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Colin Rowe (27 March 1920 – 5 November 1999), was a British-born, American-naturalised architectural historian, critic, theoretician, and teacher; acknowledged as a major intellectual influence on world architecture and urbanism in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond, particularly in the fields of city planning, regeneration, and urban design.
Rowe was born in Rotherham, England in 1920.
His 1945 MA thesis for Rudolf Wittkower at the Warburg Institute, London, was a theoretical speculation that Inigo Jones may have intended to publish a theoretical treatise on architecture, analogous to Palladio's Four Books. Although this idea was not supported by any hard evidence and could not ever be proven, encouraged by Wittkower it established Rowe's way of speculating and imagining what might have happened: an approach to the history of architecture that was largely imaginary and factually questionable, but which he gradually built into a vastly erudite, coherently argued way of thinking and seeing that exasperated conventional historians, but became the inspiration for a generation of practising architects to consider history imaginatively, as an active component in their design process.
Rowe's completely original modus operandi was based on making comparisons between cultural events that conventional history kept widely separated and categorised, but which he unearthed from his vast personal erudition (in constant development) and placed together for comparison. His completely unorthodox, simultaneous, non-linear, non-chronological view of history then made it possible for him to develop theoretical speculations such as his famous essay “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa” (1947) in which he theorised that there were compositional “rules” in Palladio’s villas that could be demonstrated to correspond to similar “rules” in Le Corbusier’s villas at Poissy and Garches. Although like his MA thesis, this proposal was impossible to support with any evidence, as a speculation it enabled Rowe to elaborate an astonishingly fresh and provocative trans-historical critique of both Palladio and Le Corbusier, in which the architecture of both was assessed not in chronological time, but side by side in the present moment.
This was a revolution that suddenly re-situated modern architecture within history and acknowledged history as an active influence. Many years later when Rowe's influence had spread worldwide, this approach had become a key element in the process of architectural and urban design: if "the presence of the past" was evident in the work of many architects in the late 20th. century, from James Stirling to Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi, Oswald Matthias Ungers, Peter Eisenman, and others, this was largely due to the influence of Rowe.
Between 1950-52, as a tutor at the Liverpool School of Architecture, he inculcated these revolutionary views into the malleable 24-year-old student James Stirling, only six years his junior. In Rowe’s view, by that time modernism in architecture was already finished; what was intended to be a revolution had failed, but in Stirling he had found the means to create a new type of “modernist neo-classicist” architect; the two became lifelong friends, and all of Stirling's work in architectural practice was deeply indebted to Rowe's more or less continuous critical input. It has often been said that Stirling was "Rowe's draughtsman".
Between the 1950s and his death, Rowe published a number of widely influential papers that influenced architecture by further developing the theory that there is a conceptual relationship between modernity and tradition, specifically Classicism in its various manifestations, and Modern Movement "white architecture" of the 1920s - a viewpoint first put forward by Emil Kaufmann in his classic book "Von Ledoux bis Le Courbusier" (1933). Although he remained an admirer of the achievements of the 1920s modernists, chiefly in the work of Le Corbusier, Rowe also subjected the modern movement, which he considered a failure, to subversive modes of criticism and interpretation.
Rowe was among the first to openly denounce the failures of modernist urban planning and its destructive effects on the historic city; many of his most important books and essays are in fact more concerned with urban form than with architectural language. This early work, led to the contextualism school of thought which was likewise critical of modern urban design and architectural theory of design wherein modern building types are harmonized with urban forms usual to a traditional city.
In the course of a brilliant and very influential academic career, notably at Cornell University in the 1970s, he focussed on developing an alternative method of urban design derived in part from the earlier work of Camillo Sitte but largely original, and based on the making of cities through a process of collaged, superimposed pieces; the ideal model for this pragmatic, anti-doctrinaire approach was the ruined villa of the Roman Emperor Hadrian at Tivoli, outside Rome. 1n 1981 he started the Cornell Journal of Architecture and contributed to issue 1 with "The Present Urban Predicament" and to issue 2 with "Program vs. Paradigm."
His chief significance was as a teacher and writer on these subjects, which greatly influenced architectural thinking. His book Collage City (with Fred Koetter) is his theoretical treatise that sets out various analyses of urban form in a number of existing cities known to be aesthetically successful, examining their actually existing urban structure as found, revealing it to be the end product of a ceaseless process of fragmentation, the collision/superimposition/contamination of many diverse ideas imposed on it by successive generations, each with its own idea. In architecture his thinking paralleled his ideas about the city: he was nostalgic for nineteenth-century eclecticism, advocating that architecture in the modern age should abandon its purist abstraction and allow itself to be influenced by influxes of historical references.
Philosophically, Rowe's conviction that pragmatic, discrete, and episodic ideas are more meaningful and useful than totalising, overarching, all-inclusive concepts led him towards the political right, and to such philosophers as Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper; but paradoxically this also situated his thinking in the same general zone as left-leaning philosophers like Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo. As he continued to publish ground-breaking, intellectually rich, unconventional essays on the history and theory of architecture, and became a permanent resident of the United States (becoming a US citizen towards the end of his life) he went on to influence many other architects, students, and architectural educators during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (in 1966 he served as a fellow at the Graham Foundation in Chicago) at a time when there was a move towards Postmodern architecture with which he may be partly associated - though only to a very limited extent, and only in a philosophical sense, since his intellectual range, and his all-inclusive interest in every movement and style of architecture, placed him far outside any particular stylistic category.
Rowe died 5 November 1999 in Arlington County, Virginia.
A memorial program was held in Rowe's honor on 6 February 2000 at The Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, DC