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28 June 2017

A Conference of Good Intentions


I recently had the opportunity to present a talk at the Colin Rowe conference in Rome; I spoke on my research for my chapter on the Baroque City in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Baroque, looking at the ways Rome influenced disparate cities and cultures across Europe in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. I was in one of three parallel sessions during the second of three days of presentations (the full trifecta requiring more stamina than I could muster). The parallel sessions, their titles notwithstanding, were dedicated to practice, history, and teaching. Now, Colin Rowe was an historian who taught architectural design; and if nothing else, Colin (who, unhappily no doubt for him, was my professor in Rome many years ago) made history relevant to practice when Modernism said it had no place. And if he succeeded only briefly—history is again on the wane, even more than it was in the sixties—Colin would have found the separation into three rooms just a little bizarre. What would have troubled him most, I think, is the notion that the New Urbanists presenting their practices presumed all the historical questions have been answered: we’ve got that history component figured out, let’s build! To anyone who’s spent any time reading Colin’s writing, the notion that the problem of history is a settled case has got to seem decidedly un-Rowian. Colin’s whole method, and certainly his rhetorical style, was to posit possibilities, intriguing potentialities that just might yield some interesting things, if only one would give them a try. That sense that architecture was a constant experiment, a particularly English tinkerer’s approach to improving things, is one way that he was firmly rooted in Modernism. Deeply suspicious of claims for perfection, much less for the delights of Utopia, he could never accept the classical academic notion of synthesis. He was much more interested in juxtaposition.

So, then, what is it that the New Urbanists think has been settled about history? Judging by both the work and the rhetoric, the only history that has anything to offer began roughly around the time that suburbs started in the nineteenth century, and ended sometime around the Second World War. A rather narrow slice of the historical record, it has the advantages of not challenging too much the largely banal results of the Modernist revolution. Why look at Filippo Juvarra in Torino when you’ve got Raymond Unwin in Letchworth? If you’re satisfied with competent infill, pre-War suburban densities, and some mixed-use, the heritage of the great cities of Europe at their best (and still, by the way, thriving), not reduced to their lowest common denominator, is irrelevant (if subliminally threatening). Driverless cars are apparently more compelling than the effects of carriages on Baroque Paris. So, let the “historians” (we were, in fact, mostly architects) talk about Renaissance Rome and seventeenth-century Amsterdam. We certainly didn’t draw the crowds, because there was no profit to be had in our retro-room. Still, I can’t avoid an image of Colin’s ghost at the whole event, perhaps not excessively troubled, but no doubt rather bored.