Date of Birth: 5 February 1921, Berlin, Germany
Birth Name: Klaus Hugo Adam
Nicknames: Sir Ken Adam
Sir Ken Adam, the Academy Award-winning film designer, who has died aged 95, awed a generation of moviegoers with his larger-than-life sets projecting megalomaniac power; such creations as the “War Room” in Dr Strangelove (1964) and the hollow volcano from which James Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld launches spacecraft to provoke nuclear warfare in You Only Live Twice (1967) had an influence far beyond the world of entertainment.
Ronald Reagan, newly inaugurated, asked to see the “War Room” only to be told it had been a figment of Adam’s imagination. And the work of a generation of British architects led by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers was heavily influenced by schoolboy exposure to Adam’s Bond interiors.
Though he trained as an architect, Adam did so purely to get into movie design. Yet in a crowning irony Foster’s design for the reunified Germany’s Reichstag drew heavily on the work of Adam – who had persuaded his parents to flee Berlin after seeing the original gutted by fire. Adam’s influence can be seen in buildings worldwide, from the Lloyd’s building in the City and Canary Wharf underground station to the skyline of 21st-century Shanghai.
Stephen Spielberg reckoned the Strangelove set Adam devised for Stanley Kubrick “the greatest in the history of movies”. Bond aficionados might nominate Blofeld’s caldera, Dr No’s hideout at Crab Key or Goldfinger’s deadly “Rumpus Room”. Adam disliked the last because the script turned it into a gas chamber, reminding him of the fate suffered by many of his family in Auschwitz; he had also been one of the first British officers into Belsen.
Adam’s speciality was bunkers. His first, in 1948, was for Edward Dmytryk’s film Obsession, starring Robert Newton. He developed the combination of claustrophobia and menace further in Ten Seconds to Hell (1959), in which German soldiers defuse bombs beneath Berlin. Then came his first masterpieces, Dr No (1962) and Strangelove; in the latter he maximised the feeling of vastness by never displaying the entire set at any one time.
He won his Oscars with more conservative designs: for Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Madness of King George (1994). He was awarded Baftas for edgier work: Dr Strangelove and The Ipcress File (1965) Adam’s kitchen for Michael Caine influencing a generation of bachelors to grind their own coffee.
Though Adam dismissed his 007 designs as “complete fantasy,” he was grateful for the way the Bond films allowed him to indulge his imagination. Two designs stand out: Blofeld’s extinct volcano, and the supertanker that swallows up submarines in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).
The volcano set, equipped with a full-sized rocket, helicopter landing pad and monorail, was built from scratch at Pinewood by 250 workers using 700 tons of steel. “Such a set,” said Adam, “represents both a dream and a nightmare in movie-making.” When it was torn down, he vowed that if he ever had to build another sound stage from scratch it would be a permanent structure.
His chance came 10 years later when he found himself back at Pinewood building the 60,000 sq ft 007 stage, still in use today. Adam collaborated with the sound stage expert Michael Brown to build what was then the world’s largest set, nicknamed Jonah after the prophet swallowed by the Biblical whale. The set boasting three 5/8ths scale nuclear submarines floating in their pens – was opened by the prime minister, Harold Wilson.
Adam liked to work for other directors between Bond films the most distinguished being Kubrick so as to return to 007 with a fresh approach. He contained his frustration when, having signed with Cubby Broccoli to design for Thunderball (1965), Kubrick asked him to do the interiors for 2001: A Space Odyssey. He felt obliged to decline; in the event Kubrick’s project took so long that he could have taken it on.
Klaus Hugo Adam was born in Berlin on February 5 1921 to Jewish parents. Fritz Adam had been a highly decorated cavalry officer in the Kaiser’s army and owned a fashionable department store; he had just commissioned Mies van der Rohe to design a modernistic new branch when Hitler came to power.
His father was arrested, and only freed days later through the intervention of one of his store managers, who had become an Obergruppenführer in the SS. The family escaped to Scotland before settling in London, Klaus taking a job as a glove salesman.
Ken’s schooling began at Le Collège Français in Berlin, continued at Craigend Park school in Edinburgh and was completed at St Paul’s. He was given the idea of going into cinematic design by Vincent Korda, who suggested he first train as an architect. He won a place at London University’s Bartlett School of Architecture in 1937, joining CW Glover & Partners shortly before war broke out.
He served in the Pioneer Corps until his sheer persistence earned him acceptance for RAF pilot training (one of very few German-born pilots). Adam flew Typhoons in support of advancing Allied troops after D-Day, then braved roaming German deserters to travel overland to Berlin, where he found the family’s apartment and store destroyed and their lakeside retreat commandeered by the Russians.
He had to wait until 1947 to get into films, as a draughtsman on Tim Whelan’s This Was a Woman. He spent the next nine years working as an assistant art director on undistinguished pictures, and only in 1956 picked up his first solo credit on Soho Incident, serving as production designer the following year on Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. He gained a reputation for being innovative on a small budget and was always in demand, sometimes working on eight films in a year.
Adam first worked for Broccoli on The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960). Broccoli thought his futuristic style influenced by William Cameron Menzies, creator of the Art Deco utopia of Things To Come (1936) would be just right for Dr No, the first in the Bond series.
He skipped the next Bond film From Russia With Love (1964) to work on Strangelove. This won plaudits from a niche audience, but his designs for Goldfinger (1964) thrilled the masses. Its climax took place in the Fort Knox depository, so Adam knew the public wanted to see gold and lots of it. His genius was in building the Fort Knox of their imagination, not the gloomy, dusty vault of reality.
“Films, being a visual entertainment, should offer a form of escapism for an audience,” Adam said. “I can achieve more reality in terms of dramatic value for the screenplay by not copying nature, architecture or whatever really exists.” His final Bond film was the overblown Moonraker (1979) and most of his later work save for The Madness of King George was less memorable.
Ken Adam received the Hollywood directors’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He was appointed OBE in 1995 and knighted in 2003.