The Architecture of Robert Adam (1728-1792)



essay by Julian Small






To anybody who knows Leith Street as it is today, with the walls of the St James’ Shopping Centre lowering down into a traffic-laden canyon, it seems almost incredible that it was along the west side of this, on part of the site now occupied by the St James’ Centre, that in 1785 Edinburgh almost acquired a magnificent terrace of ten houses designed by Robert Adam. 

At a formal ceremony on 27th June 1774, a foundation stone was laid for what was to be the first purpose-designed record repository in Britain. Register House was to stand on Princes’ Street, opposite the end of the newly-finished North Bridge.  The search for an appropriate site for this new building had been going on for some time before the City Council offered the Trustees this prime location as part of their campaign to encourage the development of the Edinburgh New Town.  That part of the site owned by the city was given to the Register House Trustees in 1769,1  but the rest of the site had to be purchased from three separate owners at a cost of £2698.2   As part of the layout of the east end of the New Town, the city authorities, also in 1774, constructed a new road leading from the east end of Princes’ Street to the head of Leith Walk.  This new road they called Leith Street.  The strip of ground bounding the west side of Leith Street and on the opposite side of the now-vanished East Register Street from the Register House site, running at an angle from that site, was also acquired by the Trustees in 1774.3

In 1772, Robert and James Adam had formally been appointed by the Register House Trustees as architects for the new building.  However, the designs for the new building are dated 1771, and it appears that the Adams had already been privately commissioned by the Lord Clerk Register, the principal Trustee, possibly as early as 1769.  Construction of Register House began in 1773 but was a prolonged process, with a lengthy interruption between 1778 and 1785 because of lack of funds, before the building was completed in 1789. 

Adam's work on the Register House was not confined to the building itself. He prepared designs for three related projects, none of which was realised.  In 1789, with the completion of the building, it was proposed to build a house in St James’ Square, which had been laid out in 1773 immediately behind the Register House site, as an official residence for the Deputy Registrar.  In the same year, with the general public alarm at the disorders of the French Revolution, which broke out that year, Adam was also to be called upon to design a Guardhouse to stand within the Register House precincts.  The house for the Deputy Registrar was never built, and neither of the designs which Adam prepared for the Guardhouse was used, and it is unclear what - if any - Guardhouse was built.   The most important of the three projects for which Adam was asked to prepare designs in addition to the work on Register House itself, however, was for the development of the ground fronting on to Leith Street, owned by the Trustees. 

It was only in 1785 that the Register House Trustees decided that the time had arrived to develop the ground they owned on the west side of Leith Street.  Although work on Register House was re-started in that year with a further grant from public funds, it was felt that the extra money brought in by the feuing of the ground along Leith Street would be useful.  As architect to the Trustees,4Robert Adam was asked to prepare a scheme for the site, which the builders to whom the ground would be feued would be expected to adhere to.5   It is unclear whether he was actually commissioned to produce both of the schemes which he drew up, or whether he produced the second as a ploy to try to gain acceptance for the more elaborate of them, since the plainer of the two designs has been described as "a half-hearted scheme, evidently not intended to be adopted."6

The two versions of the designs differ principally in their facades.  The basement of the "ornamented" design is rusticated throughout its length, even the pilasters at the base of the central block of the building having square rusticated blocks in a manner which Adam very rarely used.  The rustication is not the conventional type, but deliberately gives the impression of being formed of rough boulders, so-called rock-faced or cyclopean rustication.  This gives the basement a feeling of the so-called Mannerist style of architecture, current in Italy during the mid- and late-sixteenth century, buildings which Adam would have seen during the three years he spent there as a young man.7   In the more elaborate design, sculptures of a lion and unicorn crowning the parapets are substituted for plain pediments and the design of the attic level of the central portion of the terrace is also changed.  The greatest difference between the two designs, and the one which would have made the most difference structurally, is that whereas in the more elaborate design the front wall of the two upper storeys is set back behind a loggia with a colonnade of giant Corinthian columns, in the plain design the front wall is brought out to the line of the columns - and hence the front rooms on these two floors are larger.  Beyond this, the floor-plan of the terrace is the same for both schemes.  In particular, both schemes have an arcaded loggia at terrace level (of the same depth as the upper loggia in the "ornamented" version)8  and both have paired octagonal towers at each end of the principal facade, a motif which was actually used by the eventual builders of the terrace at its north-eastern end. 

The paired octagonal towers are an essential element in masking the fact that the end walls of the terrace, particularly at the south end, are not built at right angles to the main facade.  The south end of the terrace carried the eye on from the facade of Register House, and not only was it important to improve the surroundings of the Register House by the construction of appropriate-looking buildings, but it was very important to disguise the awkwardness of the angle between the two structures and to carry the eye around the corner.  The octagonal towers allowed Adam to design a "show" front at the south end to act as a foil to Register House.  The houses at each end are the largest in the terrace, but the two houses in the centre block have four-and-a-half-bays to their facades and so are significantly larger than those in the intermediate blocks, which only have three. 

As well as the awkwardness of the angle at which Leith Street - and the terrace of houses - led off from the side of Register House and the fact that the ground fell steeply to the north, the street curved throughout its length, presenting Adam with a complicated problem to resolve in his designs.  He solved the problem of the curve by dividing the terrace into blocks, the outer ones canted at an angle from the centre one.  In nearly every case the divisions between the individual houses were expressed in the facades.   The problem of the fall in the ground, Adam solved by building a substantial basement beneath the houses, raising them to the level of Princes Street.  The basements projected in front of the houses forming a terrace in front of the houses, from which access to their front doors was gained, with a flight of steps at the north end.  A pavement ran along beside the road, allowing access at two levels.  The basement, alongside the lower pavement, contained shops, to gain extra revenue for the Register House Trustees. 

Adam was not the first architect to employ the device of raising a terrace of houses on a substantial basement to overcome the problems of a sloping site.  It is a common expedient in Bath, a very hilly city which, like Edinburgh, grew substantially during the eighteenth century, and where Adam himself had designed buildings and produced a scheme for the laying-out of a whole new suburb for his patron and friend William Pulteney.9  In Bath the raised pavement above a projecting basement giving onto the street can be found, for example, in Edgar Buildings (George Street), built in 1762, and in Bristol the basement of Royal York Crescent, designed in the late 1780s, bears an even stronger resemblance to Adam’s Leith Street terrace.10

In at least one previous project, Adam had raised terraces of houses on a substantial basement, at the ill-fated Adelphi development in 1768.  Here, the houses in Royal Terrace, the principal street in the development, face out across the river, rising above and behind a range of vaulted warehouses which it was hoped to let to the Ordnance Board for storage.  The warehouses open onto an embanked wharf, but the houses are fronted by a roadway at the higher level.  By contrast, Adam’s first set of designs for the South Bridge project in Edinburgh, on which he was working at the same time as the Leith Street proposals, early summer 1785,11 have a continuous portico along both sides of the road for most of the length of the bridge, the portico having iron railings along the top, showing that access was intended.  It is possible that an upper-level walkway was contemplated, but as general public access to this level would be difficult to achieve, it is more likely that this was to be a continuous series of balconies intended to be divided by further railings.  In Leith Street, the upper terrace is needed to allow access along the terrace at that level, and it, too, has iron railings rather than a balustrade.12  It is interesting to note that the two blocks flanking the Tron Church at the north end of Adam’s South Bridge scheme have - like Leith Street - a giant order of columns (in this case, doubled columns) fronting a loggia in the top two storeys. 

Sadly, Adam’s design for the Leith Street terrace was not realised, any more than that for South Bridge had been.  Adam’s two schemes were presented to the Trustees at a meeting on 25th August 1785.13  It was stated that the general public preference was for the more elaborate one of the two, although it is unclear how that assessment of public opinion was made,14 and the Trustees decided to offer the ground for sale at auction, the purchasers being obliged to follow the more elaborate, and reportedly the more popular, of Adam’s designs.  Should no purchasers come forward, they resolved to offer the ground on the terms of the alternative design. 

In the event, when the Trustees met again, on the following 11th February (1786), it was reported that neither scheme had found a sale, and that the local builders alleged that both sets of plans were unrealistic, and that since this development would be separated from the rest of the New Town, the likely class of inhabitants would not look for houses of the size of these.  The Trustees therefore resolved that Adam’s elevation should be followed for the end wall of the block closest to Register House, but that the remainder of the ground should be feued out in the normal way, the only controls being on the height of the buildings.  The attitude of the Register House Trustees was not followed by the Council seven years later, when they stipulated that feuars of plots in Charlotte Square should follow the elevations Adam had prepared for that location.  The feuars in Leith Street presented a new design to the Trustees the following year, but differences between them later led to the appointment of the Edinburgh architect John Baxter to arbitrate. 

Baxter has been suggested as the designer of the elevation of the terrace which was built.15  So has James Salisbury,16 the Clerk of Works at Register House, and in effect Adam’s representative in Scotland during his absence, who also undertook some building work on his own behalf.  In February 1788, both Baxter and Salisbury were amongst the five individuals named to the Register House Trustees as the proprietors of the houses in Leith Street: since more than five houses were built, this presumably means that they were the builders rather than future residents and that this entry in the Minute Book records the grant of their feus.17   It is true that in the terrace which was built many of Adam’s ideas were followed, with the houses carried on a substantial basement and possessing the upper pavement which Adam proposed.  The terrace even included - at the north end, albeit not at the south end close to Register House - the octagonal tower at the end of the elevation which was such a feature of Adam’s proposals.  Although the terrace which was demolished during the mid-1960s cannot be called an Adam design, what was lost at that date was a building which owned a great deal to Adam and his ideas on urban planning.18

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