Sketchbook: For your eyes only

From the diamond-satellite of the evil Blofeld to the Atlantis HQ of super-villain Stromberg, one man's vision created the look of the great Bond films, plus countless other classics. Jane Withers enters the alternative universe of set designer Ken Adam
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There were many special ingredients that made the early Bond films fly. The Teflon-coated hero and the sparkling Bond girls, the improbable stories of tussles for global domination. But what also deserves star billing are the sets of Ken Adam with their mix of pumped- up modernism and souped-up futurism. In a career spanning more than half a century, Adam has worked on some 70 films, from Bond to The Madness of King George, for which he won an Oscar. He is now working on the Millennium Exhibition opening in Berlin next summer.

Adam's sketches look as though they have been conceived in a rush of energy, contrasting great whooshes of light and dark. They perhaps also reveal Expressionist influences dating back to his German-Jewish childhood. Adam was born Klaus Adam in Berlin in 1921, growing up during the rise of Nazism. In 1934, when he was 14, his family fled to Britain, settling first in Edinburgh but later moving to London. Adam studied architecture, and at the outbreak of war joined the Pioneer Corps, later transferring to the RAF. With peace came his chance to move in to the film industry, where he was initially employed as a draughtsman. He worked on numerous films during the Fifties, including Around the World in 80 Days, on which he was the art director. But his big break came with the unexpected success of the first Bond film, Dr No, in 1962. "Bond gave me a chance to express the neurotic electronic world we are living in which, up to then, I hadn't seen in the cinema, unless you go back to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. After Around the World my feeling was we had to go bigger and bigger. Everything I did was always tongue in cheek," says Adam.

For Bond, he shaped an almost surreal world, where the subterranean villains' lairs are the stars of the show and the madder, the more fantastic, the more ludicrous the better. His sets often work by setting together opposing worlds, merging echoes of architects like Oscar Niemeyer with baronial interiors or fantasy playboy pads. Welcome to strange world of Ken Adam.

`Moonraker, Strangelove and Other Celluloid Dreams: the visionary art of Ken Adam' runs 17 November to 9 January 2000 at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (0171-298 1515).

`Dr Strangelove' (1964) The War Room

Occasionally sets leave such an imprint on the popular imagination that people are convinced they must be real. "There's a rumour going round," chuckles Adam, "and I think it's true, that when Reagan became President he asked to see the War Room. Coming from an actor that's amazing." The massive triangular bunker-like War Room with its wall of screens showing the positioning of the Strategic Air Command's aeroplanes, and their intended targets, and the huge circular conference table illuminated by a sinister halo of light, is one of Adam's most striking sets. It conflates mad genius, megalomaniacal power and buffoonery in a chilling setting that manages to capture the nuclear terror of the Cold War era. "Stanley [Kubrick] and I were both quite young," says Adam. "I was about 40 and he must have been 34, the chemistry really worked. While we were discussing the War Room I did some sketches based on a two-level structure. Every day I drove Stanley out to the studio and back in my E-type Jaguar and one day he said, `What am I going to do with the second level?' I was destroyed. Eventually I came up with a single-floored triangular shape. Then he said, `How are you going to treat the interior?' I said, `With reinforced concrete.' `Oh, like a gigantic bomb shelter,' he said. `Exactly.' And that was it."

`Diamonds Are Forever' (1971) Blofeld's satellite

This is the film where arch villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld plots nuclear blackmail from his Las Vegas HQ. As the world spins towards potential apocalypse, Blofeld's obsessions with gems and space combine in the form of a fantastical satellite which seems to change from hi-tech weapon to a megawatt bauble. Adam's task was to reinvent with a bit more sparkle the staid reality of satellite science. "We knew what satellites look like and they are really very uninteresting things. I made it more like a sculpture with solar panels and the diamond disc. Of course we had to have a diamond satellite."

`You Only Live Twice' (1967) Interior

of volcano

When it came to location-hunting in Japan for an HQ for Blofeld, initially Adam drew a blank. "I don't think Fleming had been to Japan. He set it in a Japanese castle, but they are not that interesting. Four or five of us covered literally two-thirds of Japan in two helicopters, until, just by chance, we came across this incredible volcanic area. That triggered off the idea, wouldn't it be fun to have the villain's headquarters in a volcano? I came up with a quick scribble and Cubby Broccoli [the producer] asked how much it would cost. I hadn't any idea and said $1m and he agreed. About three months later the 110ft-high volcano was built at Shepperton under an artificial green lake 70ft in diameter.

`Moonraker' (1979)

Pyramid rocket launch pad and control room

The last of the Bond films on which Adam worked, Moonraker has one of the most formulaic plots but also some of the most dramatic locations and sets. There is the chateau in California supposedly taken there stone by stone from France and now home to the piano-playing, Wilde-quoting, game-shooting super-villain Hugo Drax. There is the boffin's lab concealed within a Venetian palazzo. But best of all there is Drax's jungle lair. Set in a South American ruin, the Great Chamber looks like a cross between Frank Lloyd Wright in his Mayan era and the sort of crocodile pits with trailing creepers that Lara Croft has to contend with in Tomb Raider. Entered through doors concealed in the rock is the Pyramid control room, a soaring, cathedral- sized nerve centre where Drax can track his Moonraker rockets on screens arranged like a demented Mondrian painting.

`The Spy Who Loved Me' (1977) Atlantis

Super-villain Karl Stromberg plans to hijack Nato nuclear submarines and control the world from Atlantis, his Mediterranean HQ off Sardinia which is disguised as a marine research centre. During his research, Adam visited an aquarium in Okinawa, Japan, hoping to use it as the set for Atlantis but, as often happened, reality fell short of Adam's fantasy. The only footage used from Okinawa was for the aquariums that are seen through the portals in Stromberg's apartment. "The aquarium looked really very ugly, just like an oil rig and I didn't know what I could do with it. In the end I threw everything away and came up with my own structure." Adam's version of the mythic underwater city looks like a giant futuristic creature rising from the sea on spider legs.

Liparus control room

Stromberg's supertanker, Liparus, looks like a regular ship from the outside but inside it is fitted with all the apparatus for global domination. The main interior is a giant docking bay where the sub carrying Bond cruises into the jaws of the enemy and finds Stromberg planning to launch his "instrument of Armageddon". Above this is the Liparus control room, a vast, curving silver interior. The louvred wall looking down into the tanker interior opens and closes electronically to seal off the operations room. In the centre, beneath a circular skylight, is the silver and gold globe where Stromberg charts the progress of illuminated submarines which he plans to reprogramme so that they will destroy each other.

Liparus control room and monorail

When the going gets tough, Stromberg gets going, snatching the Bond babe into his monorail to shoot along a corridor and finally escape on a speedboat. Plot-wise there are some big yawns as Bond struggles to take control of the supertanker and save the Western world as we know it, but the sets save the day. The monorail track looks a bit like the ramps in the London Zoo Penguin Pool by Lubetkin and Tecton.

The new James Bond film, `The World is not Enough', opens in the UK on 26 November

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