How Vincent Scully Changed Architecture

Dec 6, 2017 by


Vincent Scully, right, with the architect and author Robert A.M. Stern in 1981. Credit Dorothy Alexander

Vincent Scully, America’s most important architecture historian, died on Nov. 30, at age 97. The architect Philip Johnson proclaimed him “the most influential architecture teacher ever.” But Professor Scully was more than a teacher. He was a critic and a passionate public intellectual. He brought his interests, intellect and knowledge to bear on the world around him. Thanks to him, generations of architects, urbanists and scholars learned to see the world around them through the lens of human tradition and experience.

This was no small feat. As much as if not more than any other critic, Professor Scully enabled the recuperation of the grand continuities of architecture and urbanism that had been cast aside by the protagonists of the Modernist revolution of the 1920s and 1930s. Professor Scully helped reconnect contemporary architecture with its past after a generation of self-proclaimed modernists had insisted that theirs was a new unique approach, freed from tradition and rooted exclusively in function and advanced technology.

Without Professor Scully, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and others might never have shown the way past the soulless modernism of their predecessors. Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk might never have developed the ideas of New Urbanism, which have done so much to bring human scale to the suburbs. And generations of scholars — not all of them architects — might never have learned to appreciate the human scope in the world around them.

Professor Scully was the most rigorous of scholars, but he also believed that scholarship cannot be siloed, to borrow a contemporary term. He was not only widely read in his subject but also in literature, especially fiction; he was given to salt his lectures and conversations with references to figures ranging from Anthony Trollope to Anthony Poole. Unlike many in his field, he avoided the abstruse abstractions of French deconstructionism, but he was also devoted to the work of Harold Bloom, his Yale colleague in the English department, whose book “The Anxiety of Influence” did so much to help Professor Scully’s own approach to the course of architectural ideas through the generations. By embedding his field within the humanities, Professor Scully made the battle for the soul of modern architecture seem like a conversation among reasonable people.

I write as a student of Vincent Scully, whom I was privileged to study under more than 50 years ago, and to have the benefit of his wisdom and the support of his friendship over the years. As a teacher he not only inspired would-be architects and scholars like myself, but also literally thousands of Yale undergraduates from a wide variety of majors, who went on to a wide variety of careers but would all take away from his classes a sense that they too had a responsibility to help shape the physical world.

The roster of Professor Scully’s architecture students is a veritable who’s who of contemporary architecture, extending from those of my generation like Stanley Tigerman, Jaquelin T. Robertson, Charles Gwathmey, David Childs, M. J. Long, Allan Greenberg, Mr. Rogers and Mr. Foster to a younger generation now reaching maturity including Ms. Plater-Zyberk, Mr. Duany, David M. Schwarz, Alex Gorlin, Sarah Caples and Everardo Jefferson. He was also supportive of those of his former students who followed his critical and historical work, including the critic Paul Goldberger and the architectural historians Helen Searing and Neil Levine.

When Professor Scully began to teach, while still a graduate student at Yale, in 1947, the Modernists had decisively won their battle with the Traditionalists. In their victory, men like Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe demanded that the past be banished from the discourse of contemporary practice. Professor Scully took up the challenge, and pushed back. His pioneering research into late 19th-century American domestic architecture, connecting the work of Henry Hobson Richardson and McKim, Mead & White to that of Frank Lloyd Wright, led him to see things differently.

His pathbreaking first book, “The Shingle Style,” published in 1955, not only put an enduring name to a hitherto undefined direction in American architecture, but also provided a definitive understanding of and appreciation for the formal and cultural differences between European and American architecture, elevating the latter as part of a broad continuum extending across national borders from its then lowly status as a mere footnote.

This sense of the contribution of American architecture to modern architecture as a whole was a revelation — not only because it showed Modernism’s debt to America, but because it showed that Modernism had a history, that it was not, as its proponents liked to believe, sui generis. Mr. Foster, who studied with Professor Scully at the same time I did, in the early 1960s, said as much in his speech on accepting the Pritzker Prize, acknowledging his debt to Professor Scully for opening his “eyes to the interaction between the old and the new.”

Over the years, Professor Scully came to regard the Modernists’ victory as hollow, paving the way for a more historically informed approach, exemplified in particular by three architects whose work he interpreted and helped promote — Louis I. Kahn, his colleague at Yale; Robert Venturi; and the Italian Aldo Rossi — and by their disciples, who would reject orthodox modernism in favor of a more inclusive postmodernist approach to building and city form.

Professor Scully did not decide to reject the Modernist movement overnight, and he was never so crass as to dismiss outright its leading advocates, like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. And while the Modernists were triumphant, in his early days as a teacher and scholar Professor Scully seemed to be fighting a rear-guard action. That changed in the late 1960s, as architecture students began to protest what they characterized as the overblown heroics of American Modernists, many of them trained at Harvard under Gropius, and the destructive slash-and-burn urban renewal strategies — largely but by no means completely misinterpretations of Le Corbusier’s planning theories — that were laying waste to communities across the world. Suddenly, Professor Scully seemed prophetic.


Pennsylvania Station in 1962, one year before it was demolished. Credit Sam Falk/The New York Times

In his 1969 book “American Architecture and Urbanism,” Professor Scully documented with persuasive clarity what American architecture had accomplished and what, under the spell of European interwar Modernism, had caused it to derail. Professor Scully also turned to political action, fighting entrenched government programs from the classroom and from the public podium of the press. He fought against urban renewal in his native New Haven, and he encouraged countless citizen-activists to resist the urban strategy that inaccurately called itself urban renewal but was in fact its opposite, a pro-suburban strategy of urban removal. Professor Scully was among the first, and surely the most eloquent, critics of the destruction of New York’s Pennsylvania Station. In this he complemented the arguments of the anti-urban-renewal activist Jane Jacobs, with whom he developed a close friendship.

Professor Scully not only encouraged many young architects to become preservation activists; he also encouraged them to look with fresh eyes at modern buildings that the blinkered Modernists had dismissed, like the romantic and urbanistically appropriate New York skyscrapers of the 1920s and the Collegiate Gothic quadrangles designed by James Gamble Rogers that Yale built to maintain its identity within an industrial city. His lectures encouraged Paul Goldberger, then an undergraduate, to write the first serious study of Rogers’s work — and Goldberger was far from alone, as later another Scully student, Aaron Betsky, would write a book-long appreciation of that architect’s work.

Just as important, Professor Scully helped us see preservation not simply as a matter of saving buildings, but of saving whole communities. He inspired two of his students, Mr. Duany and Ms. Plater-Zyberk, to formulate what would become New Urbanism, a set of ideas and practices that returned city planning to traditional patterns of streets and defined public spaces — a movement so successful that it is hard to imagine a developer trying to build a conventional strip mall ever again.

Professor Scully’s scholarship was wide-ranging. Though “The Shingle Style” remains a classic, he wrote on everything from Greek temples to Pueblo villages and French gardens. Ever the teacher, Professor Scully saw his lectures as his great lifework, and they surely were spellbinding. But for me, his greatest impact was his writing and his participation in the culture of architectural practice, including his work as a juror at the famously contentious reviews of student work in Yale’s architecture school.

With laserlike accuracy, he would cut through the obfuscating jargon and self-serving rhetoric of very many fellow jurors — academic and practicing architects alike — to connect student work with broad cultural ideas. Never harsh in his judgments, but not mealy-mouthed either, he frequently succeeded in redirecting the discussion to support the work at hand by embracing student intentions and placing them in context.

My personal debt to Vincent Scully is immense; he set me on a path as a practicing architect and educator, choosing memory rather than amnesia — a path I continue to follow. With a scholar’s knowledge and an actor’s passion, he helped so many of us appreciate the empathetic relationship between humankind and its masterworks of the built environment. Professor Scully’s greatest contribution was that he taught us how to see.

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