Character and Composition, A Response
Text and project by Design With Company
While reading Colin Rowe’s “Character and Composition” essay, we found ourselves feeling a little uncomfortable with the way Rowe bullies some of the more beloved words in our vocabulary. This is our follow up reaction—a character and composition manifesto as a dollhouse.
In his essay, Rowe argues that character and composition are no longer useful as architectural conceits and the terms represent unnecessary vestiges from bygone eras. He traces their shifting definitions and their diminishing use value through time. In the end, he declares that the terms embody “an idea which, by emphasizing the particular, the personal, and the curious, will always vitiate system.” 
Without system, we cannot have discipline. Along his narration through history, he flippantly identifies how to achieve character within a nineteenth-century English home:
Contemporary observers of Endsleigh undoubtedly found its quasi-Elizabethan undress, its naturalistic charm to be full of character; but almost certainly they were led to discover this same value in its roof, its chimneys, and its porch. “The porch, the veranda, or the piazza are highly characteristic features,” wrote Andrew Jackson Downing of similar buildings at a somewhat later date in the United States. And again, “The prominent features conveying expression of purpose in dwelling houses are the chimneys, the windows, and the porch . . . and for this reason whenever it is desired to raise the character of a cottage or a villa above mediocrity, attention should first be bestowed on these portions of the building. 
To us, this sounded like a challenge. What would an architecture of only roofs, chimneys, and porches look like? We started collecting our favorites, organizing them, and deploying them. Along the way, we tweaked the categories a bit, instead focusing on profiles, punches, protrusions, and patterns. We like alliteration.
Why a Dollhouse?
Dollhouses are objects for building character. They prompt the exploration and narrativization of the interior. As typically configured, they present a deep section model of a house with lavish decoration on its interior surfaces. Rooms are clearly delineated by function with the choice of décor and furniture appointments. Like Gordon Matta Clark’s cuts, this presentation of the interior requires the removal of a façade. This surface only obscures the internal social and physical structures of the home. On another level of interiority, the miniature scale of a dollhouse appeals to and celebrates the interior of our mind and our psyche. According to Susan Stewart, they offer an “experience of interiority” while exemplifying the “process by which that interior is constructed.” Dollhouses are a “diminutive and thereby manipulateable, version of experience.”  Our dollhouse demonstrates what happens when we remove the interior in order to celebrate and animate its façade. After all, that is where the character of a building is located as the primary site of human experience and architectural expression.
1. Colin Rowe, “Character and Composition,” in The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1976), 80.
2. Ibid., 68.
3. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).
Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer are cofounders of the firm Design With Company, which explores the intersection between literature and architecture through speculative urban scenarios, writing, temporary installations, and built projects. Hicks received his MArch from Princeton University; Newmeyer from the University of Michigan, and they both teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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