Learning from Scully

On a rainy afternoon this past May, Yale School of Architecture dean Robert A. M. Stern gave a small party at his New York apartment, ostensibly to celebrate the publication of Modern Architecture and Other Essays, a collection of pieces written over the last half century by Vincent Scully, the art historian who was Stern’s great mentor at Yale (and mine, I should add). But the book was somewhat overshadowed that day by another piece of news: Stern’s announcement that an anonymous donor has provided funds to establish the Vincent J. Scully Jr. Visiting Professorship in Architectural History at Yale. The news was striking, and not only because it’s such a rare and pleasant thing to see an endowed professorship named for a celebrated scholar rather than for a celebrated writer of large checks. Even more remarkable is the fact that the chair will not be in the art history department, where Scully has spent his entire career, but in the architecture school, where he was never an official member of the faculty.

You could say that this is because Stern raised the money and he runs the architecture school, but there is more to it than that. Despite his lack of a formal connection to its architecture school, Scully has been the most influential figure in the teaching of architecture at Yale for the last two generations. His writings, his impassioned advocacy of the civic role of architecture, his championing of Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, Andres Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk—to name but a few for whom support from Scully has been critical in the establishment of their careers—have made him a far more potent force in the shaping of American architecture than almost anyone on the architecture school faculty. Yale architecture students could not fail to pay attention to what Scully was writing from an office a couple of blocks down Chapel Street from the architecture school, or to what he was saying in a lecture hall just around the corner. Scully may have had no official role at their school, but so far as the rest of the world was concerned, he was the voice of architecture at Yale.

Scully and the architecture school—it had to have been an uneasy relationship (sort of like trying to run a divinity school while Norman Vincent Peale preached down the block). It isn’t so much that Scully and the school were at odds—I would say the ideological differences between them waxed and waned but were never unbridgeable—as it is that they viewed themselves as having different missions. The school believes it exists to teach people how to make architecture; Scully believes his role is to teach people how to understand and appreciate what has already been built. You would think that these two things ought to be almost the same since they have a vast amount of overlap. It is reasonable that people who are being taught how to make architecture begin by understanding and appreciating the work that has already been made, and developing the faculties for critical judgment of it. But that has rarely been central to American architectural education. Even where some teaching of history exists, it is marginal. In far too many schools, even those as academically ambitious as Yale, an understanding of history is not considered a necessary precedent to design. Aspiring young architects are expected to start designing pretty much as soon as they take a seat at the drafting table, never mind how much they know beforehand.

Indeed for much of the twentieth century, it was considered dangerous to know too much. History was one of those things that cluttered up innocent minds and sent them in inappropriate directions. Far better to design free and unencumbered by the baggage of the past—then, and only then, would the true architect flourish, like Rousseau’s man in the state of nature. Well, I thought we had figured out long ago what a piece of Modernist claptrap this was. Didn’t Philip Johnson put an end to it back in the 1950s, when he started saying “you cannot not know history”? And when Johnson gave that famous speech in which he said he would rather sleep in the nave of Chartres Cathedral than in a modern Harvard (read Gropius) house, it seemed to legitimize at least the studying of history if not the architectural replication of it.

What happened after that, I suspect, is that learning history and imitating history began to get muddled together. In the 1980s too many of those architects who knew history came to feel that the best way to demonstrate their knowledge was to replicate the past. Soon the two things—learning history and indulging in what became known as historicism—became too intertwined for their own good. Useful as that may have been in helping to free us from Modernism’s excessive antihistoricism, it has not served us well in more recent years, as Modernism, renewed in strength and more enlightened in viewpoint, returned to the forefront of architectural fashion. As historicism and Post-Modernism began to wane, the notion that historical knowledge was a critical part of architectural education—which was never established firmly enough to begin with—started to slip away with it. I was shocked, not so long ago, to be told by someone teaching in an architecture school that a student had raised his hand during class and asked her to repeat an architect’s name because it was unfamiliar to him. The name was Le Corbusier.

That did not happen at Yale. But still, I suspect Yale students will benefit from the Vincent Scully chair, if only because it confirms the fact that it makes no more sense to teach architecture in a historical vacuum than to teach composition without listening to Mozart. I like the notion that Scully, by virtue of this chair, should be the conscience of architectural education since he has always been a historian who has not hesitated to put into practice his belief that the only real point of learning about the past is to shape a better present. His true life’s work is more than architectural history; it is the whole idea of human community and culture. Scully’s work has been a struggle to find that harmonic point of connection between the forms he loves and the social values he so deeply believes in. If his career contains any overriding message, it is that architecture is part of the larger culture, and that its meaning comes from its connections to that larger culture.

This is not an idea that architectural education has gone out of its way to acknowledge. Indeed in plenty of architecture schools it is possible to go through several years and not think at all about the world outside, and even to be praised for this. In establishing the Scully chair, Yale and Stern are saying no to the notion that architecture should be taught in a hermetic environment. And they’re celebrating what Scully has always understood—that you learn about the past not just to focus on the old but to confer depth and meaning on the new.

Categories: Arts + Culture