How Vincent Scully Inspired New Generations to Think Seriously About Architecture

The first and greatest part of his legacy is in giving architecture a broader, deeper, more informed public among people for whom architecture would never be a vocation.

Occupation Professor
Affiliation Yale University
Location New Haven, CT

I don’t know if it’s better to call Vincent Scully a Game Changer or a Life Changer, given the nature of his influence on so many people’s lives, mine included. Let me hold off for a moment writing about Scully’s influence on architecture and architectural history. They’re both considerable, but in the end they may mean less than the impact he had on several generations of undergraduates who sat in a large auditorium at Yale University, listened to his extraordinary lectures, and were led to think seriously about architecture, many for the first time. Some of those students may have gone on to become architects, architectural historians, or critics, and some of them real estate developers. Far more of them became bankers and lawyers and doctors and teachers and journalists and politicians, and probably never took an architecture course again. But Scully stayed with them, and they understood, after their single semester in that large, darkened room watching pairs of images fly across the giant screen as Scully moved back and forth across the stage—banging a huge pointer for emphasis—that there was something more to buildings, and more to the experience of architecture, than the rest of the world realized.

Scully didn’t create architects as much as he created clients—knowledgeable, sympathetic, serious clients—as well as lovers of architecture who would never build a structure themselves, but who would walk around the city and use their eyes as they might never have before. The first and greatest part of his legacy, then, is in giving architecture a broader, deeper, more informed public—in building a constituency for it—among people for whom architecture would never be a vocation. Without such people, of course, there would be no architectural profession, since architecture needs an informed public as much as music needs a knowledgeable audience and literature needs a body of intelligent readers. Scully taught people how to look at buildings, and more importantly, he taught them how to connect buildings to the rest of their lives.

The idea that architecture connects to the rest of life, that a building is more than an isolated object to be considered in terms of its form alone, is fundamental to Scully’s thinking. In fact, I would call it the principle that has guided his career, and ties together his writings, his lectures, his thinking, and his activism. To Scully, every building is a part of a larger whole, a concept that always meant much more than physical context. While an edifice’s surrounding community of buildings was always critical to him—he viewed every urban structure as either adding to or detracting from the street—so were all of the other contexts in which a building might be said to exist: the context of the history of architecture, the context of the career of its designer, the context of the social and cultural milieu of its time, and then, the overarching culture of other times. Until Scully published The Earth, the Temple and the Gods, his 1962 study of Greek temples, historians had looked at classical temples as isolated objects, not, as Scully did, in terms of their relationship to the landscape. Similarly, in Pueblo: Mountain, Village, Dance, in 1989, he expanded on that notion to suggest that the Pueblo architecture of the American Southwest was viewed by its builders as part of an interlocking system connecting the mountains behind these ancient buildings and the dances performed in front of them. The closest Scully has ever come to offering a definition of architecture was in calling it “a continuing dialogue between the generations which creates an environment developing across time.”

Scully made that comment about Chapel Street, in New Haven, as he noted the way Peter B. Wight’s Gothic revival Street Hall of 1864 connects to Egerton Swartwout’s beaux arts Yale Art Gallery of 1928, which in turn connects to Louis Kahn’s new expansion of the gallery in 1953, and finally to Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building (now Paul Rudolph Hall) of 1963, to form a remarkable sequence of buildings. Over the years many of his lessons came from New Haven, his lifelong home, which he saw not only as containing several essential pieces of architecture but also as a demonstration of the failures of twentieth-century urban renewal, which he called “cataclysmic, automotive, and suburban.”

New Haven, as Scully presented it, was not a small university city but a microcosm of the American urban experience. His passionate connection to it—he was born there in 1920, the son of a Chevrolet dealer who was also president of the local board of aldermen—never faded, but it never seemed to limit him or mark him as provincial.

Scully entered Yale in 1936, a local boy on scholarship. He majored in English, and returned to seek a doctorate in art history after serving in the Marines during World War II. His love of literature always found its way into his teaching of art and architectural history. I recall Scully lectures in which he read from Robert Lowell or Wallace Stevens, just as he would show images of a Franz Kline painting or a Lorenzetti fresco, in each case to connect these things to a building, to a place, or to some architectural idea. At various times I remember hearing him compare Frank Lloyd Wright to Melville, to Whitman, to Twain. “As they, in their writing, had celebrated at once the flux and flow which characterized modern times and the compulsion toward unity which is the democratic will, so he, in his architecture, sought to make the images of flow a fact, to celebrate continuous space, and to bring all together into shapes which were unified by his will,” wrote Scully, tying Wright to these authors in words not dissimilar from those he spoke from the lectern.

It’s worth parsing that sentence for a moment, because it tells us much. It is itself almost Whitmanesque in its sweep and grandeur, and like Whitman it stops just short of being too much. Scully shows us in these few words what the modern, American, democratic impulse is, connecting, as Wright himself did, the idea of modernity with a traditional view of American democracy as a unifying force. But modernity is not a simple concept for Scully; by defining it as “flux and flow,” he is acknowledging modernity’s complexity, and even its internal contradictions. But all of these observations are in the service of a point about Wright and continuous space. The free plan is here tied to the culture. And Scully has also managed, in the final clause, to remind us of Wright’s powerful determination, lest we make the mistake of crediting too much of his genius to a cultural zeitgeist. It is, in a sense, an entire essay in one 58-word sentence.

Not the least of the influences Scully had on my career, and I suspect that of many of his other students, was in the way he seemed to be learning continuously throughout his life’s work. As an undergraduate, he was not only a commanding presence in the lecture hall, he was an example to me of an adult who could say he was wrong. Scully freely admitted to having changed his mind numerous times; in the mid-1960s, he moved from being a pure, romantic modernist, convinced of the heroic aspirations of orthodox modernism, to a clear post-modernist. He saw that the brave new world that modernism was producing was not, in fact, the utopia that was promised, but something quite different, and the heroes of his youth, or at least some of them, became the villains of his middle age.

Scully was among the first architecture historians to see the significance of the work of Louis Kahn, which he described as “healing the breach between the present and the near no less than the distant past.” And he played an even more vital role in the rise of Robert Venturi, whose writing and thinking he encountered with an assist from Robert A. M. Stern, who was a student at the Yale School of Architecture in the sixties. Without hesitation Scully proclaimed Venturi’s 1966 Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, in an introduction, as “the most important writing on architecture since Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture, of 1923.” That statement was vintage Scully: a startling, almost brazen observation that seemed more than a little extreme, shocked fellow scholars—and turned out, in the end, to be completely plausible.

Scully moved over the years to an ever-greater concern for continuity in the built environment, led in part by his former students Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who would be as important as theorists of planning as Venturi had been in the realm of architectural aesthetics. As he had helped make Kahn and Venturi national figures, so, too, did Scully’s excitement over Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s work— especially their 1981 design for Seaside, Florida—give them, indeed the entire movement that came to be known as New Urbanism, a critical early boost.

Preservation and continuity are not inconsistent with the new, Scully concluded, but an essential partner to it. “Since civilization is based largely upon the capacity of human beings to remember, the architect builds visible history,” he wrote in an essay on the meaning of art history he appended to his book American Architecture and Urbanism (1988), which could serve as a statement of purpose for his entire career. “For this reason, art history ought to be able to help him if he will let it do so, because it will cause him to focus on new things, to value more things, and, most of all, to sense and to love their relationships to each other and to the multilevel life of humanity.”

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Categories: Architecture, Design Education

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