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Colin Rowe (1920-1999)

An intellectual who wrote like an angel and dreamt of Renaissance Italy


Source: Lea Heinrich

Rowe was a kingpin in sleepy Ithaca, NY (as Peter Cook has put it, a rather sinister version of Surrey) on and off from 1957. He secured Cornell via Liverpool, Yale, three years in Austin and dipping in and out of Cambridge (which he found bland, and England claustrophobic). It was the American landscape and its luminaries that thrilled. Initially supported by Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Rowe brought a certain intellectual élan to the preaching of something more than FLW to modern Americans, and when he got bored of Cornelliana, he dreamt of retirement in Renaissance Italy.

The AR had first published his seminal ‘Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’ in 1947 when he was only 27. Rudolf Wittkower had set the grounds for the experiment, where Rowe compared 20th-century Le Corbusier to 17th-century Palladio to remarkable effect. Rowe could write like an angel, his eulogies and recollections especially betray faultless style and great tenderness. The academic pieces remain more controversial, for Rowe’s love of stories could include, in the case of Roma Interrotta (1978), total fabrication. Prodigiously equipped for presumption and conjecture, and awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in 1995, writer Jeremy Melvin still considers Rowe a dilettante.

It was perhaps while clambering around outside La Tourette in 1959, his mind lingering on other things (specifically ‘Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal’, his collaboration with painter Robert Slutzky), that Rowe first erred with an essay (again for the AR) that reiterated those interests, but barely mirrored Le Corbusier’s intentions at all.

Despite his original enthusiasm, it’s clear he found positivist early moderns a bit simple-minded. Since Americans didn’t acknowledge the political context of Modernism in the first place, and given the aristocratic realities of the original clients (the Parisian Americans; Cook, Stein, Church et al) the way was clear. Technical and political failings were irrelevant. Instead Rowe cultivated his eye and unique talent for abstract comparison. There is much to be said for this, but rejecting any utopian aspiration meant convincing us of Corbu the great architect but preposterous urbanist; so conniving him back in to the salon that he’d so despised.

‘Read too much Rowe in one session and you do start talking funny: Richard Burton playing Kenneth Williams or vice versa’

And despite Rowe’s innate distrust of anything avant-garde or self-consciously intellectual, on returning to Cornell out popped the conspicuously intellectual and spuriously avant-garde New York Five. This may have been because of Rowe’s enthusiasm for labels and categories as much as rotational spins, gyroscopic shifts and curious transparencies (indeed, writer Jonathan Meades declares him ‘jargon crippled’). Certainly his work spawned semiotic contortions that even Rowe didn’t approve of. In 1963 he realised that most of his students (even at Cornell) were dim to it, and swept them in to urban design.

Rowe’s urban design courses ran from 1963 till his retirement in 1990, and fostered the second milestone publication, Collage City (with Fred Koetter) (1979). Here the modern architect was presented as something of a fanatic, and the future was downgraded to science fiction. We would instead perpetuate what in effect we already had, and in so doing Rowe managed to meld architectural history to the studio.

These days people who use the word luncheon and prefer their ‘society’ (presupposing its existence) ‘high’, are considered anachronistic, but Rowe was clearly playful, curious and mischievous with it; enjoying a peculiar lineage for Alan Colquhoun less from Esher than the shores of Araby, and blaming the end of domestic culture on the advent of the coffee table.

Read too much Rowe in one session and you do start talking funny: Richard Burton playing Kenneth Williams or vice versa. Famous for enjoying himself a little too much, and prone to lecture on appearances looking ‘like an unmade bed’, there was the perpetual spectre of the booze, and an ongoing romance with Italy; both contagious. But holding on tight to the lectern, those rheumy eyes betrayed the pain of having to deal with such a turgid and wearisome world; and man’s almost unbearable loneliness within it.


Colin Rowe

Key works
Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal (1971)
The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (1976)
Collage City, with Fred Koetter (1978)

RIBA Gold Medal (1995)

Andrew Dickson White Professor of Architecture at Cornell University (1962-90)

‘The ideal city? Out the front door, London; out the back door, Los Angeles’

His personal life is invisible, and to my knowledge Rowe didn’t write about his early background either; somewhere near Rotherham, and only of his mature years negotiating academia, steamships, night trains, and open-topped cars on the way to Lockhart, Llano or Lampasas. Rowe certainly needed entertainment, enjoying waggish Gilbert and Sullivan style ditties in the combat of priggish academic authority; for believing that architecture was overwhelmingly determined by myth was provocative.

Here, if you harbour some inner Maoist, they will surely show themselves (as they did in Berlin in 1967). Read Ungers (in Reckoning with Colin Rowe, 2015), and his revulsion, despite the fact they should have been friends, is tangible; for just as it is possible for architects to be too clever, it’s also possible for historians to be too erudite. Even James Stevens Curl, who you would hardly call radical, decided that Rowe was a reflection of a world where ‘conviction and belief were no longer possible’, so seeded something quite unpleasant, and far more political than it looked or sounded at the time.

Through the 1980s, with Alvin Boyarsky installed at the AA, John Hejduk at the Cooper Union, the Kriers vociferous and Stirling resurgent, Rowe reached the summit of his own grey eminence; a Whig more interested in social hierarchy than socialist politics, and his peevishness directed towards the formal nuances of classicism and against stricture, his was an arcane business, alternately tedious and hilarious, a parlour game of definitions and skirting around (is Gropius a hedgehog or a fox?) and perversely ecclesiastical. He enjoyed a gang of British acolytes, including Alan Colquhoun, John Miller, Patrick Hodgkinson, Robert Maxwell and James Madge, as well as his American wing men. The drunken bit meant everybody had fun but there was regret later, and the writing of letters. Rowe was sensitive to all machinations.

Famously James Stirling performed as Rowe’s draughtsman, and not only when he reinvented himself, but at Liverpool after they first met in the Parachute Regiment. Rowe was manqué in that his wartime back injury precluded bending over a drawing board. Illustrating the fact that those surviving the Second World War were hardly content to be noble savages, we should visualise them, after a breakfast tipple of calvados, going shopping for antiques; a vision of congenial connoisseurship.

Their relationship is well known, a Postmodernism with Rowe the father and Stirling the son. But to triangulate with Leon Krier is more teasing (whose own utopia was forgiven), for the Krier brothers’ energetic campaigning for urbanism resulted in perhaps the only concrete realisation of the Rowe sensibility (disregarding rumours of a Rowe building somewhere): Paternoster Square. Only achieved with Royal patronage, this ersatz concoction proved nostalgic contextualism dreamy, since in reality the late 20th-century Western metropolis was dancing solely to the music of the cash tills.

So in some ways we are well rid of all that, since our ability to posture at all has been severely compromised. Now I listen to and read Rowe with both admiration and the desire to wring his neck. Rather like watching with mother, he looks fiendishly funny now on YouTube; an impressionist, an affectation, so obviously pleased with himself when he could work his magic, and so obviously hurt (and instantly bored) when he could not.


Illustration by Lea Heinrich

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