By HERBERT MUSCHAMP
Published: November 8, 1999
Colin Rowe, a historian and teacher whose ideas helped to shape the thinking of some of today’s most prominent American architects, died on Friday in Arlington, Va. He was 79.
The cause was respiratory failure after a stroke suffered in May, said Judy DiMaio, a friend.
Mr. Rowe, a native of Britain, was the Andrew Dickson White Professor of Architecture at Cornell University, where he taught from 1962 until his retirement in 1990. His students included many architects who became leaders in the profession.
Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic at The Wall Street Journal and formerly an architecture critic at The New York Times, once wrote that Mr. Rowe and Vincent Scully were the most influential historians of their time. Where Mr. Scully exhorted his troops from the lecture platform at Yale, Mr. Rowe was likely to hold forth in his living room in Ithaca, N.Y., a book-lined retreat furnished with 18th-century mechanical chairs.
Mr. Rowe’s literary output was not prodigious. His books include ”The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays” (1976), ”Collage City,” written with Fred Koetter (1978), and ”The Architecture of Good Intentions” (1994). In 1996 Mr. Rowe published a three-volume collection of essays and memoirs titled ”As I Was Saying.” At the time of his death, he was working on a book about Italian Renaissance architecture, his favorite period.
But his real legacy is to be found in the minds of students and colleagues who became distinguished teachers in their own right at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and other elite schools of architecture. Mr. Rowe’s impact can also be seen in some of the late century’s most impressive buildings, including the Getty Center in Los Angeles, designed by Richard Meier, and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, designed by Peter Eisenman.
Mr. Rowe’s significance largely revolved around the issue of formalism. Should visual and spatial forms be seen as architecture’s irreducible essence, or does form represent only one layer in a set of values that includes psychological meaning, social intention, political ideology and other human factors at work in the urban whole?
In the 1950’s and 60’s Mr. Rowe strongly favored a formalist approach to architectural analysis. This was highly compelling to young architects who hoped to retrieve something of value from the declining modern movement. By then modernism had become the preferred style of corporate America. The modern aesthetic had been further debased by dimly executed glass skyscrapers and other poor imitations of modern prototypes.
At this critical moment Mr. Rowe promoted the idea that architecture could renew itself by embracing the idea of form for form’s sake. The forms of modern architecture could be safely detached from the movement’s utopian aspirations and the historical conditions from which modernism arose. But some adherents to this philosophy believed that even social change could be advanced by the manipulation of formal properties.
In an important paper published in 1947, Mr. Rowe compared Palladio’s 16th-century Villa Malcontenta to Le Corbusier’s Villa de Monzie, a key work of modern design in Garches, a Paris suburb. His analysis of resemblances between the buildings challenged the view that modern architecture represented a fundamental break with history. Though not an advocate of modernism, Mr. Rowe nurtured the ambitions of young Americans to recapture the verve of the European avant-garde in the early decades of the century.
By the late 1960’s the emerging generation of American architects began to split into two factions. One group, influenced by Mr. Rowe, was later called the Whites because of their preoccupation with formal purity and the absence of color in their designs. It included Mr. Meier, Mr. Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and John Hejduk. Members of the second group, who styled themselves the Grays, were aligned with the populist ideas of Mr. Scully and Robert Venturi. They included Charles Moore and Robert A. M. Stern.
In the 1970’s, Mr. Rowe turned toward a more contextual approach to design. The current emphasis on context in architecture can be traced to his discussion of the term in ”Collage City.” His efforts to reconcile the traditional urban center to the sprawling suburban landscape were fundamental to the New Urbanism school of compact suburban development. The new direction in Mr. Rowe’s thinking led him into conflict with many of the architects he had earlier mentored.
Colin Frederick Rowe was born in Rotherham, Yorkshire, England, on March 27, 1920. After studying at the Liverpool School of Architecture he entered the British Infantry in 1942. After the war he taught at Liverpool, where one of his students was James Stirling, later Sir James. In 1945-46 Mr. Rowe studied at the Warburg Institute in London under Rudolf Wittkower. In 1952 Mr. Rowe visited the United States and briefly taught at Yale before an invitation arrived to teach at the University of Texas in Austin.
There the Englishman became part of rambunctious group of young academics who called themselves the Texas Rangers. The group’s members raised the ire of traditionalists on the faculty and were eventually fired en masse. Mr. Rowe went back to England and taught at Cambridge University, but by 1962 he had returned to the United States and begun his 28-year tenure at Cornell.
Mr. Rowe, who became an American citizen in 1984, moved to Washington in 1994. In 1995 he was awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the professional group’s highest honor.
He is survived by a brother, David, of Oxford, England.