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Roman Briton

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'Bob the Roman': Heroic Antiquity & the Architecture of Robert Adam At Sir John Soane's Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2, until 27 September

Like AWN Pugin in the early Victorian period and Foster and Rogers in the last decades of the 20th century, Robert Adam (1728-92) changed the face of British architecture. It was no accident that John Soane, probably the greatest of all our Classical architects, snapped up 57 volumes - a staggering 8,785 sheets - of drawings by Robert and his brother (and collaborator) James in 1833, when their descendants decided to sell. It was an extraordinary act of homage on the part of Soane to a 'modern' architect, and the Adam archive remains one of the Soane Museum's most significant possessions.

For many, 'Adam' is synonymous with a decorative style, light, vivacious and based on an imaginative reinterpretation of antique models, seen to fine effect in great houses like Harewood, Kedleston and London's Kenwood. It is a manner that has inspired countless bad imitations across the globe, and its perennial popularity may help to explain the fact that Adam, unlike Soane and Hawksmoor, is widely seen as a mere decorator rather than a creator of sublime mass and space.

It doesn't help that so many of Adam's grandest projects remained unbuilt, while much of his work in London, including the sublime Adelphi, challenging his rival William Chambers' Somerset House for dominance on the banks of the Thames, has been destroyed. Yet Adam was (as Soane recognised) a Classical architect, in the fullest sense of the word, of real genius.

This exhibition, curated by the leading authority on Adam, Alastair Rowan, focuses on his quest for the restoration of 'the true, the simple and the grand', as the defining qualities of a Classicism rooted in the spirit of ancient Rome.

Anyone with an eye for architecture visiting Rome for the first time is certain to be struck by the sheer scale of the Colosseum, the Pantheon and other more fragmentary remains. For Adam, arriving there in 1755 from a Scotland where there was not yet a Classical building of significance, the city was awe-inspiring - 'the most glorious place in the universal world'. He had come to Rome to learn, to draw, to record and to collect - the fruits of his Roman sojourn fuelled his architecture for the next three decades.

Inspired by GB Piranesi, who became a close friend, he became involved in pioneering archaeological investigations and carried out a meticulous survey of the remains of Diocletian's Palace in the Croatian city of Split (Spoleto).

Back in London, where the Adam brothers set up their office, the inspiration of antiquity was brought to bear on the static world of English Palladianism.Adam's use of the rotunda, the top-lit space and the giant order all originated in his Roman studies.

The extraordinary drawing for a palace, executed in Rome in 1757, and some 2.7m long, looks forward to the romantic Classicism of a later era (see the detail above).

Unfortunately for Adam, the British Crown, especially in the years after the American Revolution, had neither the means nor the inclination to build on this scale.

Perhaps it is Adam's more informal sketches, the work of minutes rather than days, that express the spirit of the man most vividly. They will communicate instantly to any architect, even one for whom the Classical language is a mystery.

Thanks to curator Margaret Richardson, the Soane is a place where you can find Alsop and Libeskind alongside the masters of the past. But 'Bob the Roman' was as radical as any of them.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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