Remembering Vincent Scully

Vincent Scully in a 2010 interview (image via YouTube)
The long-time Yale professor, who died in November, left a huge mark on generations of students and changed the field of architectural history for the better.

The Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully died on November 30, at the age of 97.

For 60 years, Scully commanded the classroom and the world of architectural criticism with erudition and élan. Philip Johnson rightly called him “the most influential architecture teacher ever.” His two signature Yale undergraduate surveys — Introduction to the History of Art: Prehistory to the Renaissance, and Modern Architecture — were Yale’s biggest classes. He taught them between 1947 and 1991 as a full professor and, after mandatory retirement, spent almost 20 years more as a part-time instructor. Over time, he gave tens of thousands of Yalies, a foundational knowledge of the visual arts. His most famous pupil, Maya Lin, developed her idea for the Vietnam War Memorial as a 21-year-old undergrad. He inspired countless others to become architects, professors, art patrons, and, more broadly, art consumers.

Scully was as much a stage actor as a teacher. He had a presence: bedraggled and worry-worn like ancient sculptures of Cicero, with a voice that could shift from velvety to gravelly in an instant. He was a great ham. While tears and sprees of shouting and waving coincidentally recurred at identical moments each year, he tweaked every lecture based on his mood and the way campus news or the news of the world inspired him on the day he taught.

He was also a fine scholar. His 1962 book, The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods, found something new to say about the origins of Western architecture. The Greek temple, he found, could not be understood in isolation. Every example lived in conversation with the landscape surrounding it. Moreover, the form’s elements, from bases to columns to pediment sculpture, reflected the human body’s shape in a radical assertion of man’s presence and control, if not domination, over the landscape. By the time of the ancient Greeks, men no longer lived in terrified bewilderment in caves. They possessed a sense of self, of purpose, and of aspiration articulated in their buildings. Greek art shattered the pagan fear of graven images. The gods, after all, might be immortal, but they were buffoons as often as they were heroes, enacting all the virtues and foibles of humanity. In their buildings, ancient architects chased the same immortality, using the stones, bricks, and metals they knew would outlast them.

Everything Scully wrote can be understood by a discerning art enthusiast. He was of the belief that great teachers must be both scholars with brilliant ideas and performers who conveyed those ideas in an engaging way. He felt it was pointless to do groundbreaking scholarly work if he couldn’t get others excited about it.

This earned him few friends among his colleagues. Many resented his big classes and, later, his art-popularizing television and radio shows. He was a loose cannon and sometimes a contrarian. He barely got tenure. He considered many of his fellow professors bores and finger-waggers. Many female graduate students found his Marine swagger off-putting. Many left-wing students were upset by his refusal to bend his analysis to the themes of gender, race, and class. The culture of victimhood simply had no place in his core view of art and architecture as humanity’s assertive, positive reach toward the divine.

Yet however quaint terms like women’s liberation, black liberation, and gay liberation sound now, Scully used each to characterize the three most far reaching, transformative, and gratifying movements of his lifetime. I’m sure he didn’t always think that way, but among the many things I admired most about him was his ability to change his views. Of all the spiritual systems he knew, the one that seemed soundest to him was Greek mythology. He almost made this lifelong, church-going Methodist believe he was right.

He was of the belief that great teachers must be both scholars with brilliant ideas and performers who conveyed those ideas in an engaging way.

I worked as Scully’s head teaching assistant when I was a graduate student at Yale. I managed his huge lecture classes and the corps of teaching assistants who led the individual, small sections. We saw each other together every day and became good friends. We were rarities at Yale: We both were from New Haven. He was raised in a family of old-line Irish Democrats — his father was the president of the city’s Board of Aldermen — and remained one himself to the end. I was a mutt: My mother’s parents were Italian immigrants, my father was a WASP, and my family was monolithically Republican. Still, we knew many of the same people and shared another central, searing life experience: urban renewal.

From the 1960s through the 1970s, we watched as New Haven was systematically dismantled. Many of the earliest proponents of urban renewal were Yale-trained and Yale-based. New Haven was the test case, the first “Model City,” and Scully initially welcomed the promise of renaissance via creative destruction. As the 1960s went on, though, abundant federal largesse and the latest studies by eggheads and experts powered a battalion of bulldozers aimed at the old city and its neighborhoods, and he changed his mind.

Nobody likes slums, but Scully understood that home is home. New Haven’s poor neighborhoods had established businesses, churches, schools, civic groups, and family networks that nurtured one another. The new high rises had modern amenities but inhuman scale, and they existed in isolation. New Haven was both an old Puritan capital and a rich, bustling center of Victorian industry. It was one of America’s Silicon Valleys in the 19th century and had the architecture to prove it. Much of this was lost in the rush of urban renewal.

Scully thought the cutting edge architecture of the Model Cities movement was totalitarian: The dogmatic vision of the architect often overrode basic elements of human feeling and willfully ignored a building’s relationship with its neighboring buildings and the landscape. Architecture, he felt, was a place where God’s will and man’s desires clashed. Urban renewal, a religion embraced for many years by New Haven and Yale ruling elites, often cut both from the equation in an orgy of arrogance. He called it “pure, disorienting hell,” and championed the nascent architectural-preservation movement as an alternative.

While Scully never suffered from the hubris of most tenured professors, he did catch their naïveté. He was passionate about vernacular architecture and low-density development. Yet his solutions pointed to gentrification, which is urban renewal for the well-to-do. As a native New Havener, he knew better than most that small businesses and good schools anchored a prosperous city. He remembered when the city had had a bustling private sector and decent public schools, because he had benefited from both. But he was simply clueless about how best to create space for those institutions to thrive again.

Politically, Scully was a conventional liberal. His view of fellow Yalie Bill Buckley was, to say the least, unkind. But he shared a certain spirit with the founders of modern conservatism, and reading, for instance, Russell Kirk’s pungent views on urban renewal, one can hear his marbly voice saying very much the same thing. He was a dear friend and mentor, and he will be missed.


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