The Architecture of Robert Adam (1728-1792)




Essay by Julian Small. (1961-2002)



The vision of Provost George Drummond of the extension of the boundaries of the city of Edinburgh (the Royalty of Edinburgh) to include the land to the north of the city, and the construction of a new suburb beyond the Nor' Loch, on ground owned by the City authorities since 1716, was realised in 1766, with the advertisement of a competition for plans for a New Town for Edinburgh.  In August of that year, it was announced that of the seven sets of plans submitted, the best was considered to be that prepared by James Craig, the twenty-one year old son of an Edinburgh merchant.1

Charlotte Square was the last part of James Craig's New Town to be developed, but the City Council decided to approach Robert Adam for a design.  Hence, unlike the rest of the Edinburgh New Town, the houses are integrated into blocks each appearing to be  an urban palace.  The west side of the square, seen here, contains a church between two such blocks. 

Click to see large image.

How closely Craig’s competition-winning design is reflected in the version that was formally adopted in July 1767, and laid out soon after, is unclear, since it is known that the competition plan was considerably revised before its adoption.2  The plan which was ultimately laid out is relatively simple. There are three principal east-west streets, the central one connecting two formal squares each of which has a church on the side facing the street entrance (and therefore facing each other along the length of the central street), and the outer two of which are prolonged beyond the lines of the two squares.  These are connected by cross-streets at regular intervals to give a grid-iron plan.  Because the New Town was envisaged as a purely residential area, the fact that the central east-west street merely connects the two squares and does not continue beyond them was not thought any disadvantage.  By the end of 1767, names had been assigned to the streets and the two squares.  The main street along the axis of the New Town was named George Street, after the king, George III, and the two squares which it connected were St Andrew’s Square at the east end and St George’s Square at the west, in honour of the patron saints of Scotland and England.  Only later was it decided to rename St George’s Square in honour of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III.  Thus, the name Charlotte Square dates only from 1785.3

Charlotte Square seen from George Street.  The importance of axiality in eighteenth-century urban design is shown by the position of the church, as seen from the central street of the New Town.

Once the street plan had been laid out, and such services as sewers and clean water provided, the New Town was divided into building plots.  These plots were made available by the City authorities, as demand for them built up, either to individuals wanting to supervise the building of their own houses, or to builders who would build and sell the completed house on to its ultimate owner.  The first plots to be released were those in the eastern half of the New Town, particularly in St Andrew’s Square, where nearly all plots had been feued by 1780.  Plots continued to be feued, until development reached most of the way along George Street by 1792.4

The disadvantage of the method of developing the New Town adopted by the City Council was that, with each house built separately, there was no overall control of the design process, and this resulted in monotonous and rather undistinguished street facades.  Certain very general conditions covering the number of storeys and the height of buildings were enforced by the Council,5although even here some builders managed to evade them, but on the whole the proportions of the facades are very similar, although the details of the individual houses differ.  However, at least one contemporary critic complained of the poor proportions of the buildings, likening them to a Barracks.6   Individual architects of the highest calibre designed specific buildings in the New Town: Robert Adam designed one house in Queen Street and a second house, Bellevue House, standing in its own grounds further north, and prepared designs for a number of others which were never built, and Sir William Chambers also designed houses in the New Town.  However, throughout most of the New Town there is a lack of consistency in design between neighbouring houses. 

The City Councillors seem to have considered that for Charlotte Square, some special effort was required.  It was always expected that the two squares would turn out to be the most fashionable addresses, and a decision seems to have been taken that Charlotte Square would benefit from being the only part of Craig’s New Town to be designed as a single unified scheme.7  In 1787, Robert Kay, the architect of the buildings along South Bridge, provided a design for the Square, and in 1790 another was provided by James Nisbet.8  It was John Paterson, Clerk of Works for the new University buildings, who in October 1790 encouraged Lord Provost Stirling to seek a design from Adam.9  It was not long before opposition appeared amongst certain members of the council, who feared that any design by Adam would turn out to be too expensive to execute,10 the reason advanced for the rejection of his proposals for South Bridge and for his terrace of houses and shops for Leith Street.   It is for this reason that Adam was expected to provide designs "not much ornamented but with an elegant Simplicity Such as the north frount of the College." 11   Robert Adam’s designs for the College, as Edinburgh University was known, are unusually plain, and its north facade is almost devoid of ornament, and whilst this warning is not necessarily to be taken at face value - Adam certainly does not seem to have taken it literally - the designs he provided are sufficiently restrained that the council did not believe that they would be drawn into unreasonable expense.  Nevertheless, in late March 1791 Paterson, in one of his regular letters to Adam, warned: "The Provost does not mean that you should make plans of the houses, only A plan of the frount wall of them Showing the doors and windows."12

The Lord Provost, James Stirling, warned Adam that for his Charlotte Square facades (left, west side of the square) he should copy the simplicity of his street elevations of the University (right).

Click to see large images.

Adam’s drawings for Charlotte Square are dated 1791, although it is not clear whether they were completed in London and sent up to Scotland, or whether they were only completed once Adam had arrived in Edinburgh in May of that year.  Apparently, Adam was offered 200 guineas for producing the designs, but after his death his brother James had to write to the Council asking for payment of this sum.13  In the letter he states that he would charge builders of each individual house five guineas for each working drawing that had to be provided.  The Council refused to pay more than 100 guineas, and there is no indication as to whether or not builders of the individual houses were instructed to approach James Adam for working drawings. 

The drawings which Adam prepared14 consist of elevations of the north, west and east sides of the Square, each of which has a plan of the wall at the foot of the drawing, showing the division of the block into separate houses.  The south side of the Square was intended to mirror exactly the north side, whereas between the east and west sides, although they are broadly similar, there are distinct differences.  In addition, Adam showed, as part of the elevation of the west side of the Square, the facade of a church, and also produced plans for it at floor level and gallery level.15  The church was flanked by two terraced ranges, and similarly, on the east side of the Square are two terraced ranges flanking the opening into George Street.  Each of these four blocks, like the single blocks on the north and south sides of the Square, is designed to appear as an urban palace.  It was this combination of the houses of a terrace into a unified block which had been pioneered in Bath during the 1720s by the architect John Wood the Elder,16 and which Robert Adam was also considered by his contemporaries as particularly skilful at managing.17

Robert Adam was considered particularly skilful in combining the houses of a terrace into a unified block, although this is the only such example of his work in Edinburgh.  Fitzroy Square and other examples survive in London.

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The conventions of classical architecture are followed, and each of the palace blocks is composed of a central pavilion, joined by less elaborate, slightly recessed, connecting links to terminal pavilions.  The skill comes in the ability to provide enough variety and surface articulation to maintain the visual interest throughout a long facade.  In designing, for example, a country house, this can be produced by varying the height of the roof line along the facade and by projecting wings or a portico beyond the line of the main part of the building.   In designing a terrace of houses such as Charlotte Square, however, the wall-line of the facade needs to be comparatively straight, so as to allow a similar outlook for all of the houses, and the number of storeys cannot be varied without making some houses smaller than others.  Furthermore, throughout the New Town the Council, in feuing the ground, had stipulated that houses in the main streets should all be three storeys high, excluding basement.18   Adam shows that it is possible to maintain the balance of the design, even within these constraints.  Each terrace appears to have wings and a central block, although the connecting links are only slightly recessed from the pavilions.  There is enough visual emphasis at the centre and the ends that the whole composition hangs together. 

The north terrace of Charlotte Square consists of a centre block (seen here) and pavilions at either end, linked by plainer, slightly recessed connecting wings.

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The facades are elegant, with the lowest storey of each block rusticated and with enrichment otherwise concentrated on the centre and end pavilions of each terrace.  The east and west terraces use the Ionic Order in the pavilions, whilst the north and south terraces use the Corinthian Order in the centre pavilions only.  Other than these, the decoration is restrained.  Many of the windows are set within recessed arches, but only the centre windows at first-floor level in the north and south blocks have any carving within the tympanum.  Sections of the frieze crowning the north and south terraces are decorated with anthemion ornament, which is carved to imitate the honeysuckle flower.  There are also - very common in Adam’s style - panels showing garlands of foliage, the so-called "swags" which can also be found in his interior decoration.  But the terraces rely far more on their good proportions and very simple devices like the giant windows at the centre of the two blocks on the west side of the Square, to convey the feeling of monumentality which so impresses the visitor. Adam’s designs for Charlotte Square have been described as "one of the major achievements in European civic architecture of the period."19

The centre windows at first-floor level in the north and south blocks are set within recessed arches and each has carving in the tympanum.  Generally, the decoration in Charlotte Square is restrained.

Click to see large image.

Adam’s designs included only the facades of the terraces.  The houses themselves were built in the same way as in the rest of the New Town, with plots made available to prospective residents or to builders, who would construct the house.  The sole difference was that in Charlotte Square, one of the conditions on which the ground was feued was that the front wall should be built to conform to Adam’s elevation.  The end and rear walls of the terraces were not by Adam, and they vary in style quite considerably.  The east end wall of the north terrace is treated as an architectural composition in its own right, and takes elements from Adam’s terrace facades, together with other motifs used by Adam, particularly in his later years, to give a facade which is sympathetic to the main elevation to the Square and yet has its own statement to make.20  Other end elevations are treated more simply, some merely with windows punched through an otherwise dead wall. 

The end elevation at the east end of the north terrace of Charlotte Square was not designed by Robert Adam.  It is, however, designed in a style closely imitating his, and uses motifs commonly found in his late work - many of them also to be found on the main facades.

Click to see large image.

The first feu in Charlotte Square was granted in 1792, shortly after Robert Adam’s death, but the outbreak of war with revolutionary France led to a downturn in the building market and after the completion of that first house, it took a considerable time for others to be built.21  By 1800, it appears that only six of the nine plots on the north side of the Square had been built upon.  However, the market began to improve within the next few years, and building seems to have begun on the west side in 1803, on the east side by 1810, when the architect Robert Reid revised the designs for the central portion of each block, and on the south side in 1811.  Charlotte Square was finally completed in 1820, nearly thirty years after its design.22  Although by this date Princes’ Street was rapidly departing from its original vision as a residential street, and its inhabitants were migrating to newly-developed areas of the city to the north and west of the original New Town, Charlotte Square remained as a very prestigious address, shown by the fact that houses there were more valuable than comparable property elsewhere.23

Adam’s designs for Charlotte Square proved to be immensely influential in Edinburgh.  In 1802, the ground to the north of Queen Street Gardens was laid out as an extension to the New Town, the second or Northern New Town.24  This was planned by  Robert Reid and William Sibbald, and throughout it, each block is treated as a single architectural composition, in the same fashion as Charlotte Square.  From this date, most such large-scale developments in Edinburgh took their inspiration from Adam’s Charlotte Square facades and were designed as palace-frontages.  Charlotte Square was in this respect probably Robert Adam’s most influential contribution to Georgian Edinburgh. 

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