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.
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