January 25, 2023

AASL January Column

AASL Column

AASL January Column

Lucy Campbell and Barbara Opar, Column Editors
Column by Daniel Naegele
Daniel Naegele is an architect and Associate Professor Emeritus at Iowa State University. His essays and articles have appeared in AA Files, Harvard Design Magazine, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, and other publications. He is the editor of The Letters of Colin Rowe and the author of Naegele’s Guide to the Only Good Architecture in Iowa and Who Shot Le Corbusier?

The Stuff Out of Which History Is Made

I Almost Forgot: Unpublished Colin Rowe
Late in his life, he was fond of writing a theoretically rich “disjointed memoir.” With such writing, he admitted, “There is no critical distance … but, you know, that if you pursue that line (so much anathema to ‘historians’) sometimes you can arrive at all kinds of nice aperçus.”  These memoirs are not history as historians might have it, but Colin Rowe believed that “memoirs, diaries, autobiographies, biographies, and the like,” were the “stuff out of which history is made.”  Reading such essays, one senses Rowe wrote them in part to arrive at the nice overview, and that by writing his memories he discovered aperçus of great significance. and the same could be said of his everyday letters; of his many routinely delivered lectures; and of the touching, personal, profound eulogies he gave in his last decade. In these writings, “the stuff out of which history is made,” we find another Colin Rowe.

When he published his first books, Colin Rowe was already in his late fifties. The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (1976) is a select, vulpine, wryly edited collection of nine essays written over a fifteen year period from 1946-1961. Collage City (1978) co-authored with Fred Koetter, is a theoretical prescription ostensibly directed at then-contemporary urban ills. Steeped in arcane knowledge and dialectical reasoning, and written in an erudite, ironic voice, it’s often considered Rowe’s magnum opus. Mathematics was what Rowe—at the time, a well-known personality, a revered professor, a historian of architectural theory, a champion of urban design—had been. By contrast, Collage City was what Rowe would become. This bringing together of past and present was a persistent motif with Rowe, one paralleled in both books whenever Neoclassical and Modern architecture confront one another. Both books are history, but they are theory as well. They give depth to an understanding of current conditions and refuse to see the contemporary as all there is. Rowe positions the twentieth century as part of a larger, on-going whole in which the past is part of the present. Through contrast, comparison, and dialectic reasoning, the ideas and realities of architecture are enriched. For the next twenty years, the two books together defined Colin Rowe.

In the 1990s, Rowe began publishing again.  The Architecture of Good Intentions, a book he had hoped to publish in 1975, came out in 1994 (“the hold up, you know,” he wrote to Robert Slutzky in 1973, “has been the inhibition about doing a demo-job on modern architecture; but, by now, the poor thing has been so demolished that a further attrition may be the only hope for salvation”).  By that time, he had retired from thirty years of teaching at Cornell and moved to London where his brother purchased him an apartment. His dear and close friends—James Stirling, Alvin Boyarsky, Sam Stevens—had died, and his beloved sister-in-law, Dorothy Rowe, suffered from a cancer that would prove fatal. His own mortality would have been on his mind when, with the help of Alex Caragonne, he again collected together his lesser-known writings for publication, selecting and editing essays and reviews written over the last thirty years.  In 1996, after moving back to the USA and being awarded the prestigious RIBA Royal Gold Medal, he published these in a three-volume set.  The publication included several eulogies and brief biographic sketches of key figures in his life—eulogies for Stirling and Boyarsky, biographies of Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Mrs. Harwell Hamilton Harris—all written as memoirs, first-person portraits into which the painter painted himself.  He titled the set As I Was Saying.

Rowe continued to tell us about himself in the final years of his life in candid lectures, letters, postcards, and eulogies. Excursus on Contessa Priuli-Bon is his best memoir essay.  Unpublished at the time of his death in late-1999, it tells of his life in London fifty years earlier, of his bad relationship with Rudolf Wittkower, and of his good relationship with the unknown art historian, Contessa Priuli-Bon. Excursus and twenty-two other writings can be found in I Almost Forgot: Unpublished Colin Rowe. An intimate autobiographical sketch, this book begins to answer the question, Who was Colin Rowe before Mathematics and Collage City?