The Architecture of Robert Adam (1728-1792)



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






After the completion of Edinburgh’s North Bridge in 1772,1 the next stage in the great series of civic improvements which transformed the city during the late eighteenth century was the construction of a further bridge across the ravine of the Cowgate to the south of the ridge on which the Old Town of Edinburgh was built.  Although access to the city was easier from the south than from the north, and the sides of the Cowgate valley less precipitous than the steep slopes on the north, travellers from the south still faced a difficult entry into the city.  Just as importantly, the new southern suburbs, lying beyond the limits of the Royalty (the city boundaries), were expanding.  George Square was as fashionable as the New Town, and it inhabitants just as wealthy, and yet they paid no taxes to the city.  Of more serious concern was the possibility that the difficulty of access from these southern suburbs to the High Street might lead to the development of a second shopping area in the suburbs,2 outwith the control of the Council and of the Incorporations of the various crafts.  The construction of the South Bridge, and the benefits it was to bring to them, was to justify the future inclusion of these suburbs in assessments for the Cess, a land or property tax, even if they were not formally brought under the city’s authority in other ways for some time.3

The convenience of the bridge for the inhabitants of the southern suburbs was undisputed, but it was also to form one of the main entries to the city for travellers from the south, not least travellers from London.  The whole concept of the bridge was impressive, but it was necessary also that the structure should impress.  That view seems to have been fairly universal amongst those concerned with the realisation of the project, and it particularly infected Robert Adam. 

The South Bridge scheme was necessitated by the steep fall into the valley of the Cowgate.  This bridge carrying the new road across Cowgate was at the heart of the whole scheme and is a truly impressive example of Adam's genius.

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A bridge over the Cowgate had been suggested in the pamphlet which launched the civic rebuilding of Edinburgh, the Proposals for carrying on certain public works in the city of Edinburgh, published in 1752, and a scheme suggested in 1775 had proved abortive,4 not least because of the difficulties in funding the proposals at a time when capital was scarce because of the war in America.  Only with the conclusion of the American War of Independence in 1783 could serious consideration be given to such a project.  The years after the conclusion of the war were a time of boom in the building industry in Britain, not only in Edinburgh but also in English provincial cities such as Bristol and Bath, in both of which many projects date from this time.5

The time was ripe when the banker James Hunter Blair became Lord Provost of Edinburgh in 1784, and it is to him more than anyone else that construction of the bridge is due.6  It was Hunter Blair who concluded that the bridge could be built without cost to the public purse.  Property along the line of the bridge was to be acquired by compulsory purchase at its existing value, and the areas alongside the bridge would be sold for the erection of modern tenements and shops.  The difference between the existing value of the property and its enhanced value would finance the bridge’s construction, estimated at £8,600.  This required an Act of Parliament, which was passed in May 1785.  As well as authorising the project and granting the powers of compulsory purchase, it set up a Board of Trustees to organise the construction of the bridge.  This allowed a broader range of interests to be represented than just those of the City Council.  The Act explicitly linked the construction of the new bridge and the reconstruction of the buildings of Edinburgh University, which was urgently required, by making the Trustees responsible for both.  Although, ultimately, a different set of Trustees took responsibility for the University’s reconstruction, this was to form the next project in the great rebuilding of Edinburgh, and the terms of the 1785 Act made this explicit. 

James Hunter Blair proposed that South Bridge should be financed by the sale of the adjoining land for shops and housing.  The shops at street level have wider windows than the flats above.

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The Act of Parliament was not easily obtained.  There was no guarantee that any such Act, whether  requested by a private individual or by a public body, would be passed in the form requested by the supplicant, since other interested parties could lobby against any of its provisions, and Hunter Blair went to London in order to try to ease the passage of the Act without serious alteration.  Whilst there, the Lord Provost visited Robert Adam and discussed with him the plans for the new bridge.  The extent and tone of these conversations cannot now be ascertained, but certain turns of phrase in the letter which Adam sent to Hunter Blair7  suggest that he may have had very good reason to believe that he was being commissioned to draw up detailed designs for the scheme. 

There are a number of reasons why Adam was particularly eager to be awarded this commission.  In the first place, he had been through a relatively lean period in his practice.  Although even after the problems he had had with The Adelphi development in London he had remained one of the most fashionable architects in the country, with a large number of projects in hand, the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1776 had led to a general falling-off in the number of building projects, and the early 1780s, in particular, had produced relatively few new commissions.8  The situation was starting to change, and the final seven years of Adam’s life were to prove very productive ones, but to be asked to produce designs for a project on the scale of South Bridge would be considered a great opportunity by any architect - particularly one who, like Adam, constantly hankered after the opportunity to design on a monumental scale.  The Adelphi had provided one opportunity to design a major piece of urban planning, and Edinburgh’s South Bridge must have appeared another, especially since the vista along it would terminate in the Register House which Adam had designed in 1771 and which was now nearing completion.  In addition, if this scheme was to be followed by the reconstruction of the University buildings, the architect responsible for the first would be in a good position to take charge of the second.  Finally, the fact that the scheme would be built in his home town of Edinburgh must have increased its attractiveness. 

The construction of South Bridge effectively reorientated the University and was the spur to its reconstruction.  Adam designed a new entrance to it as part of the South Bridge scheme and in 1789 was commissioned to design the new buildings, his largest-scale public building.

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The 1785 Act which authorised the bridge’s construction and its methods of funding also established its line.  It was to continue the line of the North Bridge and run south to join the relatively new Nicolson Street9  at a slight angle, meeting it immediately outside the Riding School for which Adam had provided the designs in 1763.  The line cut across not only the garden ground of the University but also Adam Square, built as a speculative development in 1764 by Robert Adam’s elder brother John.  The greatest problem was the line of the new road where it joined the High Street because, with an almost incredible lack of foresight, the North Bridge had been built so that its opening into the High Street was partly opposite one of Edinburgh’s parish churches, the Tron Church.  The dilemma was eventually solved only by reducing the size of the church,10 but meanwhile what the best way would be to get round the difficulty became a major bone of contention between the various parties involved. 

We have no way of telling how much time Adam devoted to preparing his South Bridge scheme, but for such a large project (the main blocks alone are over one hundred yards long) it must have been considerable, quite apart from that of his staff.  He sent a letter to the Lord Provost on 25th June 1785,11 apologising for the delay in dispatching his designs.  His architectural draughtsman was ill, and was having to be replaced (the employment of a new draughtsman unused to Adam’s ways may explain certain inconsistencies in details between the various plans).  The plans12 were finally sent to Edinburgh on 14th July, with a letter in which Adam explained the various features of the scheme. 

Building Two, running between the square formed around the Tron Church and the Cowgate Bridge, is over one hundred yards long, but forms only a part of the South Bridge scheme.  There are shops behind the colonnaded portico.

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Adam’s letters and plans were tabled before the Trustees on 11th August, but from that date until the end of the year there is no reference to them in the Minutes of the South Bridge Trustees,13 although during this period construction of the bridge had actually begun.  It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Hunter Blair had never had any real intention of commissioning designs from Adam although, as has already been said, Adam may have had good reason to believe that he was being asked to provide them.  In a number of respects, particularly in the provision of a square around the Tron Church, the scheme which was built owes a great deal to Adam’s ideas,  and it is likely that the Lord Provost had wanted to pick Adam’s brains for ideas about the project and yet to avoid using an architect whose designs were notoriously expensive to build.14  It was on his return to Edinburgh, at the first meeting of the South Bridge Trustees on 20th June, that the possibility of the creation a square around the Tron Church was first officially raised.15  No architect was officially appointed at that meeting, although a survey of the line of the bridge had been undertaken by Robert Kay before the passing of the Act of Parliament,16 (a copy of which seems to have been provided to Adam) and this survey includes both a plan of the bridge and a section along the route, showing a South Bridge of sixteen arches. 

Despite the lack of architect or design, estimates for building the bridge were presented to the Trustees at their meeting, and at a further meeting on 14th July 1785 the contract was awarded to Alexander Laing, who had stated that "As there is no plan, elevation or section of the bridge produced, besides the foundations must be uncertain..." he had had to present his estimate in terms of his prices per yard or per foot for various types of masonry.17  It is unclear what - if any - role Laing was to play in the design of the bridge, because although it is Robert Kay who is usually credited with being the designer, the section included in his published survey, besides being drawn on a very small scale, shows only sixteen arches as opposed to the nineteen which were built.  None of the surviving drawings is signed, and although the Trustees’ records variously refer to Kay as their surveyor, draughtsman or inspector, both James Brown and John Baxter - both of them architect-contractors in Edinburgh - also played some role in the design process.18

Robert Adam's designs include a colonnaded portico flanking the roadway, to add grandeur to the route.  They were one of the principal causes of objections to Adam's proposals.

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Meanwhile, Robert Adam had visited Edinburgh during the late summer of 1785 (during which he presented his designs for the Leith Street terrace to the Register House Trustees), and in the light of this, had taken the opportunity to modify his designs.  Not only the South Bridge Trustees, but opinion in general, apparently had reservations about the colonnaded porticoes with which Adam had lined the street, and so he had "thought of a method of rendering the great Street equally magnificent without the columns."19   However, in the same letter, he complained bitterly about Kay’s survey, maintaining that it was "erroneous in almost every part," and made several serious criticisms of the scheme which was being built.  In particular, he urged that the roadway across the bridge should be level, both for aesthetic reasons and to avoid the requirement for pedestrians - and horses - to have to climb gradients unnecessarily.  This would have involved the raising of the central arch over Cowgate by about four feet, which even at this stage, with construction already under way, would have been possible. 

It was not until after the Trustees’ meeting on 8th February 1786, nearly seven months after they had been sent up from London, that James Hunter Blair wrote to Adam, rejecting his designs.  Although there had been widespread admiration of his proposals, he told Adam, the Trustees were not authorised by the Act of Parliament to agree to designs "in which the ornamental [sic.] required to be executed shall in any material degree diminish the value of the ground lots at a public sale."20   He asserted that Adam’s pleas for a more ornamental design for the arch crossing the Cowgate were a needless extravagance since it would be seen only by carters.  Since the Trustees intended "to oblige the Feuars to build by a plan of uniform ashler fronts similar to the neatest houses of that kind in the New Town," neither was there any requirement for the street facades which Adam had designed.  He concluded by informing Adam that his involvement with the project was ended and asked him to send the bill for his work to date. 

The Lord Provost, James Hunter Blair, considered Adam's magnificent designs for the Cowgate bridge a needless extravagance, since it would be seen only by carters.  It shows Adam at his most monumental.

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Quite apart from his disappointment at losing such a magnificent opportunity to display his talents for urban planning on a large scale, Adam would have been understandably resentful at being used in the fashion Hunter Blair had done.  In addition to the wasted opportunity to create a southern entry to Edinburgh of almost regal grandeur, in his opinion the whole process was being mishandled.  At some point in 1786, presumably because of the stress of the situation over the South Bridge project, he became quite ill and feared for his own life,21 but for now he refused to accept Hunter Blair’s rejection, and when the Lord Provost was in London smoothing the passage of a further Act of Parliament facilitating civic works in Edinburgh, he arranged meetings for those Trustees present in the capital to present his case.  He produced his revised designs, omitting the continuous colonnaded porticoes which had been so objectionable to the Trustees, and he claimed that the increased costs of his project over and above what it was now proposed should be built would be more than covered by the increased values of the properties to be feued.  Some of the revised designs still exist22 and form a fascinating comparison with Adam’s earlier scheme.  However, they are not included in the computer model. 

Adam’s meetings with the Trustees in both London and Edinburgh were successful, but the Lord Provost was not convinced and Adam complained of a lack of co-operation from those in charge of the project, in particular that Hunter Blair had written from London ordering that work on the Cowgate arch should continue.  Although many of Adam’s criticisms of the scheme were accepted, it was not he who was asked to rectify them but those already in charge.  Eventually, in October 1786, after further attempts to counter Hunter Blair’s obstructive tactics, Adam accepted his defeat and submitted his bill, as the Lord Provost had instructed in the previous February. 

Robert Kay and James Brown went on to complete the South Bridge, albeit taking on board some of Adam’s criticisms, particularly with regard to the alignment of the roads around the Tron Church.  It was probably also Adam’s example that led Kay to produce unified designs for the terraces of buildings lining the bridge, although he was instructed to consult another Edinburgh architect, John Baxter, in doing so.23  Each terrace contains ten houses, four of them topped by rather gawky pediments, but allowing a repeating pattern with every third house accented.  The terraces are of different depths, and the end facades of the blocks - one of four bays and one of three at the elevations facing on to Cowgate - also possess pediments, set at a slightly higher level so as to avoid the difficulty of turning a corner on the ends of two pediments.  The ground floors were designed with banded quoins to the pedimented houses and arched openings throughout the length of the elevation (these have been almost totally swept away and replaced by modern shopfronts), the upper floors with plain quoins in place of the banded and plain rectangular windows.  The facades of the buildings facing on to the square around the Tron are, as in Adam’s scheme, a little more elaborate than those lining the Bridge, with the end elevations of the blocks (facing on to the High Street) given a fluted frieze with paterae - a motif which in stylistic terms is pure Robert Adam, and can be seen on the facade of Register House, as well as occurring in his designs for South Bridge itself.  In one sense, no greater tribute could be given to an architect. 

The cornice of Adam's Register House, shown here, has a frieze in which paterae alternate with sections of fluting.  Robert Kay copied this Adam motif in the buildings he designed for South Bridge, and which were built in place of Adam's designs.

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It is important to remember, though, that the concept of South Bridge, that of a viaduct flanked by blocks of buildings rising from the floor and sides of the valley it is crossing, pre-dates Adam’s involvement in the project and presumably comes from James Hunter Blair.  Nevertheless, Adam had already designed one bridge lined with shops, Pulteney Bridge in Bath,24 1770-73, where the shops sit above the bridge arches, and was later - in 1791 - to design a further bridge for Edinburgh, a viaduct crossing the Low Calton, where the roadway was to be lined with shops and houses.  Pulteney Bridge was intended as a grand entrance to the new suburb of Bathwick (for which Adam also provided designs), and the Low Calton Viaduct was presumably intended as a grand entrance to Edinburgh from the Great North Road, the other main route into Edinburgh for travellers from London.  Adam intended the buildings along South Bridge to reflect this role as a formal "route of parade."

Kay’s designs are far more limited in scope than Adam’s.  Other than the two main terraced blocks lining the bridge to the north of Cowgate, Kay limited himself to designing buildings to surround the square being formed around the Tron Church, Hunter Square.  Even here, his intentions were never fulfilled because another design was adopted for one of the buildings on the west side.  Adam’s more ambitious scheme proposed designs for buildings to line the whole of the route of the bridge and road between the Tron Church, on the High Street, and its junction with Nicolson Street.  Adam’s southernmost building on the east side of the new road would have stood on the adjacent site to the Riding House he had designed over twenty years earlier.  As well as the terraces of shops and houses, Adam designed an ornamental screen to front Adam Square (the work of his brother John), an inn for the reception of travellers, a new suite of Assembly Rooms, a crescent of houses on the east end of the University garden, now on the other side of the road from the University itself, and - mindful of the fact that the South Bridge Trustees were, by the Act of Parliament which established them, also charged with the rebuilding of the University - a new front and entrance for the University itself.  These buildings were all designed in pairs, facing one another across the new street, and each pair of buildings along the southern part of the road was designed to complement one another. 

Adam intended the buildings along South Bridge to reflect one another, either as mirror images or as complementary designs.  The Assembly Rooms (left) and Inn (right) follow this rule.
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Although Kay’s buildings have been mutilated over the years, the main blocks along either side of South Bridge were designed as mirror-images of one another, as were the east and west blocks facing on Hunter Square.  Symmetry was a very important element in eighteenth-century design, particularly architectural design, and Adam’s designs for South Bridge demonstrate this even more effectively than do Kay’s.  In Adam’s scheme also, the two side blocks facing on to what became Hunter Square are direct reflections of one another, and each is symmetrical about its centre axis.  On the far side of the Square, behind the Tron Church, the opening to the South Bridge itself in the east corner is matched by a similar opening in the west corner, intended to lead to a new road from the Square down to the Cowgate (this, like other of Adam’s ideas, was adopted by the Trustees in 1786). 

Adam designed two roads leading off the south side of the square around the Tron Church.  South Bridge itself, flanked by its colonnaded portico, enters the square on the left of the picture, whilst the opening to the right of the building leads down to Cowgate.
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The drawing which Adam’s assistants produced showing the entire street elevation along the west side of the bridge25 demonstrates this passion for symmetry.  All six buildings in this drawing are symmetrical about a central axis, and the northernmost three are mirrored exactly by buildings on the other side of the road.  In addition the main terraced block to the south of the Cowgate reproduces the terminal pavilions of its northern neighbour, connected by three bays which are a modified version of the linking wings of the longer block. "Neatness" and "regularity" are terms of the highest praise in eighteenth-century architectural taste,26 and these are both present in abundance in this design.  Indeed, at the end elevations of the terraced blocks facing onto the Cowgate,27 the same elevation is reproduced four times. 

The eighteenth-century love of symmetry is shown by Building One, forming the east side of the square around the Tron Church.  It is symmetrical in itself and the design is repeated on the other side of the square.
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In such a design as this, it is the subtlety of the variation between different parts of the design which helps the effect.  The central block of each of the long terraces differs quite considerably from the terminal pavilions, with a different roof-line and fenestration.  Adam obviously recognised that it would be difficult to appreciate the full design from a relatively narrow street, and the colonnades - for all Hunter Blair’s objections to them - play the important role of carrying the eye along.  The coupled columns help this effect, giving more of a sense of dynamism than a colonnade of equally-spaced columns.  The revised elevations produced by Adam in 1786 do not possess colonnades, but instead there is a blank arcade built against the lowest storey, again with coupled columns (or, rather, engaged semi-columns), and with the arches of the blank arcade containing the shop doors and windows.  In place of the pavilions there are two-stage columned porticoes projecting from the centre and the two ends of each block. 

The details of the centre (right) and terminal (left) pavilions of Building Two differ, particularly at the wallhead (shown here) and in the forms of the windows.
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The coupled columns of the colonnaded portico give a greater sense of dynamism than a similar colonnade with equally-spaced columns.
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The full extent of the revisions between Adam’s first scheme and his second is unclear, because some of the drawings which he is known to have prepared are not present in the Soane Museum Collection including, perhaps most importantly, the plan of the revised scheme.  Crucially, it would show Adam’s revisions to Robert Kay’s 1785 survey of the site, which he strongly criticised after he had taken his own measurements, and the extent to which he was forced to alter his designs to take account of this.  There are significant discrepancies between the ground-plan provided in July 1785 as part of Adam’s first scheme and the elevations which accompany it, both of them being amongst those drawings which include a scale.  The plan is obviously based on Robert Kay’s survey, the features of which it faithfully reproduces.  The elevation shows the main terraced block of shops and houses as approximately fifteen feet longer than does the plan. 

Not all of the drawings include a scale, and there are certain other discrepancies between different drawings, some of which may be due to the inexperienced draughtsman whom Adam had to employ at the time.  However, it is not unknown for Adam’s designs to have been executed in a very different manner to the way the surviving drawings suggest (the Riding House is a good example of this), and many examples are known of projects - even amongst those supervised directly by Adam and his firm - where there are more minor departures from the original designs.28  Robert Adam would undoubtedly have been able to reconcile these discrepancies, and had it been built we would have had in the South Bridge a masterpiece of urban planning from an architect whom his contemporaries considered to be particularly skilled in this field.  Unfortunately, the South Bridge Trustees, particularly James Hunter Blair, did not have the vision to appreciate that the magnificent entry to the city of Edinburgh which Adam proposed would have welcomed visitors far more effectively than the bare, bald buildings which they decided should be built, popular success though that became.  If Hunter Blair was the driving force behind the scheme and must be assigned the credit for its construction, he was also responsible for the frustration of Robert Adam’s efforts to create a magnificent piece of urban architecture worthy of Edinburgh’s role as Scotland’s capital. 

One of the discrepancies between different drawings prepared by Adam and his assistants for the South Bridge scheme are these three arched windows, which are shown on the elevation but not expressed on the ground-plan.
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Adam’s bill, when he presented it in October 1786 on the instructions of the Lord Provost, proved an unwelcome shock to the Trustees, coming as it did to over £1,228, including £840  for the plans, sections and elevations.29  It is impossible not to suspect Adam of deliberate overcharging in return for the shabby way in which he had been treated, since the figure is comparable to the total of £1,245 that the Adams were paid in fees and expenses over eighteen years whilst they supervised the construction of Register House in Edinburgh.30  After some squabbling over the amount, Adam was paid £900, nevertheless a very substantial amount of money, although the amount was only finally agreed when Adam was being commissioned to design the new buildings for Edinburgh University in 1789.  By then, Hunter Blair had died, and Robert Adam’s mind must have been set on the future masterpiece of the University rather than on past disappointments in Edinburgh, with the South Bridge. 

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