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Colin Rowe, theorist and Gold Medallist, dies

The contribution made to urbanism by Colin Rowe, who died last week, was decisive. Building beautiful cities does not depend on theory, data, sociology or politics, all of which are the products of individual cities configured in particular ways. Following Camillo Sitte, Rowe convinced all those who, night after night, listened to his Olympian monologues, that empirical evidence and real examples are a better way to do it. Cities have to be beautiful. It doesn't matter if they don't work - does Rome work? City of cities, caput mundi, a collage of urban civilisations built one on top of another all ruined, the remnants of sagas cut short, empires collapsed, visions forgotten, all ephemeral and superb. Papal successions that have left masterpieces by Borromini, Michelangelo, Peruzzi, Sangallo, Vignola, Bernini: great architects who express the deepest failures of Man's soul - matters of which Rowe would speak freely and which he understood in the detail of every courtyard or elevation. Some corner of Rome surely awaits him.

Freud noted in Civilisation and its Discontents - one of Rowe's canonical texts - that the complex accumulation we call Rome is almost a diagram of the unconscious. How we excavate, and then activate, this knowledge is up to us, but it exists; it is what we are. Although we did not create it, we can reorganise it. In a constant re-elaboration of archetypal models, Man has perfected a lexicon of architectural urban components: the courtyard in its infinite variants, the axis, the grid, the street, the piazza and the piazzetta. By knowing these models and re-elaborating them we can design anything, understand everything: Le Corbusier's Villa Stein or Palladio's Villa Malcontenta draw on the same sources. There are universal truths and it is the business of architects to address them. Modernist architecture, despite its protestations, is unable to shake off tradition and gains acceptance wherever it addresses tradition cogently and convincingly.

Rowe's own drawings, usually doodled in black Pentel on a napkin in a trattoria or on sheets of pink American paper coloured even deeper with wine, explored the permutations, the intricate nooks and crannies of urban places transformed in the imagination. Whole cities were reorganised by the introduction of theoretical interventions: shifting a railway station, adding a building, driving a boulevard through the heart of London. Among the disciples he planted in America's universities from Honolulu to San Juan, there must be someone capable of collecting these drawings - if any survive - to make a remarkable book.

Colin Rowe was a disciple of Rudolf Wittkower, with whom he studied at the Warburg Institute before going to teach at the Liverpool School of Architecture in the early 1950s. It may have been from Wittkower that he learned to juxtapose the improbable with the unexpected: Le Corbusier and Palladio, Viollet-le-Duc and the Chicago School; always creating an unconventional entry point into the body of what we know, remixing and recombining it to provide a new interpretation. Herein lies a profoundly religious conviction: Man does not create but is created. And, to be specific, architects do not create architecture but inherit it (if they are fortunate and prepare themselves).

Informed by a vast erudition that grew exponentially, Rowe's eclecticism came to bear on the young James Stirling precisely at a time when Modernism was looking for a new direction and much of what had been achieved by the European urban tradition had been bombed out of existence. Following his teacher's indications, over a lifelong friendship Stirling tried to understand and build parts of the new cities Rowe might have made, had he practised the profession himself.

Rowe's own legacy, after he became an American and foreswore 'all princes, popes, and potentates', is a mode of thinking expressed in an extravagant literary style, enshrining a generous corpus of beautiful, opinionated, intolerable, snobbish, funny and breathtaking observations dealing with architecture, cities, culture and criticism that should never be beyond the arm's reach of any architect. Through the painful winter of 1992-93, stuck in the London he abhorred, a miserable Rowe was helped by the devoted Alex Caragonne to collate and rewrite his unpublished notes and lectures. The results were published by mit Press in 1996 in three volumes, As I Was Saying.

Two earlier collections of essays are complementary: Collage City (with Fred Koetter) and The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa. Taken together, they set out Rowe's critique of Le Corbusier's anti-urban ideas, and go on to suggest alternative strategies for architecture and city design.

This urban strategy reached its highest expression in Rowe's project for Roma Interrotta (1978), in which an entire sector of the city is redesigned: a plan one can pore over for hours, imagining events, encounters, affairs and emotions: real life.

Thomas Muirhead

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