The Architecture of Robert Adam(1728-1792)



Essay by Julian.Small






James Craig’s plan for the Edinburgh New Town reserved two plots for churches to serve the new residential suburb.  Each of these was in a prime location on one of the two squares which were expected to prove the most prestigious addresses in the new development, St Andrew’s Square in the east and Charlotte Square in the west.  Indeed, the two were sited so that they faced each other across their respective squares and along the axis of George Street, the central street in the New Town, running along the crest of the ridge to the north of the old part of the City of Edinburgh and connecting the two squares. 

Charlotte Square Church

If St George's Church had been built to Adam's design, it would have attracted the eye and acted as a focal point for the west side of Charlotte Square without overpowering its neighbours.

Click to see large image.

image by Nick Simpson at Pixelit from computer model by Sandy Kinghorn

These two churches were the only public buildings shown on the map of the New Town engraved and published in 1768,1 apart from a small square, labelled "public building," on the site later occupied by Register House.   The City authorities encouraged the Register House Trustees to locate their new building at the east end of the New Town, considering that it "would turn out to the advantage of the City and would promote the feuing out of the grounds on the north of the Bridge."2   They also allowed the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh to build their new Physicians’ Hall in George Street in the New Town,3  the foundation stone of which was laid on 27th November 1775. 

Whether or not it was encouraged by the existence of these public buildings, development of the New Town continued steadily, and by 1780 almost all of the plots on St Andrew’s Square had been feued,4  and there had come to be a sizeable population in the area.  The fact that there was still no church, even though public buildings - not part of the original plan - had been constructed, led to a complaint to the Council by Sir James Hunter Blair, a former Lord Provost, in 1781.5  The City Council agreed to build a church. 

The Council bore responsibility for this.  Under Scottish law, it was at this date the responsibility of the heritor or heritors (the principal landowners) of a parish, to provide a church building, paying for its building or rebuilding if necessary.  It lay with the Council, as the landowners encouraging the development of the New Town - and as still the largest single landowner in the area - to pay for the building of a church to serve the population. 

Due to some underhand dealings, the site in St Andrew’s Square supposedly reserved for a church had already been feued to Sir Laurence Dundas,6whose house there still survives, and the new church, dedicated nevertheless to St Andrew, was built on George Street between 1782 and 1784, immediately opposite the Physicians Hall which had been largely completed in 1779.7   St Andrew’s Church (today known as St Andrew’s and St George’s) is an oval building, at that point uniquely so in Britain.  It is a building worthy of the New Town and which would have been worthy of the site on St Andrew’s Square which had been purloined by Sir Laurence Dundas. 

When, therefore, Robert Adam was commissioned to provide designs for the terraces of houses surrounding Charlotte Square at the other end of the New Town, the challenge of designing a church to rival St Andrew’s seems to have inspired him to produce one of his finest designs.  If the Charlotte Square church had been built as Adam designed it, Edinburgh would have had a building of which to be proud. 

birdseye view

When Robert Adam was asked to provide designs for Charlotte Square, he included a design for the church intended to go on the west side of the Square.  He integrated the facade of the church with the elevations of the terraces on either side.

Click to see large image.

Most of Adam’s extensive workload was in the domestic field, either country houses or town houses in London, and it includes surprisingly few churches.  Throughout his career, he looked for opportunities to design large-scale public buildings, and in this desire was constantly frustrated - at least on the scale he longed for.  His best opportunities came in Edinburgh, with Register House and the University, but the scale of the first of these had to be reduced by almost one half to be affordable, whilst the second was little more than started by the time of Adam’s death and was never completed to the original designs.  A church in such a prominent and prestigious location as Charlotte Square in Edinburgh’s New Town would have given him the opportunity he craved.  Unlike St Andrew’s Church, the church in Charlotte Square was to occupy the site reserved for it in James Craig’s plan of 1768, and would terminate the vista along George Street, one of the principal streets in the New Town. 

Charlotte Square Church

The church, as seen from the south-east.  Towers carrying cupolas project to left and right at the front, and a dome rises above the central space.  Such an imposing design would have made a striking termination to the vista along George Street.

Click to see large image.

The church was intended to be square externally, with towers projecting at the four corners.  The designs show the towers projecting from the side walls, but offset slightly to the front and rear.  The towers carry cupolas or small domes, and a large dome rises from the centre of the building.  A large octastyle (literally, eight-pillared) portico is attached to the front of the church, facing Charlotte Square, and a single-storey apse projects from the rear wall.  The church stands on a plinth or basement, allowing an impressive flight of steps up to the portico8 and providing some visual continuity between the rusticated ground storeys of the two terraced blocks, although no windows are shown at this lower level on the Charlotte Square elevation and it is not clear how any basement would have been used. The cornice of the church is at the same level as the top of the parapet of the two flanking blocks, also helping to carry the eye along the west side of the Square.   All in all, the church provides a focal point within the square whilst not shouting its neighbours down. 

Adam designed the church with a dome rising above the central space (which was to be either circular on plan or a cube) and with the four towers carrying cupolas.  The drums of the cupolas and main dome contrast in such a way as to enhance the effect of movement.

Click to see large image.

The set of designs for the church on Charlotte Square is incomplete.  The designs9Adam produced for the elevations of the four sides of the Square, at the request of Lord Provost Stirling, include as part of the proposals for the west side of the Square an elevation of that facade of the church.  Adam also produced two versions of the plan of the church at entrance level - one based on a cube and the other based on a sphere and cube - together with a plan of the church at gallery level relating to the second of these.10  No elevations of the other facades of the church survive, nor do any other details which would be expected to form part of the full set of designs.  It is not known why no other drawings relating to the scheme survive.  It is possible that other drawings have been destroyed.  It is perhaps more likely that because at the time of Adam’s death the process of developing Charlotte Square had not even started and there was no likelihood of the church being built for some years to come, Adam expected to be able to return to the project and finish his designs at a later date.  Whatever the explanation, a great deal about the design of the other parts of the church can be deduced from the surviving drawings, bearing in mind the classical love of symmetry.  The proportions and main lines of the design are clear from the Charlotte Square facade, and most of the detail can be inferred from a study of the plans, in combination with the surviving elevation.  The only major uncertainty exists in the treatment of the apse Adam added to the rear elevation.  Externally, it greatly enhances the "movement" of the design, but such a form would - if built - have appeared very like the chancel of an English church, and as such would have been questioned by the Presbyterians of the Church of Scotland. 

Adam added an apse to the rear of the church.  It cannot be disputed that it adds to the movement of the design, but its resemblance to a church chancel might have given rise to criticism.

Click to see large image.

Adam turned to various sources for the design.  The idea of a church with four corner towers is not unusual in Italian Renaissance architecture, and no doubt Adam would have seen examples during the time he spent in Italy during his late twenties.   An example with which he is likely to have been very familiar, however, from his long residence in London, is St John’s, Smith Square, in Westminster.11  Here, the four towers are topped by lantern-like features, rather than the cupolas which appear in Adam’s design.  The great portico of the church must be inspired by the portico at the Temple of the Sun at Palmyra in modern Syria, an engraving of which appeared in Robert Wood’s book, The Ruins of Palmyra, published in 1753.  The Palmyra example also has coupled Corinthian pillars on tall bases, exactly like the portico of Adam’s church in Charlotte Square.  In this case, Adam left an extra wide gap in the middle of the portico, opposite the main door, which served the double purpose of revealing the door and enhancing the sense of movement within the facade.  The towers at either end of the facade strike a horizontal note, emphasised by their cupolas on top, which counterbalances the horizontal emphasis of the rest of the facade, and also produces the sense of movement which Adam looked for in his designs.  The effect which Adam wanted to produce would have been enhanced by the paved areas surrounding the church and absence of any graveyard.  Most burials in eighteenth-century Edinburgh were in the large city burial grounds such as those at Greyfriars12and on Calton Hill, and the sites designated by Craig in his New Town plan for churches are both too small to include a burial ground.13

The portico of the church has irregularly- spaced columns which leave an extra-wide space opposite the door.  The church which was built in place of Adam's design has a portico, but it does not project from the building as this one does.

Click to see large image.

Adam presented his designs for Charlotte Square to the city authorities in 1791 and the plans were formally adopted by them that same year.14  It was only a few days after his death in  March 1792 that the building plots on the north side of the Square were offered for sale,15 but sales were slow.  In Paris, the Bastille had fallen in 1789, and although Britain was not yet at war with revolutionary France, both Austria and Prussia were, and public confidence was low, with few people willing to spend money on new houses, leading to recession in the building trade.  The many gaps in the western half of the New Town took a long time to fill, and there was not yet any need for a second church in the New Town.  Britain joined the war against revolutionary France early in 1793, and what became known as the Napoleonic Wars lasted almost without a break until the Duke of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo in 1815.   Only in 1810 did the City Council consider that the time had come to build the church in Charlotte Square.  Maps of Edinburgh in the 1790s had shown the outline of Adam’s design on the site assigned for the church,16  but the City Council expressed fears that Adam’s design for the church would prove very expensive to build and decided to commission a new design.  For this, they turned to the establishment architect in early-19th century Edinburgh, Robert Reid.  Reid was a builder-cum-architect on the old Edinburgh model, prepared both to design buildings such as the Leith Customs House of 1810-12 and to build houses in, for example, Charlotte Square to sell on to clients.17   In doing so, he tried in 1810 to supersede Adam’s design for the east side of the Square with a new one of his own,18 raising protests from other proprietors in the Square.  In the event, he was allowed to modify the centre portion of Adam’s designs. 

The church Reid designed in 181119 uses some of the elements of Adam’s design, but it is not integrated into the west side of the Square in the way of Adam’s.  It is taller than Adam’s design, and its portico is recessed into the building rather than projecting from the front wall.  Since it does not possess the basement that Adam’s design does, the pillars of the portico are out of scale with the rest of the Square, unlike the portico in Adam’s building.  The dome, too, is much larger than the one Adam designed, as well as being brought forward to sit above the entrance vestibule of the building rather than the central space.  Reid’s church possesses none of the "movement" of Adam’s design, either towards the Square or to the rear, but is heavy and lumpish by comparison. 

When the city authorities came to build the church on Charlotte Square, they decided to commission a new design from Robert Reid.  Reid's church takes elements from Adam's design, but is much heavier in appearance.

Click to see large image.

Reid rashly estimated that construction of his design would cost £18,000.  It was eventually to cost nearly £24,000 and almost immediately it had been completed in 1814 it was being compared unfavourably with Adam’s scheme.  It can hardly be doubted that Adam’s scheme would have been more expensive to build, but the magnificence of what would have proved one of Adam’s masterpieces would surely have been worth the extra expense. 

Reid’s church, once it was completed, was dedicated to St George, and although Adam’s drawings refer to his design merely as a church for Charlotte Square, there can be little doubt that had it been built it too would have been dedicated to St George.  St Andrew’s Church was intended to stand in St Andrew’s Square, and the second church in the New Town would have stood in what was until 1785 referred to as St George’s Square.  The powerful symbolism of squares named in honour of the patron saints of the two countries of the United Kingdom being linked by a street named in honour of the king, thus demonstrating the loyalty of the City of Edinburgh to the Union, would have been reinforced by the dedication of Adam’s church. 

The church as Adam designed it would have provided a focal point for the Square without overpowering the other buildings.  The church which was built does not so much dominate the west side of the Square as overwhelm it.  When St George’s Church developed structural defects in 1960, it was converted to become West Register House,20 supplementing the work of Adam’s Register House in Edinburgh.  But before this was done, there had even been talk of allowing its demolition for road improvements.  Had St George’s been built to Robert Adam's designs, there could never have been talk of demolishing such a masterpiece. 

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