The Letters of Colin Rowe

The Letters of Colin Rowe: Five Decades of Correspondence
Daniel Naegele (Editor)
Artifice Press, September 2018

Hardcover | 7 x 10 inches | 560 pages | 14 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-1908967534 | $49.95

Publisher's Description:
Legendary architect, historian and critic, Colin Rowe taught Architecture and Urban Design at Liverpool University, the University of Texas at Austin, Cambridge University and for another 30 years at Cornell. From the late 1940s through to the early 1960s he wrote a uniquely perceptive series of articles on architecture that remains seminal to the discipline today. His books include The Mathematics of the Ideal villa and Other Essays, The Architecture of Good Intentions, the volume As I Was Saying, and most notably, Collage City, 1978, written with Fred Koetter. The recipient of the profession's highest honours, he was awarded the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education in 1985; and the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1995.

Rowe was an inveterate letter writer. From his student days at Liverpool in the early 1940s until his death in Washington in 1999, he wrote innumerable letters to his parents, renowned architects and scholars, friends, colleagues and former students on both sides of the Atlantic; and most consistently and intimately to his brother, David, and sister in law, Dorothy, in England. Informal and elegant ruminations, they illuminate moments in Rowe's migratory life, addressing a wide range of subjects from books, furniture, landscapes, politics, history, and education, to architecture and the urban condition and a host of other engaging topics. Rich with wit and an astonishing array of scholarship, each is written in the incomparable style for which Rowe has long been famous, making evident his love affair with words and revealing a man of great humour, warmth and charm.
dDAB Commentary:
If you would have told me years ago that eventually I'd be reading through nearly 600 pages of letters written by architectural historian Colin Rowe and liking it, I would have vehemently denied it. I'll admit he wrote two of the most important architecture books of the second half of the twentieth century -- Collage City with Fred Koetter and the essays compiled in The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays -- but his writing is very demanding; his words are important but they are hardly enjoyable. Obviously there's a difference between scholarly writing for academic journals and books aimed at architects and architectural students, on the one hand, and correspondences between people, both professionally and personally, on the other -- therein lies the qualities of The Letters of Colin Rowe. Sentences with many phrases separated by columns and hyphens are in abundance in the letters, just like in his essays and books, but the letters are unedited (or just lightly edited in the short path between mind and pen on paper) and therefore are highly revealing. I feel like I know Colin Rowe from reading some of the letters in this collection, while at the same time gaining some new insights on Collage City, his other academic writings, and his teachings.

The book was edited by Daniel Naegele, who had written theses on the Colin Rowe's text after he was in touch with Dorothy Rowe, Colin Rowe's sister-in-law, while at the Architectural Association in the late 1980s. One of the 303 numbered letters (spanning from August 1943 to March 1999) in the book is addressed to Naegele after he sent Rowe his AA thesis. Although Rowe berates Naegele for not reaching out to him for input during his research, he goes on to generously share information on, among other things, the gestation of Collage City. Like the 302 other letters, Naegele provides footnotes to the references to people and things that might be unknown to the reader (after a while these references repeat, as if one has entered Rowe's fold). Further, people who Rowe wrote letters to are marked throughout with asterisks, while a short biography of each recipient is provided at the back of the book. The book reveals a lot about Rowe (a lot more than I'm guessing he ever would have made public), but one thing in particular comes across to me: writing was his life. His printed output was not prolific, but his letter-writing surely was -- or at least it seems that way in this era of email and social media. The Letters of Colin Rowe is a nice respite to another time and a rewarding peek into the mind of a great thinker.

Author Bio:
Daniel Naegele is an architect and associate professor of architecture at Iowa State University. A graduate of Yale University and of the Architectural Association in London ... Naegele wrote theses on Colin Rowe at the AA and at Yale University. His analyses and reviews of Rowe's writing have been published in Harvard Design Magazine and elsewhere.
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