The Letters of Colin Rowe: Five Decades of Correspondence is an extraordinary book, one of gravitas and density, a compelling record of a life devotedly spent in pursuit of the idea of architecture. There is much to praise and little to criticize. In fact, in the preface, editor Daniel Naegele preempts criticism of the book's most obvious shortcoming, admitting that it includes few letters, or none at all, to Rowe's most important colleagues—James Stirling, Alvin Boyarsky, Colin St John Wilson, Robert Maxwell, Fred Koetter, John Hejduk, and Alan Colquhoun, among others. There is, by way of compensation, a rich body of letters to Henry-Russell Hitchcock. That so many letters are absent underscores just how prolific Colin Rowe was, for this volume is 560 pages. Its five-pound weight makes it feel like a little monument, or at least a block of marble.
Naegele's labor of compilation and transcription here is considerable. He has written cogent biographical essays and introductions to each of the sections into which the letters are clustered: “Injury,” “America and Austin,” “Cambridge,” “Cornell at First,” “Disillusion,” “Publishing,” “Renown,” “Withdrawal,” “London,” and, finally, “Washington, D.C.,” where Rowe died in 1999. The editor's footnotes, however, are dizzyingly excessive. While helpful for truly obscure references, does this book's presumably well-educated audience really need to be schooled that á bientôt is French and means “see you soon”; that NYT stands for The New York Times; or that “Pyramid in the Cour Napoléon” is I. M. Pei's Louvre entrance? Are we to interpret this mania for notation as ironic, since Rowe never provided any notes? Or are we instead to deduce that the editor or publisher has judged our cultural facility so diminished that we've become intellectually enfeebled and need such hand-holding?
The book's subtitle is Five Decades of Correspondence, but it includes letters written by Rowe only, making it a one-sided conversation. We feel to be standing next to a mirror looking at Rowe looking at himself. The reflections are sometimes stingingly blunt, often enigmatic, and consistently absorbing.
Just as architects sketch to shape and test ideas, Rowe's letters are sketches, and each unfolds as an act of thinking, not merely corresponding chattily. From the earliest letters through the final ones, Rowe is continually fleshing out his point of view: probing and critiquing; describing places and their impressions; hypothesizing, honing, and countering; veering off into tangential lines of thought; or spontaneously dropping in anecdotes or verse. Letters move through his life as an educator and lecturer; his writing, travels, and collecting; his relations with his brother, David, his sister-in-law, Dorothy, and their two sons. We hear him tapping away on one of his manual typewriters, the carriage bell dinging, propelled late into the night by countless cigarettes whose aroma one can still detect in his library, particularly on the damp days that Rowe detested.1
Letters to his parents about his first transatlantic travels are marvels of observation and wit, with Rowe playing the intrepid Englishman who has left behind the temperate, civilized comforts of Yorkshire to brave unknown geographies. In New York City in 1951, for instance, “there are no teapots to be bought. Nor are kettles in general use. The natives use what they call tea bags” (39). Yalies, he reports in alarm, suffer the privation of having to serve themselves dinner, from trays into which indentations are stamped to accommodate each type of food (an early taste of Rowe's unease with zoning?). Rowe's travels across the United States, Canada, and Mexico ultimately led him to Austin, where, he once told me, “it all began for me,” where his ideas about teaching and observation and analysis came into focus.
Rowe's letters and memoranda where he examines the role of the educator—such as his brilliant 1988 Cornell Faculty Memorandum—remain relevant pedagogical statements. Other important letters illuminate the production of his influential essays and books. Rowe lashed out at editors he felt sloppy or uninformed or persecutorial, especially those who wielded The Chicago Manual of Style, a book he loathed. He insisted that his distinctive style and voice were central to his rhetorical timbre. Complex arguments require complex prose. When a hapless marketing assistant asked him to describe his forthcoming book, The Architecture of Good Intentions, in a manner “suitable for its intended audience,” Rowe lobbed back this grenade of a sentence: “Supposing architects to be neither more or less rational than the rest of humanity, it is an attempt to articulate that complex of cultural fantasies and prejudices which, in the early years of the twentieth century elicited—for better or worse—something of a revolution in the art of building; and then, it is a further attempt to trace back these climates of opinion, characteristically so much in conflict, not to their origins but to their first highly visible adumbrations” (396).
I remember once asking Charles Moore what he thought of Rowe. He paused a few moments and said with quiet awe, “I think he knows a lot.” He didn't elaborate. In this simple summation there was the essence of something, the essence of Rowe's lifelong pursuit. Rowe sought to know in a fundamental way—“I am a believer in rigorous analysis,” he said—building upon Karl Popper's and Isaiah Berlin's epistemological and philosophical structural foundations.
Among this generation of architects who wrote—and whose writings were fundamental to how they taught and designed—only Colin Rowe, Robert Venturi, and Charles Moore stood as equals. Rowe was born in 1920 and was called up for the military defense of Britain in 1943. Moore and Venturi were both born in 1925, which made them just too young for military service at the outbreak of World War II. While Venturi was still in high school and Moore already in college (he enrolled when he was sixteen), Rowe landed badly in parachute training and a respirator strapped to his back crushed his lower spine. His lengthy recovery and completion of interrupted undergraduate studies shifted his chronology into closer alignment with Moore and Venturi's. Yet while they rose to worldwide fame as architects, Rowe admitted that he remained a “manqué.” His architectural career seems to have evaporated in dusty Bakersfield, California, where he first worked in 1953.
While the three men could not have been more different in terms of origins, personalities, and tastes, they had much in common. All three studied architecture as undergraduates and then expanded their studies as graduate students: Rowe at the Warburg Institute, Venturi and Moore at Princeton. They all taught architecture: Rowe and Moore continuously, Venturi episodically. All read deeply from large personal libraries, giving them a staggering knowledge of architectural history, troves of references into which they continually dipped for illumination and illustration. All three were superb writers who often collaborated with coauthors. And all trespassed boundaries between architect, historian, theorist, and critic.
As they completed their graduate studies, the young men launched independent critiques of modernist dogma, as if three snipers triangulating their quarry. The attack was completely uncoordinated but supremely effective. Rowe dismantled modernism's naive political positions, its delusional Marxist assurances that it would salve society's wounds. He questioned its slavish obsession with “order” and its simultaneous rejection of hierarchy—social, political, and architectural. Venturi faulted modernism's monotone expression, its censorship of symbolic language, its insistence on simplicity. Moore criticized modernism for prizing generalization over specificity, for dismissing vernacular wisdom and form, for abandoning poetics and memory as intrinsic qualities of place making. All three found value in precedent as an antidote to modernism's ideology, its often-intractable restrictions. Their ideas carried generations of students and architects in new directions.
Surely, The Letters of Colin Rowe will be among the last books of its kind. While some might suggest we have merely migrated to different platforms, the habit of deeply introspective and extrospective correspondence seems to have withered. We are crammed today within an ever-widening chasm, a void that echoes with much noise but little discernible message or identifiable substance.