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Farewell to the Man Who Gave Bond His Good Looks

Having grown up in Berlin, legendary set designer Ken Adam had an innate feeling for the aesthetics of evil and power

Liel Leibovitz
March 18, 2016
Photo: Columbia Pictures
Photo: Columbia Pictures
Photo: Columbia Pictures
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Ronald Reagan, legend has it, was impatient on his inaugural tour of the White House. He didn’t particularly care for the various bedrooms or the manicured lawns. All he wanted to see was the War Room, and when he was told that it wasn’t real but a movie set built for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, he was devastated. The legend, like all legends, is probably apocryphal yet still illuminating: The War Room, with its enormous round table, shiny black floors, and oversized, shadow-darkened maps projected precisely the sort of cavernous menace that ought to define the secret bunker where the President of the United States would dwell while contemplating mutually assured destruction.

It was built by Sir Ken Adam, who passed away earlier this month at 95, and who had a genius for capturing our collective fears in images that defined—and, often, haunted—some of the most memorable films in history, including those early and impossibly stylish James Bonds. He was born Klaus in Berlin in 1921, the son of a wealthy Jewish family that sent its children to the posh Französisches Gymnasium, kept a country house by the Baltic, and dressed up in black tie and attended soirees at the swell Hotel Adlon. Creative, carefree, and immensely talented, young Adam would spend his days making busts of Schiller and copying Van Goghs, and he was looking forward to attending art school. On Feb. 27, 1933, however, he was strolling past the thick trees of the Tiergarten park when he heard a commotion. Rushing past the statues of Goethe and Wagner, he saw licks of fire and woolly pillars of smoke: The Reichstag was burning.

That night, Adam’s mother insisted that the family leave. Her husband wouldn’t hear of it. He had served in the Prussian army, and the idea of abandoning the Fatherland just because some thugs had temporarily taken it over was, for him, unthinkable. Husband and wife fought for many months but eventually agreed that things were only getting worse. In 1934, the Adams left for London.

Speaking English with a thick German accent and terribly homesick, adolescent Ken found comfort in German films, particularly the masterpieces of Expressionism like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. He adored these movies for their theatricality and for their ability to create a feverish atmosphere with a few artfully designed sets. And feverish atmospheres, he thought, were what his particular moment in history was all about. He shared his views with the men and women he met in his mother’s boarding house in Hampstead, many of whom were refugees from Berlin, many of them in the arts. He grew fascinated with architecture and hoped to go to school before too long and study it as a profession.

The war interrupted all that. Gleefully, Adam reported for duty, becoming a pilot for the Royal Air Force and flying Hawker Typhoons at 400 miles per hour to bomb German tank columns and other strategic targets. His squadron was the RAF’s top-scoring, the first to experiment with air-to-surface missiles. And he was the squadron’s star, nicknamed, given his still-Teutonic accent, Heinie the Tank-Buster.

Once the Nazis were defeated, Adam finally made it to architecture school, met a girl, fell in love, got married, and settled into a productive and lucrative career. The movies still fascinated him, though, and he drifted toward the studios, making a name for himself as a capable set designer. In 1961, working for Pinewood Studios, he was asked whether he’d be interested in working on a new spy film, the first based on the popular books by Ian Fleming featuring a martini-swilling brute named Capt. James Bond. Adam asked to see the script, read the first 100 pages, and thought they weren’t very good. His wife advised him not to accept the assignment; such drivel, she said, would only mean he’d have to prostitute himself as an artist. But something about the idea appealed to Adam: With its liberal references to computers, laser guns, and other ultra-modern technologies, it seemed to capture the spirit of the era better than most serious films at the time. He decided to take on the job, and flew to Jamaica to meet with the film’s director, Terence Young. The meeting lasted 20 minutes—Young drew some sketches, indicating where he wanted the actors to enter and exit, and then handed them over to Adam. “The design aspect of it,” he said as he left, “I leave entirely up to you.”

Adam hardly had to look hard for inspiration when designing the lair of the film’s eponymous villain, Dr. No. Maniacal villains with an aesthetic sense that dipped into the kinky were what he’d seen goose-stepping down the streets of his hometown as a kid. As they did in those German Expressionist films, he created the perfect nightmare: an underground hideout with indoor trees growing at strange angles, a shark tank carved into jagged rocks, columns and lights that cast geometric shadows and enhanced the sense of entrapment and doom. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the set helped mold not only Adam’s cinematic career but Bond’s as well: When people came to see the spy, they expected to also see the carefully crafted and wildly evocative world he embodied.

Adam’s imprint is on virtually all of the franchise’s iconic early images, like the supertanker swallowing a submarine or the Aston Martin with its ejector seat, a flourish Adam got from his time as a fighter pilot. His sensibility, argued a recent obituary in The Economist, was “a sort of groovy space-age expressionism”; the typical Adam set, continued the obit, “is a vast, open-plan, multi-leveled chamber threaded together by ramps and floating staircases. It contrasts rough-hewn rock with shiny metal surfaces, plus a few scattered antiques, just to show how wealthy and sophisticated its villainous owner is. It has movement, thanks to its video screens, sliding panels, and chairs that sink into the floor to deposit their dead occupants. And, above all else, it has dizzying perspectives and elegant elongations. Mr. Adam never saw a circle that he couldn’t stretch into an oval, a right angle that he couldn’t squeeze into a dagger point, a horizontal or vertical line that he couldn’t tip over to a diagonal.”

Is it any wonder that such a visionary would sooner or later attract the attention of the great Kubrick? Dazzled by Dr. No, cinema’s meticulous and maniacal master summoned Adam to work on his dark war-themed comedy, Dr. Strangelove, in 1963. Adam would drive Kubrick to and from Shepperton Studios in his E-Type Jaguar. The director was terrified of speeds and forbade Adam to drive faster than 30 miles per hour, but as they drove Kubrick would ask Adam to tell stories about his time in the RAF, and he’d revel in the designer’s exploits. Adam and Kubrick became close friends, but the director was also a tyrant who wasn’t above grilling his friend for hours over a specific line he’d used in one of his designs. The intensity proved too much for Adam; when Kubrick asked him again, four years later, to work on his next project, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Adam adamantly refused. The two weren’t reunited until 1975, on Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which won Adam the first of his two Oscars (the other was for The Madness of King George).

As with every great artist, Adam’s influence transcends his medium, and his achievement is greater than the sum of its parts. To look at Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s volcanic base, or at that glistening Strangelove War Room, is to contemplate, in an immediate and emotional way, the excesses and the promises and the terrors of the past 70 years, to see with your own eyes what evil looks like when unchecked, to witness raw power go on a wild ride on top of a big missile. These images helped us define the previous century, and they helped their creator define himself. “I think I lived in films, really,” he told The Telegraph’s Horatia Harrod in a recent interview, and we can only be grateful that he did.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.