University, in the same way that James Salisbury had been appointed to undertake the same role at Register House in 1772.  Based, as he was, in London, four hundred miles away from Edinburgh, it was essential for Adam that he have a Clerk of Works to carry out the day-to-day supervision of the construction, whom he could trust and whom he knew to be competent.  Although Adam made a thorough inspection of the work when he did visit, and must have been closely involved in the work during  his extended stay in Scotland between May 1791 and January 1792, at other times, his supervision of the construction process was by letter, and under these circumstances the need for a competent Clerk of Works was imperative.  It must have been recognised that this method had been successful in controlling the work at Register House, for the Trustees to have agreed to its repetition at the University. 

Although, unlike the South Bridge scheme, no Act of Parliament was required to start the rebuilding of the University, and although, unlike Register House, it was not a government building, it was nevertheless decided to appoint a Board of Trustees to direct the project.  It was confidently expected that government assistance would be forthcoming,11  but it was also decided to make an appeal throughout Scotland for subscriptions to the rebuilding fund.  Although the City Council was represented strongly on this Board, this removed control of the scheme from their hands and demonstrated its broader appeal.  Donations were solicited not only throughout Scotland, but from graduates of the University living in England and in the colonies.12

Adam’s designs for the University showed the buildings arranged around two courtyards, although there is some evidence that this double-courtyard plan was forced upon him, and that he would have preferred a single quadrangle.13   The University was entered at the east, from South Bridge, through an impressive triple-arched gateway into the smaller of the courtyards, the plain elevations concealing houses for the professors and then, passing through another triple-arched gateway, entering the Great Court, around which was ranged the teaching accommodation.   The external elevations are very plain, not least because on three sides the building is surrounded by narrow streets, from which it is difficult to appreciate, with most of the elaboration concentrated around the gateway at the centre of the east facade.  Here, the rather severe exterior breaks out into a monumental Doric gateway, above which Adam designed a dome. He also intended that the upper part of the south facade, fronting part of the University Library, should be given a giant Ionic colonnade of similar scale to the Doric columns which flank the entrance.  This feature was never built.  Otherwise, the external elevations are very simple, and the University building looked inward rather than outward. 

In both his designs of 1785 (associated with the South Bridge scheme) and the executed designs of 1789, Adam included an imposing triple-arched entrance gate in Doric style.The two designs have significant similarities. 

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In contrast to the very plain elevations of the first court and the severe external elevations, the Great Court was intended to be much more elaborate.  Even here, though, decoration was restrained, and was nothing like as elaborate as Adam’s South Bridge scheme which had caused so much criticism when it was presented to the Trustees.  The Great Court is a square, the angles of its corners replaced by quadrant colonnades on two levels to facilitate access.  The blocks of teaching rooms on the north and south sides are quite plain, and even the rear facade of the so-called cross-range, containing the Chapel, is relatively undecorated.  The elaboration is reserved for the west side of the Great Court, facing the visitor entering the Court, which has Corinthian pillars and pilasters, and contains the two-storey Great Hall of the University, intended for degree ceremonies and other such ceremonial occasions.  This important ceremonial function calls for a much greater degree of elaboration than does the rest of the building, even the Chapel.  The University Chapel is given nothing like the degree of elaboration which Adam gave to the church he designed for Charlotte Square just over a year later. 

At the corners of the Great Court, Adam designed two-storey quadrant arcades.  This arcade at the north-west corner is the only part of the present courtyard completed during Adam's lifetime.
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The designs for the University are very plain, and Adam reserved the elaboration for the courtyard facade of the Great Hall, seen here from the entrance gate.  Its important ceremonial role meant that it should be the most elaborate part of the building.
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Building began in the Spring of 1790,14concentrating on two areas: the north-west corner of the Great Court, including the quadrant colonnade facing the courtyard, and the east and south ranges of the First Court, containing the Professors’ houses.  The east range also contained Adam’s great entrance gate to the University, the showpiece of the whole new University.  The north-west corner of the Great Court contained the Anatomy Theatre, and not only did Edinburgh have a high reputation for its medical teaching, but the old Anatomy Theatre - itself built only in 1764 and its accommodation extended in 178315 - was in the way of the new east range.  Part of the new building was in use in October 1791, although the Theatre itself seems not to have been completed before Robert Adam’s death the following March.  The adjoining block of classrooms, completing more than half of the north side of the great courtyard, was completed under the direction of James Adam during 1793, and much of the outer wall of the whole of the north side of the university had been built. 

When Adam designed it, the north side of the University looked out onto a narrow lane, and the design was particularly plain.  Most of the facade, especially at the nearer end, was complete by 1793.
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Meanwhile, progress continued slowly on the east range.  The clerk of works, John Paterson, was worried about building settlement in this area, which may explain this.  However, the time eventually arrived to erect the six giant columns, twenty-two feet high, in front of the east gate.  Each of these is cut from a single block of stone from Craigleith Quarry, a couple of miles north-west of Edinburgh.  To reach the University, the stones had to be transported across both the North and South Bridges in Edinburgh before being finished on site, and initially there were serious fears that the bridges would not carry such a weight.  However, on 19th March, 1791, John Paterson was able to write to Adam of his "pleasure in informing you that I have got one of them [the giant columns] erected this day at twelve OCloack without the smalest  Accident takeing place, and very much to the Satisfaction of every person here and is Certain it will be much more So to you who was the projector of So Noble an undertaking."16  Work continued, still slowly, and the east range was still only partly roofed, much less ready for occupation, when work was suspended in December 1793. 

The Doric entrance gateway to the University is one of Adam's noblest designs.  Erecting the six columns, each cut from a single block of stone twenty-two feet long, was a challenging achievement.

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The problem was one of finance.  The outbreak of war with Revolutionary France in early 1793, and the introduction of the first Income Tax, not only ensured that the expected government assistance never materialised, but also led to a drying-up of subscriptions to the rebuilding scheme, and more generally to a slowdown in the whole building trade.  It was the war in America which had made it difficult to build South Bridge until 1785, and it was the protracted war with France, which was not finally ended until 1815, which ended for the time being any hopes of government support for the rebuilding of the University.   The government had its collective mind on other problems than the incomplete state of Edinburgh University’s new buildings.  In addition, a series of poor harvests in the 1790s caused great distress, and provided other worthy recipients for charitable donations.17  It has been suggested that Adam’s and the Trustees’ plans might always have been too ambitious,18 but had the promised government assistance been forthcoming, or even if the general optimism of the 1780s had continued, Adam’s plans might not have proved unrealistic or, at least, might have been completed with only one or two breaks in construction.  Unfortunately, however, no sooner had construction started than the political upheavals in France began to cause popular disquiet, and choked off the stream of public subscriptions before it had really begun to flow. 

Edinburgh University continued mostly in its old buildings throughout a quarter of a century of war with France.  Less than half of its new buildings had even been started, and the east range, intended principally for the Professors’ houses but also containing the Divinity School, still stood largely roofless and wholly unusable at the end of this period.  Only about one quarter of its teaching accommodation had been completed.  It was only with the final conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars with Wellington’s victory in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo that there was any possibility of restarting the project.  A false start in that year led to the building of part of the west range, the lower part of the Great Hall of the University, to Adam’s design,19 but it was soon realised that, even with the help now promised from the government, it was unrealistic to expect to complete Adam’s design.  The best that could now be expected was the completion of the building on a reduced scale.  With the increase in the numbers of students and the increase in the size of the library during the intervening years, that would pose problems for the architect taking on the job. 

Work re-started on the University buildings in 1815, with the west range, seen here.  It was completed by William Playfair with only minor changes to Adam's designs.

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The winner of the competition which was now held, to find the most satisfactory way of completing the building, whilst keeping as closely as possible to Adam’s design, was the twenty six-year old William Henry Playfair.  Playfair was later (in 1829) to design the Surgeons’ Hall in Edinburgh, which replaced Robert Adam’s Riding House of 1763, but the completion of the University was his first independent project.  Like Adam, he had studied at Edinburgh University.  His competition-winning entry20 proposed the completion of the external facades to Adam’s designs, except for the omission of the Ionic colonnade along the upper part of the south elevation, so that the south side of the building was very similar to the severe north facade.   The courtyard facades, however, could not help but be different to Adam’s proposals, with the omission of the cross-range between the two courtyards.  Here, Playfair proposed the completion of the western half of Adam’s Great Court as originally designed and the reproduction of Adam’s quadrant colonnades at the eastern corners of the enlarged courtyard, building them against the existing facades of the derelict east range.  The completed eastern section of Adam’s north range would be mirrored at the west end of the range, and the two blocks linked by a plain connecting range five bays long.  This north facade would be repeated on the south side of the courtyard.  In this way, all of Adam’s completed work was retained, apart from the incomplete courtyard facade of the east range, and much of the rest of the new work would either fulfil Adam’s intentions or be copied from the existing work.  Almost the only part of the exterior of the building designed by Playfair would have been the new courtyard facade of Adam’s gateway, which would stand further west than Adam had intended.  Playfair even proposed to build the dome above the entrance gate to Adam’s designs.  To be fair, this respectful treatment of his predecessor’s intentions was very similar to the approach of most of his fellow-competitors, and as far as can be ascertained they all, like Playfair, reserved most of their changes to Adam’s designs to the internal arrangements of the buildings.  It was very likely the convenience of Playfair’s internal arrangements, and his impressive proposals for the library, which won him the competition.  If Playfair had executed these proposals, we would today have a building whose exterior was not far removed from Adam’s intentions. 

Playfair completed the external elevations much as he first intended, but the courtyard facades are very significantly changed from his original proposals.  He retained the facade of Adam’s Great Hall with only slight modifications, although he divided the double-storey Hall into two floors to house the University Museum.  For the inner side of the gateway, Playfair created a less robust version of its outer elevation, rather than following Adam’s designs either for this or for the gateway through the cross-range.  However, it is in the side elevations of the courtyard that he departed most fully from his competition proposals and Adam’s designs.  The problems of creating a satisfactory composition by "stretching" Adam’s elevation defeated Playfair.  His final proposals required the complete re-facing of the completed section of Adam’s north range, apart from the quadrant colonnade at the corner, and its substitution by a design of his own, which echoes Adam’s west range without copying it, but is far more elaborate than the facades Adam had proposed.  Corinthian pillars and pilasters stand on top of a rusticated ground storey, supporting a deep entablature.  This deep entablature actually replaces the windows of Adam’s top storey to the north range, which Playfair lit entirely from the outer side.  The probable reason for this is that Playfair’s magnificent Upper Library in the south range is so tall that there is no third storey - and hence no need for a third tier of windows - on this side of the courtyard, and so, in order to balance, the third tier of windows in the north elevation had to be suppressed.21

Playfair was forced to alter Adam's designs for the inner side of the entrance gate, but instead of amending Adam's fairly plain elevation, he created a less robust version of the outer facade.
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The cost of Playfair’s completion of the building far exceeded the grant initially promised by the government, and although more money was made available, it was enough only to complete the building without the dome above the entrance gate which Adam had intended should crown his great project, and which Playfair, too, was reluctant to abandon.  Playfair completed his work in 1833, leaving a building which was largely true to Adam’s vision externally, but the courtyard of which was very different to Adam’s designs.  Playfair had finished the roof above the gateway with a temporary roof of slates, and this remained for a further fifty years until, after a bequest specifically for this purpose, a dome was finally erected to the designs of Sir Robert Rowand Anderson in 1886-7.22  The following year, the "golden boy," a naked youth holding aloft the Torch of Knowledge, was placed on top of the dome, and has ever since been a famous landmark of Edinburgh.  The dome is much larger than the one designed by Adam, but forms the focal point which the severe external facade needed and, even if to a different design, fulfilled Adam’s vision of the domed University seen in the background of his sketch23 for the Calton Hill Viaduct

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