Ambichronous Historiography: Colin Rowe and the Teaching of Architectural History

By Engel, Braden R. | Journal of Art Historiography, June 2016 | Go to article overview

Ambichronous Historiography: Colin Rowe and the Teaching of Architectural History


Engel, Braden R., Journal of Art Historiography


Architectural design education has typically treated historical knowledge as inferior to design creativity or even worse an impediment to innovation. If history is seen of as having any value for the student it is not tantamount with design but rather in service of it. This curricular instrumentalism is all too familiar for those teaching history in design programs even today. When historical knowledge and design creativity are conceived as mutually exclusive, history is seen as a subordinate tool at the service of design.

The mid-twentieth century arrival of European art historians at American schools of architecture saw each émigré met with similar challenges. Art history departments had no design emphasis, but teaching history to architecture students whose highest priority was the design studio was a difficult and marginalized position. The research I have been undertaking charts the moments in which historians have responded to this condition in their own teaching practice in order to liberate, rather than subdue, innovation. In these circumstances, historical knowledge and design creativity are open to participate in each other; design knowledge yielding historical creativity becomes a possibility, for example. Innovation, then, expands beyond merely a prospect of design to the way one inquires of both the past and future, creatively and analytically.

This essay focuses specifically on the British educator and critic Colin Rowe (1920-99), during his time teaching at the University of Texas in Austin in the 1950s.1 It is split into three episodes: the first elucidates and expands on the primary themes that emerge in Rowe's teaching at the University of Texas; the second episode shows how Rowe's didactic methods were effective outside the university by detailing an exchange with Louis Kahn and his design for a Jewish Community Center; the third episode closely analyzes Rowe's essay 'Chicago Frame' as a conceptual framing operative within historiography itself. Rowe embodied the figure I call Ianus Architectus, which is the Latin combination of the architect with the ancient Roman god of beginnings and ends, pasts and futures, Janus.2 It represents the dual act of both seeing past-and-future (Janus' two faces), and producing (architecture), simultaneously. In other words, Ianus Architectus is ambichronous, operating between the history and practice of architecture, at the interface of precedent and innovation. Trained in architectural design and art history, Colin Rowe was the most active participant in the academic interface between histories and practices of architecture. In three episodes, this essay argues that Rowe's teaching was ambichronous, as he attempted to engage with history while liberating innovation.

Rowe was a skilled historian, but he was probably more skilled as a teacher and critic. His impressive collection of essays, while historiographical, were above all critical and even iconoclast. Thus, while his historical knowledge was immense, to call Rowe merely a historian would not do justice to his interests. Historiography was only one side of his ambichronous teaching practice. Or as Christian Otto has put it, 'his central interest was producing architectural objects, not writing history.'3 For Rowe, invention was not possible without knowledge of precedents. According to Otto, 'Rowe's position about history derived its authority from four characteristics, unique to him in their combination': the 'sharpness of his eye', 'unexpected yet telling juxtaposition' of materials, 'exceptional richness' due to Rowe's erudition in literature and philosophy, and the 'quality of Rowe's writing'.4 Each of these four characteristics was 'amplified by the means Rowe employed to activate them: the Wölfflinian mechanism of compare and contrast.'5 A lecture manuscript arranged according to the Wölfflinian mechanism (Figure 2) exhibits the unexpected juxtaposition, for instance, of Le Corbusier's Villa Schwob (1916) compared to St. …

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