The Architecture of Robert Adam (1728-1792)



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






 The Ionic Order evolved in and takes its name from Ionia, the Greek name for those parts of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) which were settled by people of Greek origin, and although the style appears more developed than the Doric Order, its origins cannot be very much later in date.  The third of the Classical Orders, the Corinthian, developed somewhat later.  The Ionic Order continued to be more popular in the eastern parts of the Greek world, where a greater degree of ornamentation was preferred.  Like the Doric, it seems to have originated in early wooden forms of construction, much of the wooden detail surviving in stone as decorative conventions.  The entablature of the Ionic Order was shallower and lighter than that of the Doric, reflecting the lighter, more closely spaced, cross-beams of the wooden construction of Ionia.  The projecting ends of these cross-beams are perpetuated in the dentils (row of small square blocks) at the base of the cornice of the Ionic (and Corinthian) Orders.  The shallower entablature required less support than in the Doric Order, and Ionic columns were always comparatively slender.   To the Greeks, the elegance and slimmer proportions of the Ionic Order represented the female, as the sturdiness and plainness of the Doric Order represented the male.  Indeed, the fluting of the Ionic column was said to have been copied from the folds of the chlamys, the women's tunic of ancient Greece, a connection best illustrated by the Erechtheion on the Acropolis at Athens, which has Ionic columns, apart from the famous Porch of the Caryatids, with a roof upheld by female figures. 

Edinburgh University, Ionic colonnade at corner of courtyard.  The slender proportions of the Ionic Order are very obvious in this photograph. 

Ionic capital from house on west side of Charlotte Square.  The frieze is fluted, and the capital is more elaborate than the example in the courtyard of the University of Edinburgh. Adam would not use the same design of capital every time. 

The curls or "volutes" on its capital resemble rams' horns, but may derive ultimately from the Egyptian lotus flower.  The more ornamental nature of the Ionic style appealed to the Romans, and they adopted it without subjecting it to the major modifications which draw a distinction between Greek and Roman Doric.  Robert Adam regularly employed the Ionic Order, using it, for example, to form the arcades around the corners of the courtyard at his new Edinburgh University buildings, and as the giant arcade on the facades of the east and west terraces of Charlotte Square, playing counterpoint with the Corinthian Order employed on the north and south terraces.  In discussing the uses of the Orders in the second part of Volume I of The Works, Adam expresses the view that the Ionic capital should be used with the volutes square to the front rather than projecting diagonally when at the corner of a building.  Adam considered that, however good the classical precedents for doing this (he even quotes three ancient examples of it, including one in Athens which he can only have seen in Stuart and Revett's book on The Antiquities of Athens) it appears "less solid, less grave and less graceful" than with the volutes set square.  Even when designing an Ionic portico to project at the entrance to a building, Adam set the volutes square rather than turning the corner by projecting one of them diagonally. 

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