Ken Adam made a name for himself with his set design for the James Bond film “Dr. No”, but rose to fame with the War Room he created for Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”. The visionary production designer Ken Adam would have turned 100 this year.

By Thomas Wagner.

War Room
The War Room in “Dr. Strangelove”. © 1963, renewed 1991 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

From command centres to secret hideaways and from megalomaniacs to villains bent on world domination, no other production designer has embedded the rooms where big business, crime and politics come together to create a dangerous mix as firmly in the collective imagination as Ken Adam. Originally from Berlin, his sets show that modern power-hungry villains have a penchant for monumental functional architecture. Operation rooms and labs, vaults and unusual locations like oil rigs, crematoriums and space stations: all of them are riddled with lifts and supply corridors, communication and power networks, sluices and ventilation shafts, caves and canals.

An expressionist, functionalist legacy

Ken Adam
Portrait of Ken Adam. © Ken Adam Archive

Ken Adam, or more accurately Sir Kenneth Adam, was born as Klaus Hugo Adam in Berlin on 5 February 1921, the son of an upper-class Jewish family. He died in London on 10 March 2016. When his evocative rooms and sets for films such as “Dr. No” and “Goldfinger” made him famous in the 1960s and 1970s, he could easily have taken to introducing himself with: “The name is Bond, Ken Bond.” He made his mark on no fewer than seven 007 films.

Adam was born in Berlin and fled from the Nazis with his family in 1934. Even as a child, he was fascinated by theatre and film. The sets and dreamt-up technology seen in expressionist films such as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or Fritz Lang’s “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler” and “Metropolis” made an impact on him; elements of expressionism and new functionalism later appeared in Adam’s designs. In the 1930s, he studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. He also worked at an architectural firm under a former assistant of Erich Mendelsohn’s and assisted the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARS Group), a British offshoot of the Bauhaus.

A hyperrealistic view of the world

It is impossible to overstate Ken Adam’s influence on production design, even if digital technology and video-game aesthetics have now replaced the architectural imaginative capability which he brought to bear. Between Piranesi’s febrile drawings of nightmarish prisons and the cold technoid HQs of world domination, he designed spaces which convincingly brought inherited power fantasies into the 20th century. Whatever he put down on paper with his Standard Flo-Master felt-tip pen was constructed at Pinewood Studios in London. Instead of replicating scenery in a naturalistic fashion, he enlarged the characteristics of the age until they became recognisable. His “bigger than life” ethos did not just stem from the medium of film and the genre in question. In a century of monstrous deeds which left millions dead, he painted pictures of a bleak future. His heightened reality did not only arise from aesthetic considerations. He also incorporated dramatic and operational dimensions into the set: vehicles, weapons, equipment and gadgets make the spaces look like the basis for a large-scale technoid mobilisation. Christoph Neubert writes that Adam’s technical sets “regularly formed transitional spaces between architecture and weaponry – critical spaces for survival dominated particularly by two paradigms: the bunker and the ship. There can be no doubt that experiences such as the sudden eradication of familiar surroundings, displacement, war and destruction are formative for someone with Ken Adam’s biographical background.”

You Only Live Twice
Concept art of Blofeld’s secret base in “You only live twice”. © Ken Adam Archive

An integral part of the action

The dynamic interplay of elementary geometric shapes – triangles, circles and rectangles – hallmarks many of the sketches which Adam made in preparation for each project. The spectrum ranges from the prison cells and the tarantula room in “Dr. No” to the vaults at Fort Knox in “Goldfinger” and the famous War Room from Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”. Rooms with several levels, divided by pillars, stairs and galleries, bridges and walkways, guide physical movements and define the characters’ possible perceptions and actions. Adam’s interiors are more than just backdrops: they are an integral part of the action. Expressive lighting further emphasises the structure of the rooms: large, round skylights frequently alternate with lamps suspended from the ceiling.

Tarantula Room
Dr. No’s Complex, Tarantula Room. © 1962 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.

War Room

According to Steven Spielberg, Adam’s War Room is nothing less than “the best set that’s ever been designed”. Envisaged in expressively drawn sketches, the finished room was 12 metres high, 30 metres wide and 45 metres long. It was constructed in one of the largest studios at Shepperton Studios near London. The War Room appears eight times in the film in sequences of varying lengths, but Kubrick ultimately cut all the wide shots of the room. At first, Adam was apparently disappointed, having always sketched a wide shot of the room. In the end, however, he realised: “That was Stanley’s genius. The viewer should never know where he was at any moment. That heightened the claustrophobic feeling immensely.” A story relayed to Ken Adam by a reliable source illustrates the fact that the War Room seemed more than real: when Ronald Reagan took up residency in the White House, he is said to have asked his chief of staff to show him the War Room.

War Room Concept
Ken Adam’s concept drawing of the “War Room”. © Ken Adam Archive

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