Following is an excerpt from an interview by Dhiru Thadani of CNU 20 Athena Medalists Steven Peterson and Barbara Littenberg in which both reflect on their education at Cornell with Colin Rowe.
DT: Talk about your education at Cornell. You both went to school there.
SP: We went to undergraduate school there at different times, me at the beginning of Colin Rowe tenure and Barbara towards the culmination of his influence. I went back to the urban design program in 1969.
BL: The constant in the design curriculum for all these years in the 60’s and 70’s was the site, the urban conditions of the site. Buildings had to adjust to circumstances and contextual conditions even when modernism prevailed and Corbu reigned. There were no Palladian ideal sites given at Cornell, only messy, complex, encumbered ones.
SP: When Colin Rowe first arrived in ‘62 the rest of the faculty wouldn’t let him teach the undergraduates. He claims they told him to go into the basement studio and teach urban design graduate students. So that is how the Cornell Urban Design Studio was started.
Colin’s program in the beginning, essentially explored how existing cities could continue to be made but with modern ingredients — slabs and towers. Eventually, during our final work on Roma Interrotta this evolved into the design of traditional urban cities — of streets and blocks using broader architectural means and styles.
Although Colin claimed to hate post-modernism it opened up the world to a rediscovery of cities in a different way for everyone. Colin was always dubious about modernism, as he was of all dogmas. So, the city served as a constant context in the analysis of changing architectures.
The key to Colin’s thought and the Cornell method, was the belief in the influence of context, the transferability of historic precedent to contemporary situations and the universality of formal partis as the organizing core to all architecture no matter what time, place or style. That sounds so simple but I think it is about right.