It is no tragedy to die at the age of ninety-seven, as Vincent Scully did last November, certainly not after a life as full and accomplished as his. He was America’s most significant historian of architecture, and surely the only one who could have claimed to have changed the course of American architecture. During his half-century at Yale University, he left his mark on generations of consequential architects, from Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Robert A. M. Stern down to Maya Lin, Andrés Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. And yet there is a note of melancholy in Scully’s elegies, and not just because there is no understudy waiting in the wings to take his place. It is rather that the qualities that he sought in buildings—the heroic, the humanistic, the tragic—hold little relevance to today’s incurious culture.

Scully was born in New Haven in 1920 and—except for World War II and an extended stay in Rome—his entire life revolved around the city and Yale University. He received his undergraduate degree at Yale, from which as an Irish Catholic he felt a sense of social exclusion. After military service he returned to Yale, receiving his Ph.D. in 1949, by which time he was already delivering a rough version of what would become his spellbindingly rhapsodic lectures. He begrudgingly accepted compulsory retirement at age seventy, although he continued to lecture into his nineties.

Although Scully wrote a dozen books—most notably The Shingle Style—it was the lectures that secured his fame. These were the conventional slide lectures of the days before PowerPoint: with multiple projectors showing different slides, the projectionist sliding the next image into place at the lecturer’s command. But in no other respect were they conventional. Most lecturers shift to the next image, pause for an instant, and then launch into a new set of thoughts. But Scully exploited the full potential of a visual presentation. His images advanced in mid-sentence, as if conjured by living thought—the visual and the verbal material moving together in a kind of musical unity.

Buildings are palpable physical things, and we experience them with our bodies.

Despite Scully’s legendary perfectionism, his lectures were no clockwork affairs. Within the lattice of the predetermined sequence he spoke extemporaneously, without notes, making impromptu asides, his voice alternately growling, dropping to a whisper, or breaking into a sob. (One is not surprised to learn that Scully’s mother had sung opera or that he himself briefly considered acting as a career). Also remarkable was the sheer physicality of the performance. While most lecturers indicated details on the screen with small wooden pointers, like a conductor’s baton, Scully favored an oversized bamboo pointer that he wielded like Captain Ahab’s harpoon, striking the screen violently to call attention to a feature. All the showmanship had a point, of course: buildings are palpable physical things, and we experience them with our bodies.

Scully’s eloquence poured out in a furious cascade of metaphors and similes, some of which found their way into his American Architecture and Urbanism (1969). Frank Furness’s Provident Life & Trust Building, for example, was “a great machine out of technology’s archaic beginnings, a cast-iron marvel by Jules Verne . . . a Philadelphia row house worked up into a paroxysm at once athletic and mechanical, a great golem of industrialization clanking away.” The Empire State Building, “a lonely dinosaur, rose sadly at midtown, highest tower, tallest mountain, longest road, King Kong’s eyrie, meant to moor airships, alas.” Most quoted is his lament for Pennsylvania Station: “Through it one entered the city like a god. . . . One scuttles in now like a rat.” If that station is ever rebuilt, which at this moment seems barely possible, a goodly portion of the credit will go to that offhand quip.

Scully, of course, was far more than a hypnotic Irish raconteur. He was the right man at the right time at the right place—i.e., Yale. When he gave his first lectures in 1947, history had been effectively banished from the training of architects. If modern architects looked at the buildings of the past, as in Sigfried Giedion’s prestigious Space, Time and Architecture (1941), they did so only as an exercise in genealogy, to trace the paternity of various modern forms and modes of construction. Giedion’s history, based on his lectures at Harvard, was ruthlessly mendacious: he cropped the photo of Louis Sullivan’s pioneering Carson Pirie Scott Store in Chicago so as to show only the rational steel cage of its middle stories, leaving out the writhing floral ornament at its base and crown.

Scully changed this. His improvisational method of confronting a building in the classroom, and leading his listeners to experience it imaginatively, gave it intrinsic drama and urgency; it also had the effect of making all architecture contemporary. In the process, any smugness about the present was forgotten. At first, and only briefly, Scully was a conventional modernist. His lodestar was Frank Lloyd Wright, and he even commissioned Wright to design him a house in New Haven, for which he never found the funds. Setting out to understand Wright’s radical conception of fluid space, he looked for its origins in the innovative planning of American cottages and suburban houses of the nineteenth century. Scully came to appreciate their ingenious floor plans on their own terms—their flowing circulation, their sense of ease and graciousness, their clever integration of stair, fireplace, and inglenook in that new spatial creation, the living hall—and not merely as stepping stones to Wright. His dissertation was published in revised form as The Shingle Style in 1955 (and expanded again in 1971), and is perhaps the first book on nineteenth-century architecture to have had a serious and immediate effect on contemporary building. It remains an indispensable reference for architects with a practice in domestic architecture.

Already by 1952, Scully was a man to watch. In that year Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, commissioned him to write a sequel to The International Style, the catalogue of the museum’s groundbreaking 1932 exhibition of European modernism. Scully was proposed by none other than Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the organizers of that exhibition. But already Scully was straying from orthodoxy. His manuscript attacked Space, Time and Architecture head on, as a “cabalistic” screed with only a “spurious relationship to science.” Barr was horrified, and terminated the contract. Scully eventually published the book in 1961 as Modern Architecture: The Architecture of Democracy.

Modern Architecture, like all of Scully’s writing, is strikingly free of ideology—ideology in the sense of fixed doctrine or dogma. His heroes changed over time, from Wright to Le Corbusier in the mid-1950s, to Louis Kahn at the end of the decade, to Robert Venturi in the 1960s, and finally to Duany and Plater-Zyberk, his own students and the leaders of the New Urbanism. What might seem at first glance to be unprincipled fickleness was in fact an expression of consistency on the part of Scully, who always identified himself with what he felt to represent the most humanist direction of architecture at any given moment. This supple responsiveness to changing conditions is precisely what one wants in a critic. (No one wants to be Reyner Banham, anchoring yourself to Brutalism, and finding yourself still anchored to it when the boat sinks).

Scully’s supple responsiveness to changing conditions is precisely what one wants in a critic.

Scully is best remembered as a champion of a humane urbanism, but this happened only gradually. His year in Italy (1951–52) exposed him to the glories of the ancient city, while the ravages of urban renewal, which he witnessed firsthand in New Haven, distressed and disoriented him. But for all his free-thinking and dissent, he still regarded himself as a modernist. He did not join the protests over the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 1964, something he later rued. In that year his lingering allegiance to high modernism was put to the test in a curious debate with Norman Mailer, of all people. Mailer had written a scurrilous attack on “the plague of modern architecture” for Esquire, which drew considerable public attention. In it he charged that modernism has left us “isolated in the empty landscapes of psychosis, precisely that inner landscape of void and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.” Architectural Forum, an influential professional journal, decided to reprint excerpts from the piece with Scully as respondent, followed by a rebuttal from Mailer. Scully retorted that Mailer’s “lazy, pot-boiling paragraphs” were refuted in tangible form by the work of Wright, Le Corbusier, Aalto, and Kahn. Mailer offered nothing but “the Big Lie at its most majestic.” (The story is well told by Neil Levine in his edited anthology of Scully’s writings, Modern Architecture and Other Essays).

Mailer took Scully’s rebuke in stride. “He’s a better writer than me,” Mailer quipped, “but I know more about architecture.” Scully, for his part, soon came to endorse Mailer’s views, conceding that modern architecture may have produced superb works of individual genius but its urban consequences had been almost uniformly vicious. His beloved, battered New Haven was a daily reminder of this. He soon befriended Jane Jacobs, the great critic of urban renewal and the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. By the end of the decade, the transformation was complete. Scully could look at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s new Beinecke Library at Yale and admit that Mailer had been right all along; this, he proclaimed, “is the true ‘empty landscape of psychosis’ about which Norman Mailer warned us in 1963.”

Scully had been invited to deliver a public lecture on Friday, September 15, 2001, the text of which he promptly discarded following the terrorist attacks that Tuesday. In the space of a few days, he prepared an entirely different talk on the buildings that had been targeted for destruction. One slide showed the sun rising directly between the paired pylons of the Twin Towers, showing the same cosmological order as Stonehenge. Next came an aerial view of lower Manhattan, the towers standing proud and erect in the center; in the foreground was the airplane’s plastic window through which the photograph was taken, and for a terrifying instant we too are flying on that mission of destruction. The audience gasped as they would not do so today, when any image can be retrieved electronically. (Again, Scully had an uncanny knack for having the exact right image at his fingertips.)

Any clever historian might have delivered such a talk, but none of them would have contributed the undercurrent of scarcely concealed feeling that made every talk by Scully as much an emotional as an aesthetic journey. Among his contemporaries at Yale, all of them now deceased, it used to be whispered about that Scully was plucked from the Battle of Guadalcanal, shattered emotionally. At this point it is impossible to know. He refused to talk about the war, deflecting any questions with amusing anecdotes about flunking out of flight school. A later age would look more forgivingly at any such sign of weakness in the face of the unspeakable, perhaps more forgivingly than Scully himself ever could. At any rate, there was always the sense in his talks of someone who had plumbed the full depths of the tragic dignity of the human experience.

And this, in the end, is Scully’s most enduring accomplishment: to have inculcated in several generations of architects an awareness of the humanist lobe of their discipline, which had been dislodged by myths of functionalism and technological progress. His career coincided almost exactly with the rehabilitation—and subsequent fall—of history as an essential component of architectural culture. Today, history has again become unfashionable once more, as it was in the 1940s, although it is now viewed not so much with hostility as with indifference. And indifference is far worse, for the hostility of the teacher always arouses the curiosity of the skeptical student.

Here many factors are at play—a commercialized culture of celebrity architects, a widespread and growing ignorance of history, and a certain as-yet-undefined technological influence, as architecture students now receive their formative experience of buildings from pixilated graphic projections on computer monitors just as they once learned about them from delicate copperplate engravings. All is bright, schematic, attractively free of the distractions of earthly physicality—and utterly barren of any human presence, and certainly the sensitive, fragile, puckish, and ever-striving human presence that was the abiding legacy of Vincent Joseph Scully.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 5, on page 77
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