Robbie Kerr talks about his work and vision with China Business Network

March 7, 2022

Recently, Robbie Kerr, Director of ADAM Architecture was interviewed by the leading business press in China - China Business Network (Yicai). He shared the vision and mission of ADAM Architecture and its ambition to enter China,  a market of the great fusion of classical architecture.

Here is a translation of the article. Click here for the Chinese version of the article

If there is no flexibility, a building will fail in time

Classical architecture is derived from the architecture of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. That kind of architecture is considered to be the ideal proportion with axisymmetric characteristic. Based in the UK, Adam Architecture is the world’s largest architecture firm specialising in classical and traditional architecture and contextual urban design; the practice is trying to lead a revival of classical architecture. China, with its large-scale traditional architecture markets, has been seen by Adam Architecture as the next destination.

To Robbie Kerr, Director of Adam Architecture, the revival of classical architecture is different from the playful reinvention of classical architecture, which is often seen as a parody - a clumsy imitation-adding stereotypical classical symbols to decorate the modern building.  ADAM Architecture aims to build by using the real Classical Architectural ‘language’ and the rules. It requires the deep understanding the logic of Classical Architecture behind, strive for in detail, symmetry and composition, and the change to work with rules, and to break them.

“Much more fun than the dogmatic modernism that is so ubiquitous.Robbie Kerr said.

What kind of project do you work on currently? Any new insights or experience you want to share with us?

Robbie: My work at the moment is amazingly varied. I have just completed a competition in Hong Kong for a luxury residential development and am currently awaiting the results. I am working on a number of large private luxury houses for families, I am restoring a church in Oxford, and I am designing a scheme for 3500 new homes with a new town center that includes a hotel, large new employment areas and a school. So every day Is full of variety and I continue to learn from each project to inform the others. Sustainability remains an increasingly urgent problem to improve on, but the other side I love in each of my projects is Integrating the different cultural requirements for each project.

In 2016, you became the youngest director in ADAM. How did it come? What did you do?

Robbie: From an even younger age I have been working in different styles and types of architectural company. I have worked from Hong Kong to Dubai to Cuba so this gave a good start. I was then fortunate in two ways. One was to come across ADAM Architecture and a company that has amazing values and culture, the second was to win some early commissions which helped raise my profile. I am supported by my fellow Directors and our unique structure means we combine the best of old and young, experience and challenging one another to improve.

Is classical and traditional architecture restoration the trend in your county? How did you come to classical and traditional architecture area?

Robbie: This type and style of work has been a fundamental principle of British architecture for the last 450 years at least. There was some resistance to this approach to architecture, mainly from other architects, during the 1960s-2000 but this is changing back and there is an Increasing appreciation of Classical Architecture. it is really the 'new, old' trend coming back again. Restoration Is key to ensuring we maintain the Identity built from the past and provide the context we build within. This has been happening forever In the country and is given new momentum by the importance of understanding our sustainability responsibility.

I have grown up around both the best modern architecture as found in Hong Kong, but also some of the best Classical buildings. Through university you were not able to do classical architecture and so when I was able to do it in practice I just loved it.

Classical architecture reflected the perfection that we can strive for in detail, symmetry and composition, and the change to work with rules, to break them! Much more fun than the dogmatic modernism that is so ubiquitous. I see working in classical architecture as a type of trend setting, it Is working against the grain to do something different.

Do you think architecture is eternal? Could you please give me your opinions of the non-eternity and change feature on architecture? 

Robbie: Nothing ever lasts forever, not even buildings, but the style of buildings can as they evolve and develop to changing needs. Egos rarely last but those who can build beautifully and sensitively will find their dreams live on. The more a building can become dated to a particular era the less the flexibility it will have. If there is no flexibility a building will fail.

Your projects include community, park, private residence, apartment building and even farm house. Could you please introduce your work and strength in details? What did you do to those architecture?

Robbie: My work is, as I have said earlier incredibly varied. I work in all these areas, and I find it possible to take lessons from each into the other. I have included a range of projects in the images that I hope give an idea of the work. Our work demonstrates the literate use of classical detailing. It is like a language, a language is made up of words, composed of letters. If you get a letter wrong, you still recognize the word but you know it is wrong, classical architecture is very similar, the detail has to be right for it to have the correct effect. Then when you know how to use these details you can compose, you can create, you can be inventive.

In our work this happens all the time and, in this way, we can then infuse the important differences that we find around the world. In restoration projects the nuances of understanding what needs to be done comes down to two principle areas, one understands how the building can be creatively reused/adapted, and second understand the details behind how it was built so that you can correctly diagnose the issue and find an appropriate solution for the repair.

About Nansledan project in the UK, what did you do? Could you briefly introduce this project to us? Why it is special?

Robbie: This is a project on the land owned by the Prince of Wales. It’s a scheme in the south of England in an area that sees large seasonal population changes especially as a result of tourism.  Our work started more than 15 years ago and has now developed into a scheme of 4000 homes with at least the same number of jobs provided as homes, a new high Street, bridges, schools and all the infrastructure to make a highly sustainable, walkable community.  At the heart of all the decisions is an active interest in local identity, local economy and local materials as well as focusing on several areas that impact sustainability of this new town extension.  The work builds on a legacy of developing projects for the Prince of Wales over 30 years and recently has won a number of national awards demonstrating how it forms as an exemplar in Urban Development.

What kind of challenges you often encounter in the classical and traditional restoration project? As the world leading practice specialising in classical and traditional architecture and contextual urban design, what’s difference regarding the problems or challenges you are facing compared with other firm?

Robbie: The challenge with classical architecture in the UK is its a perception amongst the wider profession who have been educated in the last 70 years against this approach and design. More broadly there's a challenge, while many people want a classical building few really understand the language, the rules, the details that make a classical building so convincing and interesting. We face many poor examples of modern classical architecture which give this design approach a bad name.

More globally the issue is trying to explain the relevance of classical and contextual design and thank you for your part in helping the shift this perception. Other modern design forms have a challenge as to how they can demonstrate sustainability credentials where fundamentally steel, glass and concrete are our most un-environmentally friendly building materials and the design of many modernist buildings are not designed to last and endure. Locally appropriate architecture, built to adapt to climate, and build in a solid manner will last for years. We must consider the part that construction has on our long-term impact on the planet and we must build in a way that will last and be flexible.

How can we understand ‘flexibility’ you said?

Robbie: What I mean is that Classical architecture has the ability to adapt to different cultures, environments, client requirements. It has a set of underlying rules but this sets a series of guidelines and when Classical architecture is handled competently and confidently it has the ability to make the most of this to be flexible to requirements.

Most of your projects are all western architecture. Are you confident in winning projects in china and why? What’s your target market? What’s the difference between western classical traditional architecture restoration and Chinese classical traditional architecture?

Robbie: Following my research and experience, classical architecture has been adapted to reflect local, cultural identity around the word from Peru to Cuba to China. There are some exceptional examples of classical architecture found in China. Classical Architecture has the ability to be flexible, it’s a set of rules that can be adapted to meet individual situations.  The other area of our work contextual design demonstrates our ability to understand the DNA of what makes each place different and special, we have the ability design in a versatile and broad manner. All these strands combine to give me confidence that we can remain relevant and appropriate for projects in China.

We recognise that this type of architecture may not be appropriate for every individual. Many of our designs may be seen as demonstration of luxury and high-quality design and therefore this may appeal to certain luxury developments. A key focus of our approach into China is stemmed in many of the cities along the eastern side of China which have examples of the great fusion of chines and classical architecture.  We have already been asked to look at master planning in New Town near Hangzhou for a high-end luxury house in Shenzhen and a number of projects in Hong Kong.

American architect Peter Eisenman said, after step into the information society, an architecture doesn’t need to look like an architecture. (Eisenman has developed an architectural theory that divorces the building and its conceptualization from traditional culture and pragmatic concerns.) What do you think about it? According to your observation, has the development of Internet exerted a huge influence on architecture design and restoration? What kind of effects on it?

Robbie: Eisenmann and many architects that followed the modernist ideal have created some interesting buildings but often ignore or divorce their buildings from the practicalities of those who are using them, willfully disengaging from the responsibility of how buildings contribute to their wider setting and the value they have in shaping their communities identity. The development of the internet has certainly brought the world closer, has opened people’s eyes to the possibilities, has allowed people to virtually travel places where there may not have been able and as such I see it as having two effects. One, is to increase eclecticism and two, it has forced a greater appreciation of what people actually have on their doorstep as they are able to contrast it easily in this globalized world we live in. As such we see a stronger routeway from anywhere we see globalize architecture to architecture, we see somewhere as a place people can identify as their home and indeed therefore we are seeing a rise in the popularity of contextual design.

Have you read any interesting book recently? Do you have any new puzzle?

Robbie: Sir Edwin Lutyens, his life, his wife, his work by Jane Ridley. Sir Edwin Lutyens demonstrated extraordinary creativity at the beginning of the 20th century working in the context of changing technologies as well as working in New Delhi to help shape a new capital. There is so much in his work over a hundred years ago that remains relevant and interesting today.

About China Business Network

第一财经(China Business Network)是中国大陆一家拥有报纸、杂志、电视等全媒体业务的财经传媒集团,在中国大陆有广泛的影响力。旗下有:第一财经电视、第一财经日报、第一财经广播、第一财经周刊、第一财经网站、第一财经研究院等。创立于2003年7月。

China Business Network, founded in July 2003, has become China’s largest financial media conglomerate, with the widest variety of media divisions, including television, newspaper, magazine, website, mobile APP, and a cluster of professional service institutes, including Yicai Data, Yicai News Agency, Yicai Research Institute and Yicai Global. The target readers are mainly business leaders, professions and investors.