Even if you’ve never heard the name Ken Adam, you’ll probably recognise his work when you see it, for Ken Adam determined our ideas of what a supervillain lair is supposed to look like. He was the production designer on the James Bond movies from Dr. No all the way up to Moonraker and gave us such visual delights as submarine swallowing supertankers, Bond’s famous tricked out Aston Martin, the only slightly less famous Lotus Esprit that turns into a submarine, a translucent waterbed with real fish inside, the glittering interior of Fort Knox that looked so much cooler than the real thing probably did, undersea bases and space stations, Alpine lairs and rocket launch pads, genital slicing lasers and of course Blofeld’s volcano lair cum rocket launch pad, complete with monorail and piranha pond. The Guardian has a gallery of some of Ken Adam’s famous designs.
In these days of ubiquitous greenscreen and CGI, it is hard to imagine that all of those sets were physical and specifically built for the respective films. But if you look at a vintage Bond movie from the 1960s or 1970s, you’ll notice how real those sets look. When I watched those movies for the first time as a kid, I actually thought they were real places and that there were really hollowed-out volcanoes and mountaintop supervillain lairs out there in the world somewhere. The first time I saw an actual waterbed, I was disappointed that it was neither translucent nor contained any living goldfish like the one in Diamonds Are Forever.
Nor am I the only person who mistook Ken Adam’s designs for real. During the Cold War, East European intelligence services eagerly watched Bond movies to see what the enemy was doing and what cool tech they had. The KGB reportedly even tried to order an example of Bond’s gadget-laden Aston Martin, only to be told that the actual car doesn’t have any of those functions. And Ronald Reagan – who used to be an actor, after all, and should have known how filmic illusions work – reportedly asked to see another famous Ken Adam set, the NORAD War Room from Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, when he visited the real NORAD shortly after his inauguration as President.
Of all of Ken Adam’s designs, it’s the volcano lair from You Only Live Twice that has stuck with me most. Seeing that volcano lair for the first time on TV, I immediately exclaimed “I want to live there.” With the rocket, the monorail and everything, though I would have swapped the piranhas in the pool for goldfish. And in my early attempts at writing, everybody – both heroes and villains – had elaborate secret lairs hidden in seemingly innocuous places. There was an undersea spaceport, too, that was clearly inspired both by the Blofeld’s volcano lair from You Only Live Twice and the underwater spaceport from Raumpatrouille Orion (and I strongly suspect the latter was inspired by the former as well). Coincidentally, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who wanted to move into the sets of the Bond movie. I sometimes do translations for a company that builds mega-yachts for the ultra-rich and a lot of the time the specs boil down to “Someone has seen too many Bond movies and thought they were real”. More precisely, they all want to own some variation of the Disco Volante, Emilio Largo’s yacht from Thunderball.
I have the theory that the true reason why the Bond movie franchise survived both replacing the lead actor several times and having fuck-all to do with the actual Ian Fleming novels after the first few movies is because what makes a Bond movie is not so much the actor playing the lead role nor the Fleming novel it’s supposedly based on. Of course, all Bond movies contain certain set pieces, but what sets them apart from umpteen other action franchises is that Bond movies have a certain look and style. Tune into any Bond movie at random and it is immediately recognisable as a Bond movie, even if neither Bond nor any other recognisable character is on screen. And this Bond film look was largely defined by Ken Adam, along with Maurice Binder who designed the distinctive psychedelic title sequences with the floating nudes, and composer John Barry, who created the sound of Bond films. All three are dead now, but their legacy remains and not just in Bond movies either.
I don’t remember when I first heard Ken Adam’s name. It must have been during my cineastic phase as a teenager and I must have either read it in a book somewhere or picked it up directly from the credits of a Bond movie. But while I have known his name for a long time and have admired his designs for even longer, it was only years later that I learned that Ken Adam had been born in Germany, in Berlin to be exact, as Klaus Hugo Adam. And that he had been at least partly inspired by the dull Bauhaus modernism that I loathed with a passion. Though as an adult, I can clearly see both the Bauhaus influence (especially if you know that a lot of what was actually built was watered down Bauhaus) and the influence of German expressionist cinema of the 1920s on Ken Adam. I also suspect that this is why German cinema of the 1960s is full of Ken Adamsesque sets – because they were all drawing on the same inspirations.
Coincidentally, I also wonder how Ian Fleming felt about Ken Adam’s designs for the Bond movies, given his well-known dislike of modernist architecture in general and of architect Ernö Goldfinger in particular, a man Fleming disliked so much that he named one of his most famous villains after him. This isn’t Ernö Goldfinger’s only claim to literary fame BTW, he was also reportedly the inspiration for the sinister architect in J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, which has just been filmed with sets that look like something Ken Adam might have come up with in the 1970s.
I obviously wasn’t the only person who was inspired by Ken Adam’s glorious designs. You can see his influence in many movies he never worked on. The later 1960s birthed dozens of cheap Bond knock-offs with plywood and cardboard sets that look like Ken Adam on a budget. Here is one of the better examples, Die Todesstrahlen des Dr. Mabuse from 1964, with a very Ken-Adam-like supervillain lair. Poor Dr. Mabuse, a true legend of villainy with a ninety year reign of terror and yet he was never able to afford a real Ken Adam lair.
Ken Adam’s visual influence also extended beyond the Bond knock-offs of the late 1960s. The Imperial Star Destroyers, the Death Star and the Starkiller Base of the various Star Wars installments are very clearly influenced by Ken Adam’s designs for the Bond movies and Dr. Strangelove, as are the Triskelion and the S.H.I.E.L.D helicarrier from the Marvel movies. Ditto for the Stark/Avengers Tower and Tony Stark’s Malibu home (with a bit of Oscar Niemeyer thrown in for good measure). Ironically, a lot of these movies were shot at the 007 Stage at the Pinewood Studios in London, which was specifically built to house Ken Adam’s set of the submarine swallowing supertanker from The Spy Who Loved Me.
So rest in peace, Sir Ken Adam. I still want to live in that volcano base BTW.