Although Vincent Scully's subjects as an architectural historian ranged from Greek temples to the pueblos of the American Southwest, from Park Avenue towers to French classical gardens, it is impossible to think of him without talking first about New Haven, Connecticut, the small northeastern city where he was born on 21 August 1920, the only child of a father who sold Chevrolet automobiles and a mother who was an aspiring opera singer. It was in New Haven that Scully received his formal education, first at Hillhouse High School and then at Yale University, where he earned his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees and would teach for almost all of his career; it was also in New Haven where he formed his notion of what a city was. The city's famous “nine squares” plan led Scully to think about grids as shapers of cities, as its Victorian Gothic city hall by Henry Austin and its classical post office by James Gamble Rogers led him to think about architecture as civic symbol; similarly, its neighborhood parks and central green led him to think about public space, and its enormous rock outcroppings made him aware of the relationship of landscape to urbanism. New Haven was also the place that shaped his views, increasingly vocal as he grew older, about the failings of urban renewal, modern architecture, and autocratic planning; the incursion of highways into the city's central core (which he would always call “connectors,” using the local parlance) became his model of how not to treat a city.
Scully spent almost all of his academic career at Yale, retiring as Sterling Professor of the History of Art in 1991 and continuing to teach as an emeritus professor until 2009, when he was eighty-nine years old. While he also had a flourishing late career as an adjunct professor at the University of Miami, where for a decade he spent half of each year after stepping down from the Sterling professorship at Yale, New Haven remained his home, his touchstone, and the place he looked to for lessons about urbanism almost to the end of his life. (He spent his last six years in Lynchburg, Virginia, the home of his wife, the architectural historian Catherine Lynn, which is where he died on 30 November 2017. Other than sabbaticals in Europe and the time he spent abroad as a Marine in World War II, his years in Lynchburg were the only time he did not reside in New Haven.) It was in New Haven that Scully came first to think about themes that carried through all of his work: the belief that architecture has a social purpose, the shaping of community, that confers a meaning that goes beyond its purely formal qualities. As he would put it many years later in another context, what he valued most about architecture was its connection to “the actions of human beings and the effect of physical forms upon their spirit.”1
Scully's student Neil Levine, the Emmet Blakeney Gleason Research Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, has suggested that Scully's interest in seeking an empathetic connection to form reflects the influence of Henri Focillon, who taught at Yale from 1940 until his death in 1943. Levine has written that Focillon's La vie des formes (The Life of Forms in Art) through “its emphasis on the changing meanings of forms over time and their relation to the viewer's direct visual experience would remain a guiding principle of Scully's mature thought.”2 His early years as a graduate student at Yale—he returned to the university in 1946 after serving in the Marine Corps during World War II—exposed him to colleagues like George Kubler and Carroll Meeks, and also, Levine has written, to the writings of Sigfried Giedion, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, D. H. Lawrence, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright, among others. He received his PhD in 1949, completing his work in only three and a half years and writing a dissertation that would eventually become one of his most influential books, The Shingle Style, which was published in 1955.
In 1947, while still a student, Scully would make a brief foray into architectural design himself, taking a course in the architecture department, and he published his first article, “Architecture as a Science: Is the Scientific Method Applicable to Architectural Design?,” in the Yale Scientific Magazine in May 1948. A critique of Giedion, this publication might be said to prefigure his later prominence as a critic of modernist orthodoxy, at least so far as it was expressed in the neo-Bauhaus world of Harvard. By the time that article appeared, Scully had already burnished his credentials as a voice in opposition to what might be called the Harvard school of modernism by appearing—along with Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen, Alfred Barr, Lewis Mumford, and Hitchcock—at a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York titled “What Is Happening to Modern Architecture?” at which he took issue with Breuer and Gropius for marginalizing Wright.3 He was the youngest participant on the panel, and he was already earning a reputation as a leading critic of Giedion and Harvard modernism. And the MoMA event would foreshadow a lifelong eagerness to ensure that the walls of the academy did not limit his ability to engage in public discourse about architecture—an eagerness that years later would lead to a public debate with Norman Mailer over the value of contemporary architecture, a critique of the 1964 New York World's Fair in Life magazine, and regular commentaries in Architectural Digest.
Even as Scully began to spread his wings—he took his wife, Nancy Keith, whom he married in 1942, on a pilgrimage to Wisconsin in 1947 to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin—everything still seemed to connect, in one way or another, to New Haven. His admiration for Wright's work led him to ask the architect to design a house for him on a suburban site just outside New Haven. When it failed to meet his $20,000 budget, Scully decided to design a simplified version of the house himself, which Neil Levine would later describe as “a woodsy, part-Johnson, part-Breuer International Style box.”4 New Haven was also, of course, a frequent subject of Scully's writing, and the influence of the city on his thinking wove through much of his work and extended all the way to his final book, Yale in New Haven: Architecture and Urbanism, written in association with Lynn, Erik Vogt, and myself and published in 2004. This book attempted to evaluate the architectural and urbanistic implications of the relationship, nearly three centuries long, between Yale and its city, an issue that Scully had been reflecting on, it is fair to say, for his entire life. “University buildings … should be among the city's most enduring,” Scully wrote. “It is, after all, something like immortality they deal in, offering an escape from the restrictions to life that ignorance imposes. … This should be especially true of Yale in New Haven, God's city under the mountain: haven of exiles, heaven on earth for all mankind to see.”5
But New Haven also played a major role in Scully's earlier works, such as American Architecture and Urbanism, originally published in 1969. It was there that Scully, describing the relationship of Peter B. Wight's Street Hall, Egerton Swartwout's old Yale Art Gallery, Louis Kahn's new Yale Art Gallery, and Paul Rudolph's Art and Architecture Building, sited beside one another along Chapel Street at the edge of the Yale campus, offered one of his most famous, and most resonant, definitions of architecture as “a continuing dialogue between the generations which creates an environment developing across time.”6
American Architecture and Urbanism was in many ways the work most characteristic of Scully's impassioned and socially engaged approach to architectural history; it was surely the one that most closely replicated the famous experience of his Yale lectures, with their cavalcades of images, rapid-fire associations, and comparisons between architecture and painting, architecture and poetry, and works of high and vernacular architecture. Scully, deeply engaged by the “urban crisis” of the 1960s, wanted to use the tools of the architectural historian to offer a sweeping vision of the United States as a nation whose love of movement and open space had left it in deep conflict about its cities. “Cataclysmic, automotive, and suburban: these have been the pervasive characteristics of Urban Redevelopment in America,” Scully wrote.7
We can hardly flee our neighbors along the ringing high-road forever. Crazy the image, and dear to us; and if we are fortunate, we shall make more and more of it in the future, farther out and wilder. But it cannot be all. Its pursuit is of emptiness, and we must stand up now to urban life with our fellows, in our feared and hated cities, though the smell of the morning break the heart on the high plains.8
Scully loved the open road, he loved automobiles, and he loved small towns and villages as much as he loved great cities, if not more; not the least of the reasons those sentences from American Architecture and Urbanism are so indicative, beyond the fact that they demonstrate the commitment to social responsibility that wove through almost all of his writing, is that they stop short of sermonizing to acknowledge the visual pleasures that can be found amid sprawl and the strip. Scully was always more inclined to romanticize than to scold, and that remained true as he underwent something of a conversion in the mid-1960s, putting aside his belief in the heroic possibilities of modernism—about which more shortly—in favor of the view that there were important things to be learned from the architectural vernacular in general, and the commercial vernacular in particular. For that Scully owed a debt to Robert Venturi and, later, Venturi's wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown, as well as to his student and longtime colleague, the architect Robert A. M. Stern, who first introduced him to Venturi's work when Stern was a student at the Yale School of Architecture.
Scully would come to write the introduction to Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, in which he would assert that the book, published in 1966, was “the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier's Vers Une Architecture, of 1923.” It was a statement that seemed hyperbolic, and it won Scully few friends outside the Venturi camp. By the time the book was reissued in a new edition eleven years later, it had become something of a classic, and Scully's claim for it no longer seemed like a wild exaggeration.
It was the deliberate anti-monumentality, the irony, in Venturi's architecture that most excited Scully, however. He was always more comfortable with the aspect of Venturi's work that could be described as a mannerist take on traditional architectural form than with the aspect that celebrated Las Vegas and the banality of the everyday. To him, the notion of an architect eschewing monumentality was exactly what American culture needed in the mid-1960s as an antidote to what he viewed as the militarism and overbearing displays of American power of the Vietnam War. Scully often described Venturi's buildings as gentle, and he made no secret of how different he found them from the work of the modern architect who had been his first passion, Frank Lloyd Wright, or that of Le Corbusier, with whom he had come, later, to be equally besotted. In the years before he discovered Venturi he had romanticized these and other heroic modern figures as representing a kind of existential power, seeing in their forms the embodiment of decisive human action. Not for nothing did Scully quote Camus at the beginning of his 1961 book, Modern Architecture: The Architecture of Democracy.
But the sixties changed him, as they changed so many people, and by 1974 Scully had published a new edition of Modern Architecture with an added chapter subtitled “The Age of Irony,” which supplemented Camus with quotations from Shelley and from Wallace Stevens. Students in his lecture courses in the 1960s and 1970s recalled Scully telling them, with a candor they did not expect from an eminent professor, how he had changed his mind about many of the things he had most believed in earlier in his career, most particularly the notion that modern architects could boldly remake the world. He was always enough of an urbanist to view the Ville Radieuse with skepticism if not outright disdain, but he came to see Le Corbusier's buildings increasingly in terms of how well they worked into an urban fabric, not in terms of sculptural power. He placed on his lecture screen an image of Le Corbusier's High Court at Chandigarh when it was new, and then a later one showing its pillars painted in bold colors; in an earlier time Scully might have suggested that the paint was a defacement, but by the 1970s he proclaimed his willingness to see it more as an attempt to humanize the buildings.
It is worth asking, however, how much he truly changed. Michael Lewis has pointed out that Scully “always identified himself with what he felt to represent the most humanist direction of architecture at any given moment.”9 No building, to Scully, was ever merely an object, devoid of time and culture; its placement in culture was what engaged him, which is why, over time, he went from being relatively indifferent to historic preservation to becoming an ardent supporter of the preservation movement. (Not the least of his connections to it is what may be the most famous quote by anyone about the replacement of McKim, Mead, & White's Pennsylvania Station in New York by a glorified subway station: “Through it one entered the city like a god. … One scuttles in now like a rat.”)10
The evolution in Scully's thinking is also expressed by the contrast between two of his most ambitious, if most controversial, books: The Earth, the Temple and the Gods, published in 1962, and Pueblo: Mountain Village Dance, published in 1975. Both books looked at architecture not as pure form but as objects inseparable from their landscapes. Greek temples, for Scully, boldly confronted the earth; pueblos, by contrast, accommodated to it. The temple was assertive and freestanding, the pueblo, gentle and connected. If classical scholars were generally not enthusiastic about Scully's new way of seeing the Greek temple—and it was indeed a new way—when he turned his attention to the American Southwest he was able both to enter territory little explored by previous architectural historians and to find a parallel to his wish to turn modern architecture away from heroism and toward accommodation. But every phase of Scully's thinking, including, as Lewis and others have observed, his version of heroism, was framed by his fundamental outlook of humanism.
The 1960s and 1970s were also years of personal upheaval for Scully. He and his first wife, with whom he had three sons, divorced, and in 1965 he married Marion Lafollette Wohl, the former wife of a Yale art history colleague. It was a painful time—Nancy Keith was popular among his colleagues, and his relationship with Marion led to much bitterness within the art history department. His second marriage yielded a daughter and lasted through his tenure as master of Morse College at Yale (1969–75), but by the end of the 1970s, this marriage, too, had ended. In 1980 he married Lynn, who received her PhD from Yale in 1981. It would be his longest and happiest union.
If Scully's disenchantment with the idea of modern architects as heroic figures led him to embrace Robert Venturi in the 1960s, he had contributed no less to the rise of another important figure, Louis Kahn, in the previous decade. As with Venturi, he was the first prominent architectural historian to demonstrate a serious interest in Kahn's work, and his monograph in George Braziller's series on contemporary architects, Louis I. Kahn, published in 1962, was the first book on Kahn. Scully saw Kahn as representing something different among the heroic modernists whose work had so excited him. Kahn, to Scully, was no less ambitious, no less heroic, but his somber and distinctive modernism broke firmly from both the International Style and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Scully presented Kahn as an architect who did not so much reject history as reach back into it in search of something basic, something primal, rough and raw. “His buildings, despite their Roman connotations, are hard and normally without covering finishes; they are exactly what they seem: not for the faint-hearted, which is as it should be. Kahn therefore requires wise and courageous clients who are willing to forgo the gloss of superficial perfection in order to take part in a sustained and demanding process of which they may one day be proud,” Scully wrote.11
Scully's generosity to his students, and his willingness to acknowledge their contributions to his thinking—indeed, his willingness to change his thinking in response to what he learned from them—was unusual in the world of scholarship. He thanked Robert A. M. Stern in print for his work on George Howe before Stern's book was even published, for example, and made frequent references to Stern's role in connecting him to Venturi. Surely this, as much as his commanding presence on the lecture platform, was one reason that so many prominent architects and critics, many of them his former students, journeyed back to New Haven one morning in April 1991 for what was expected to be Scully's final lecture before his retirement (required by Yale's then-mandatory retirement age of seventy), taking seats in the lecture hall in a surprise tribute to their teacher. The event attracted Philip Johnson, Maya Lin, Cesar Pelli, Stanley Tigerman, Kevin Roche, Leon Krier, Andrés Duany, and Stern, among many dozens of others, and ended up as the subject of a front-page story in the New York Times, which noted that Scully was so startled to see the famous visitors scattered amid his students that he briefly had to leave the auditorium to compose himself before beginning his lecture. After the lecture, the visitors adjourned to Kavanagh's, an old Irish bar on Chapel Street that Scully favored over New Haven's more polished establishments, for a lunch arranged by his students with the conspiratorial assistance of his wife. It was the first time the place had ever closed for a private party.
It is worth saying here that if the circle of students closest to Scully was made up of architects, art historians, and critics, his influence extended far beyond people professionally connected to architecture. As a teacher of one of the most popular courses at Yale for more than sixty years, he reached countless students who became lawyers, bankers, teachers, and doctors, and ignited in many a lifelong interest in architecture. Through his celebrated lectures he may well have created more sympathetic and engaged architecture clients than anyone else ever has.
But no list of Vincent Scully's students would be complete without Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, whose impact on him may have been the most notable of all. Like Stern, they were not Yale undergraduates, and they encountered Scully when they arrived at Yale as graduate architecture students in the mid-seventies, as Scully was completing his rethinking of what constituted a contemporary humanistic architecture. After they established their own firm, DPZ, they would design the influential town of Seaside in Florida, which Scully admired particularly for its elevation of town planning principles over the architecture of individual structures, and they would go on to found the New Urbanist movement. And, perhaps most important of all to the later chapters of his life, they would invite him to teach at the University of Miami. For more than a dozen years he and Lynn would spend their winters in a small cottage in Coconut Grove, and a generation of non-Yale students would be exposed to architecture as seen through the lens of Scully.
Scully had hoped that the New Urbanists would call their movement “The Architecture of Community,” but the decision not to do so did not prevent him either from serving as the group's guiding philosophical figure or from using that phrase as the title for the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities that he delivered at the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1995, at the invitation of the National Endowment for the Humanities.12 He would give other versions of the talk, most famously at the White House in 1998, when he was invited to speak at a dinner celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Pritzker Prize.13 His presentation there, titled “America at the Millennium: Architecture and Community,” was an event with no small degree of irony, since so much of his talk was devoted to praising the vernacular design of traditional communities over the iconic buildings of famous architects such as those the Pritzker Prize was created to honor. It was not surprising that Hillary Clinton, in her remarks following the talk, thanked Scully by calling him “eloquent and forceful, but quite subversive.”
It was Scully's nature, of course, always to be something of an outsider. He was a townie at Yale; years later, when he was one of the university's most eminent and celebrated professors, he could not keep himself from criticizing Yale administrations, frequently for what he viewed as their architectural mistakes, and his relationships with Yale presidents were often fraught. He lost a battle to save two J. C. Cady buildings that Yale tore down in 1967 to make way for a Marcel Breuer structure that Scully hated, but he won some other rounds, such as when he helped prevent alterations to the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle by Delano & Aldrich in the 1990s. It would be no exaggeration to say that he had an eighty-year-long lover's quarrel with the university.
Then again, you could say the same thing about his relationship with architecture. If his tendency to romanticize the ambitions of architects could sometimes seem extravagant, not to mention indulgent, it was always balanced by a tough, unsentimental eye that evaluated form with an almost relentless rigor. He was a harsh critic, even as he was a generous and tolerant observer. He saw architecture as noble, and his love of the vernacular architecture of American cities and towns that he came to value so much in the final decades of his life came from a belief, instilled in his upbringing in New Haven and never shaken, that there was no social pursuit as meaningful as the struggle to make an ordinary place civilizing and nurturing. He believed, one might say, in the sacredness of the everyday.
And he believed, too, in the sacredness of language. Perhaps that was his greatest gift, in the end: not just that he had passion, but that he was so good at communicating passion. Some of that was because the imprint of his early studies in literature never left him, and so he filled his lectures with references to Mark Twain, to Herman Melville, to Walt Whitman, to Robert Lowell, rejecting a hermetic view of architecture and seeking always to find ways to connect it to the rest of culture. His career was, at its heart, a saga of words, both written and spoken, used in all their great and majestic power and beauty to express all that architecture can be, and can mean.