Calling Rowe: After-lives of Formalism in the Digital Age


  • Stylianos Giamarelos The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL



Emmanuel Petit recently invoked the work of Colin Rowe to render a discussion of architectural precedent relevant for the digital age. Questioning Petit’s approach, this article explores the implications latent in this invocation. In so doing, it highlights their misalignments with the current concerns of digital design practitioners. The article thus focuses on the question of a possible after-life of Rowe’s formalism for the digital age. It starts by charting its genealogical development from Rudolf Wittkower’s humanist grids to Peter Eisenman’s ‘post-functionalist’ pursuits of autonomous form and Greg Lynn’s ‘pliant’ geometries. This showcases the dual historical effect of Rowe’s analytical formalism. From the late 1940s to the present, his disciples employed it both as a historiographical model and as a generative mechanism for architectural design. The history of Rowe’s formalism is therefore intertwined with the contemporary concerns of digital design practitioners, including Petit’s question of theorising precedent. The digital design practitioners’ assertions of autonomy are historically rooted in Rowe’s analytical formalism. In the final instance, Rowe’s analysis was carried out from the perspective of modernist humanism, and this historically remained the case in its various versions from Wittkower to Eisenman. Updating Rowe, as Petit suggested, would therefore only perpetuate a modernist outlook in a postmodern age. A formalism for the present cannot ignore the enduring points of the postmodern critique that preceded it. In conclusion, a contemporary variant of formalism needs to address the debates around its possible synthesis with contextualist concerns. To do so, it also needs to engage with the poststructuralist critiques of the intervening decades. Some examples from recent literature exemplify such an approach. They could therefore serve as useful precedents towards an integrated formalism for the present.

Author Biography

Stylianos Giamarelos, The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

Dr. Stylianos Giamarelos is a historian and theorist of the postmodern ferment in architectural culture. Before undertaking a PhD in Architectural History & Theory at The Bartlett School of Architecture UCL, he studied Architecture, Philosophy, and History of Science and Technology in Athens. He is currently a Teaching Fellow in Architectural History & Theory at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL and the University of East London. He has also taught at the National Technical University of Athens and the History of Art Department UCL. He has respectively co-edited and co-authored the books ATHENS by SOUND (Athens: futura 2008), and Uncharted Currents (Athens: Melani 2014). His architectural work and research have been published in the Journal of Architectural Education, Architectural Histories, San Rocco, FRAME, and Metalocus, among others. One of the founding editors of The Bartlett School of Architecture's LOBBY magazine, he is currently a member of the editorial board of the open-access journal of the European Architectural History Network, Architectural Histories.


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