spacer spacer spacer
yalealumnimagazine.com   about the Yale Alumni Magazine   classified & display advertising   back issues 1992-present   our blogs   The Yale Classifieds   yam@yale.edu   support us


The Yale Alumni Magazine is owned and operated by Yale Alumni Publications, Inc., a nonprofit corporation independent of Yale University.

The content of the magazine and its website is the responsibility of the editors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Yale or its officers.


Comment on this article

The Patriarch
Vincent Scully is controversial, combative, the consummate insider but a fighter by nature. He is one of the most influential voices in architecture today—and maybe the greatest lecturer Yale has ever seen.

At 11:35 on a Monday morning, Vincent Scully walks to the lectern and glances at his watch. As always at the start of a talk, he’s a little tense, like an actor wound up before a play. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he begins, “you will remember the last time I talked to you about…” The lights of the lecture hall go dark and slides appear on the big screen behind him. His voice is soft and hesitant at first, probing for the way forward. He does not use notes or deliver quite the same lecture twice, even after 60 years. But the words soon catch on the flow of images, and that voice, gentle one moment, all gravel and tumult the next, begins to draw his audience with him.

Part of the Scully legend is that he once got so carried away during a lecture that he fell off the stage.

Names and dates to be memorized do not figure largely in what follows. Scully’s goal is to open his students' eyes, by showing them how he sees and thus how they can begin to see for themselves. So it’s not just an Ionic column, mid-sixth century B.C., up there on the screen. Nor do the volutes of the capital look to him, as others have proposed, like the ringlets of a woman’s hair. Instead, Scully '40, '49PhD, points out how the slender, fluted columns rise like jets of water, lifting the broad horizontal entablature of the temple, then flowing out to either side. “You can make that shape with a paddle in the water,” he says, of the scrolls on the capital. “It’s geometric. It’s hydraulic.”

He stands off to one side of the stage, the smudge of reflected light from the lectern making a ghostly presence of his reddened face and the pale double curve of the eyebrows. He cants himself toward the slides, and his hands reach out, turning and undulating, as if he means to conjure the image to life on the stage. When he shows the huge choir window behind the altar at Chartres, he remarks that you have to climb uphill to the cathedral, and still seem to be climbing once inside. “You get the feeling there’s a great tide coming. If you’ve ever rowed, and the tide changes …” Here he reaches out with both hands for imaginary oars and lays his back into it, as if toward the heavenly light behind the behind the altar.

The New Yorker once ran a profile of Scully, which ended with a scene of him rowing his Gloucester Gull out into the wild winter seas of Long Island Sound. He was roaring Homer in the original Greek, as the waves came rumbling "polyphloisboio" toward the bow, and then went sighing “thalasses, thalas-ses” beneath the boat. It was a portrait of the art historian as an old man, defiant, a little crazy, and clearly on the shortlist for the afterlife. But 28 years later, Scully is still out rowing in winter. (He uses a heavier boat now, a weathered old Bank dory evocative of that other Homer, Winslow.) At 87, he also still teaches the course for which he is famous, as much as for his 20 books, or for the criticism that has made him one of the most influential voices in modern architecture.

For generations of Yale students in History of Art 112a, Scully’s voice rising from the front of a darkened auditorium has been their first real experience of art and architecture. It has always been a form of theater, one man on a stage serving up careful analysis, unabashed emotion, and an astonishing breadth of literary, mythological, and intellectual associations. The news of the day has often gotten mixed in, linking Picasso’s Guernica to the My Lai massacre, propaganda sculpted on the breastplate of Augustus to an American president boasting “Mission Accomplished.” (“Works of art stay the same,” Scully says, “but meanings drain in and out of them according to the experience of a generation.”)

In Scully’s prime, his theater was physical, too. He depended on an audiovisual assistant working as many as seven slide projectors at once, and he liked to prowl hungrily beneath the images. “Focus!” he'd cry. “Would you please get the focus? You’re making it worse. Focus, please.” Sometimes he rapped on the stage with his pointer to call up a new slide, and now and then, carried away with a thought, he flailed at an image on the screen until a snowfall of reflective particles came drifting down.

“My father started taking me to Yale games when I was about four years old.”

Once, driving home some emphatic idea about modern architecture, Scully ripped the screen with his pointer. He didn’t comment until several slides later, says Ned Cooke '77, a student in that class and now a professor in the art history department. Then he deftly folded the rip into a discussion of surface and skin in a house by Le Corbusier. Part of the Scully legend is that he once got so carried away during a lecture about Frank Lloyd Wright that he fell off the stage, and climbed back up, bleeding but still on topic, to wild cheering from his students. (“I never really fell,” he confides now. “I miscalculated, and jumped.”)

He still has that performer’s instinct for the moment, making a strength even of his age. When the temple at Deir el-Bahri goes up on the screen, he begins to describe “the 18th-dynasty queen named …” but then stops and says, unembarrassed, “Ah, I’m so sorry. I don’t know.” He walks back to the lectern. “You will tell me the name, you know it.” A few voices call back to him, and he catches it. “Hatshepsut. I’m so sorry … one of those things.” Smiling now, he says, “You will have to carry me out in a moment.” The audience laughs, and he returns to his topic.

A menacing day in late November, the sky alternately luminescent and lowering. Scully and his wife, the architectural historian Catherine (nicknamed Tappy) Lynn '81PhD, are headed for the Yale Bowl. Lynn drives. Scully declaims. “Watch out! Go, go! You, Tappy!” She is unperturbed. It would hardly be Scully without the passionate intensity, particularly not today, when Yale faces Harvard for the Ivy League title, and 60,000 people are due to attend. He has been dreaming darkly about this game, and losing sleep, all week. Just negotiating the traffic to the Bowl is a dire challenge. So when Lynn manages to cut off a Harvard man named Ted Kennedy at the gate to the VIP parking area, Scully is ferocious in triumph: “Look out!” he cries, as if to barbarian hordes surging down from the North, “We’re ruthless! We’ll mow you down! Oh, Tappy, you’re marvelous.”

“All the rest of Yale is a gentle tonal unity; the Beinecke’s area is one blinding white flash.”

It would be an understatement to call Scully a devoted fan. “I’m the twisted creature I am,” he says, “in part because my father started taking me to Yale games when I was about four years old. I remember everybody being taller than me, and my father lifting me up so I could see what was happening.” He doesn’t merely recall the career of Albie Booth '32, Yale’s legendary 144-pound back; he holds a 77-year-old grudge over it. “This is one of the main reasons why I always hated Army,” he says. “Army threw the pass carefully to Booth, to be sure he got it, and then they got him. They all jumped on him. They broke his ribs. They gave him pleurisy. He was out for the rest of the season. And he died young; he was only about 45. Anyway, I always hated them.”

An old friend of Scully’s has e-mailed ahead to warn a visiting journalist what to expect: a single-minded focus on the game, punctuated by loud outbursts of strong feeling. But his friends understand “the exact titration of seriousness involved in any particular rant.” They also know that “he sees things quickly—almost before they happen. If he says 'First Down,' it IS first down. He is never wrong.”

Today, though, the gods send their blessings elsewhere, and everything is wrong. Approaching gate 16, Scully digs into his coat pocket and realizes that he has mistakenly brought the tickets for the previous game, when a lingering cold and heavy weather kept him home. “Oh, you have them, Vince, keep looking,” Lynn says, not falling for it. For 29 years now, he has been stopping at this gate and asking, “You brought the tickets, Tappy?” knowing perfectly well that they are in his pocket. But today they aren’t, and this is a game for which every VIP who ever slinked through New Haven has been angling all week for a seat in the Bowl. Scully and Lynn quickly decide to brazen it out, putting the journalist with the valid ticket in front and scuttling close behind. It works.

But the game is a debacle. Scully watches grimly, fists jammed into the pockets of his herringbone coat. He is well behaved, except perhaps when he is likening a crimson patch of Harvard fans across the stadium to a cancerous growth. Harvard runs the score up to 37-0, and Scully bursts out in the strangled laughter of the forsaken, then sinks back into his coat. Despair sends the brim of his canvas sunhat down to meet the tips of his upturned lapels.

He is seated with a cadre of old friends at midfield, surrounded by university administrators, major donors, and members of the Yale Corporation. Tens of thousands of fans on this side of the stadium would know his name and probably remember his class among the high points of their college education. He is a Sterling Professor (emeritus since 1991), Yale’s highest academic appointment, and Yale has named not one, but two endowed professorships in his honor. Still, Scully worries aloud about not having a ticket, as if someone might grab him by his J. Press collar and fling him back into the streets of New Haven.

And you get the feeling he almost likes it that way.

Scully’s relationship with Yale has always been both fiercely loyal and gleefully subversive, a schizophrenic triumph of the inside-outside man. He has at times admonished university officials, notably in the successful fight to prevent demolition of parts of the Divinity School in the late 1990s. He has also often twitted them.

I knew the dress code all right, but I couldn’t afford it.”

In the 1960s, for instance, Scully and the sculptor Claes Oldenburg '50 reconnoitered Beinecke Plaza one night when the library was new and the aesthetic pain still fresh. (“It hurts everything that was there before it,” he said at the time. “All the rest of Yale is a gentle tonal unity; the Beinecke’s area is one blinding white flash.”) The two of them decided the library looked like a table radio and the sunken sculpture garden like an ashtray. What it needed, Oldenburg suggested, was a big cigarette resting on the garden wall, to put everything in scale. “But the director of the Beinecke was a fanatic who thought we were all Maoists, so we didn’t dare do it,” Scully recalls. “There would have been blood probably.”

Instead, a group of students and faculty commissioned Oldenburg’s Lipstick (Ascending) On Caterpillar Tracks and placed it on the plaza as a platform for dissidents. Later, when university officials were inexplicably unthrilled, the sculpture ended up in the courtyard of Morse College, where Scully was master.

Scully says now that he never wanted to be “the company man.” Then he tells a favorite story, about a time he and the architect Robert Venturi were at the American Academy in Rome with Yale president Rick Levin. Venturi remarked that Scully had been the first member of the establishment to support his work, and Levin turned with eyes wide and said, “Member of the establishment! Are you kidding?” The exchange still makes Scully laugh. But later, he comes back to this idea of being the inside-outside man, as if troubled by it, to say, “Yale has always protected me.”

He grew up in New Haven, in a two-family house at 61 Derby Avenue, halfway between the campus and Yale Bowl. His father was a successful Chevrolet salesman until the Depression, and later served as president of the board of aldermen. His mother was a singer, whose piercing coloratura seems to have given him a lifelong ambivalence about music. Neither of them went to college. But Scully never considered that he would end up anywhere other than Yale.

After the first day of graduate school at Yale, Scully dropped out to become a fighter pilot.

He entered Phelps Gate in 1936, the shank of the Depression, and the experience sounds Dickensian now. He was just 16, a townie from an Irish Catholic family with no money. “I hadn’t gone to a prep school, I didn’t know the proper codes. I knew the dress code all right, but I couldn’t afford it.” As a scholarship student, he worked freshman year waiting on his wealthier classmates in Commons. “You said, 'Will you have the meat of the day? Will you have the cold cuts?' And I didn’t like it, I really didn’t like it. I felt a lot of snobbery. Whether real or imagined, it poisoned my years at Yale. I had a few friends, but not many. And I just never grew up enough. Properly.”

There were six movie theaters in downtown New Haven then, and Scully visited a different one each night. On the seventh night, “I had to decide which one to see a second time.” Asked how long that went on, he answers in a burst of laughter, “Four years!” Fencing was Scully’s other undergraduate diversion. His mask and epee now decorate the front hall of his house, on either side of a bust of Julius Caesar.

Scully majored in English, building up the store of literary associations that resonate through his lectures today. But the dry discipline of the New Criticism had infiltrated the English department then, and he didn’t much like it. “I wrote a stupid senior essay—you can see how decadent I was—on the influence of Swinburne on Baudelaire, or vice versa, and it was very bad.” He bailed out of a playwriting course in the last semester of senior year and switched to an introductory course in art history, where a future mentor, George Hamilton '32, '42PhD, gave him an A+. The English department kept its hold on him a little longer. But after the first day of graduate school at Yale, he dropped out to become a fighter pilot.

Scully entered the Army Air Corps in November, 1940, and flew a PT-17 Stearman biplane, “wonderful aircraft, open cockpit, white scarf.” He laughs. “You know, Dawn Patrol. Errol Flynn. Who knows what all crap.” Unfortunately, he couldn’t fly (“I had no sense”), and he could not get past his flight instructor’s southern accent (“He’d tell me to do this and I’d do something else”). There were two runways and, coming in to land after a check ride once, Scully headed for the wrong one. “He went, ‘Naaaggh! You want to go to the other one.’ So, I had been told by a Navy pilot how to sideslip. You weren’t allowed to do that in the Army. Cross-control. And I did. I slipped perfectly into the other lane and landed it. Instead of being pleased with me, he was terrified. He thought, ‘God, I’m going to die.’” Scully washed out.

He became a Marine instead and served during World War II in both the Pacific and Mediterranean, rising to the rank of major. But it is the one thing in his life he will not discuss. Asked about seeing action, Scully says, “Saw some. The war was such a complicated thing for me, and very painful to remember. I don’t mean to give the impression that such terrible things happened to me. It’s not like that. It’s just all painful. You don’t mind?”

He came back to Yale afterward feeling that architecture and art were solid, living things. “I was ready. Soaked it up. Ah, god, I loved it! I never enjoyed anything as much as graduate school, and everybody used to tell me how awful graduate school was.” George Hamilton urged him to do his thesis on the Hudson River painters. But Scully had already begun teaching architecture to undergraduates in 1947, and a photograph of McKim, Mead, and White’s Low House captured his imagination instead. It led him to Newport, Rhode Island, where he identified two distinctively American styles of domestic architecture. Scully’s terms for them, the “stick style” and the “shingle style,” instantly became a part of the architectural vocabulary, “invested with meaning,” in the words of one scholarly article, “by his compelling arguments and extraordinary powers of description.” He earned his doctorate in three-and-a-half years, joined the art history faculty at Yale, and quickly published two prize-winning books out of his Newport research.

Scully had married during the war, to an art history major from Wellesley named Nancy Keith, and they soon had three sons. They decided to build a home outside New Haven. Scully went to Frank Lloyd Wright for the plan. He was caught up, at the time, in the heroic idea of the modernist architect driven by his artistic vision, and Wright seemed like the most heroic of them all. But Scully being Scully, he also noted borrowings in some of Wright’s early designs.

“I asked him what he thought about Bruce Price—didn’t he like that work he’d done at Tuxedo Park? He looked at me. He knew exactly what I was talking about. He said, ‘Son, architecture began when I began building houses out there on the prairie.’” Scully cackles softly at the memory. “What a confidence man, what a crook! He was great, really.” In the end, Wright’s plan proved too expensive for a junior faculty member to build. Scully paid the fee, and then designed his own glass-walled house in the woods.

At the same time that he was championing modernist architecture, Scully immersed himself in ancient Greece. He likens himself now to anthropologists who “go all over the world to many different times and places. They’re after behavioral patterns. So am I.” Going to Greece, he says, “was the great opening for me, when I had my religious experience with Greek temples. I saw the sacred landscape, the sacred buildings. I saw the relationship between the two. It changed my life.”

Scully’s book The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods argued that the Greeks had conceived and planned their temples in relation to landscapes reflecting the characteristics of specific gods. One critic praised it as the “most distinguished book of its kind” since Ruskin’s Stones of Venice and marveled that “it has taken two centuries of staring at ruins and rummaging amongst fallen stones for an architectural historian to raise his eyes at last to the horizon and see the Greek temple in its totality … an inseparable whole, whereby earth, temple, and god are but one.” But classicists cold-shouldered the interloper. One complained about a lack of written evidence and argued that it would have been hard to site a temple in the Mediterranean without some connection to the ubiquitous conical mounds and cleft mountains.

Scully began to see buildings almost as living creatures.

Back at Yale, Scully’s relationship with the art history department was sometimes combative. “I don’t know how much love there was, but there was plenty of hate,” he recalls. The department when he joined it “was like a South American army. They were all generals except me. I was the only private.” Many of them had come from privileged backgrounds and pursued traditional scholarly specialties. Scully, the abrasive newcomer, the townie, seemed to be ranging across the entire world, particularly when another of his books, Modern Architecture: The Architecture of Democracy, became a standard text in the field. His viewpoint was “so synoptic, so well read, bringing together so many diverse strains, with such a keen eye,” says his student and longtime friend Robert A. M. Stern '65MArch, now dean of the Yale School of Architecture, that very few people could live up to it. Worse, Scully always got applauded when he took his turn team-teaching the introductory history of art course. His colleagues generally didn’t. (“And, I mean, that’s bad stuff,” Scully says.)

Then in the early 1960s, Scully’s marriage came to an abrupt end, and the bitter divorce disrupted not just the two families involved, but also the art history department. Scully’s wife had been well liked within the department, one survivor of the era recalls, and people didn’t understand why he “got involved with this other person.” They particularly didn’t understand because the “other person” was the wife of a junior faculty member in art history. Some of Scully’s colleagues shunned the couple because they were “living in sin,” in the parlance of the day. “The whole thing was terrible,” Scully says now. “It was bad in every way.” In 1965, Marian LaFollette Wohl would become his second wife; their daughter was born the next year. That marriage also broke up, in the 1970s.

A slide goes up on the screen. The lofty entry hall of the Laurentian Library in Florence, with Michelangelo’s celebrated stairway “coming lava-like, flowing down at you.” Other art historians would use a term like “mannerism” for the play of classical forms here. But Scully is more interested in how the building makes people feel. He asks his listeners to imagine themselves as scholars entering this three-story antechamber, craning their heads up to the reading room on the second floor, its doorway framed by towering pilasters. “That’s where all the precious books are. That’s where you’re going to work.” But first you have to deal with a stairway like “an escalator coming down against you, as you go up. You’re looking up and it looks as if those big pilasters are going to tumble right out of the wall and fall on your head as in an earthquake.”

Scully chewed out the whole audience for its middle-class sense of values.

Michelangelo’s meaning, says Scully, has to do with “the difficulty of getting to work” for the human scholar. Once you’ve fought your way up to the reading room, those pilasters no longer threaten, he says, but now stand beside you protectively, “like soldiers.” And when you finish your work and come back out, the whole glory of the entry room is “at your level, like a great blast of trumpets for you. ‘Hooray, I’ve done it, I found the footnote.’ And I do think, exaggerated as it sounds, the life of the mind, its victories, are really embodied here, the terror of it, the hardness of it, and the glory of it at the end.”

Scully doesn’t mind if students disagree with a particular interpretation; his purpose is mainly to give them the faith that interpretation is possible. “When students start, it’s like theater,” he says. “They have to develop a suspension of disbelief, because they’re not having these experiences you’re describing. They have to have faith in your having them—that it’s possible to have them. And then they pretend to have them, and then they have them. That’s how it works.” Early on he decided that team-teaching was the wrong way to inspire that faith. “One person has to do it,” he says. By the mid-1960s, Scully was back in good standing in the art history department, buoyed by his popularity with students and his international reputation as an architecture critic. He pushed to end team-teaching, and took over the introductory course for himself.

In the early days, says Scully, he trained himself not merely to experience art, but to empathize with it, pushing past the merely intellectual or cultural associations to perceive things “at some sub-cultural level” having to do with fear and aggression, “lights darks, bigs littles, ups downs.” He looked for Jungian archetypes. Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, makes liberal use of the death-and-resurrection archetype, “where you go in a low dark space, you’re pressed, and then you’re released into light.” Scully began to see art, and particularly buildings, almost as living creatures, with emotional lives that jostle back and forth with our own.

Scully knows why architects do irrational things.

His students—as many as 500 in a semester—loved it. The cover of an undergraduate magazine once featured Scully’s head on Superman’s body, over the inevitable headline, “Able to leap tall buildings with a single bound.” They also often came away changed for life, even when they did not realize it. It would show up years later, when they found themselves in front of Donatello’s St. George, and Scully’s voice suddenly resonated from some forgotten corner of their brains (“paranoid modern man… nobody going to assault him”). It showed up when they built a dream house and consciously sited it toward some sacred mountain in the distance. Scully was never easy, never, as one former student puts it, “the tender, loving, nurturing soul.” The historian David McCullough ’55 recalls one class in the early 1950s, when a Mexican peasant turned up asleep in the foreground of an archeological slide, and someone in the audience started to laugh. Scully “took the pointer and banged it down on the stage and said, ‘Turn up the lights.’ Then he chewed out the whole audience for its middle-class sense of values. How dared we laugh at that man, what did we know about his life, the work he did, the fatigue he might have been feeling? And then he left the room, he was so mad. It was unforgettable.”

But McCullough also recalls walking with Scully on campus one time when he stopped to point out the way the afternoon light fell on Strathcona tower. “He said, ‘Look at that! That’s what architects work with, not stone or glass, but light.’ I can’t look at light on a building to this day without thinking of that moment.” McCullough credits Scully with introducing him to the Brooklyn Bridge as a work of art, eventually leading him to write his book The Great Bridge. Likewise, the designer Maya Lin ’81, ’86MArch, was inspired by Scully’s description of the Lutyens memorial in Thiepval, France, commemorating the soldiers who died in the trenches of the Somme. It helped shape her thinking about her Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the mall in Washington, DC.

Scully’s ideas have also changed the American landscape through his many close relationships with the architects he has backed, including Robert Venturi and Louis Kahn, and with those he has taught at the Yale School of Architecture, including Robert A. M. Stern, Charles Gwathmey '62BArch, and New Urbanism pioneers Andres Duany '74MArch and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk '74MArch. “All my early houses in the shingle style are without question the result of his books, his writing, and what he said in class,” says Stern. “He opened my eyes to the possibilities of recovering this tradition of buildings which goes back to the 1870s.” Design partners Duany and Plater-Zyberk likewise credit Scully with helping them appreciate ordinary vernacular houses on the streets of New Haven, at a time when more conventional critics would not even have classed such buildings as architecture. His teaching, says Plater-Zyberk, “allowed us to develop a project like Seaside,” the traditionalist Florida community that launched the New Urbanism movement in the 1980s.

Norman Mailer said of Scully, “He’s a better writer than me, but I know more about architecture.”

Scully’s relationships with architects have always gone beyond the intellectual to the sub-cultural, and when they talk about him now, tangled teacher-student, critic-artist emotions often flash by just below the surface. Plater-Zyberk admits that Scully once declined to provide an introduction to a book she and Duany had written because “it wasn’t good enough,” leading them to do a complete revise. Charles Gwathmey recounts Scully’s response to his preliminary elevations for an addition, now under construction, to Paul Rudolph’s corrugated concrete Art & Architecture building at Yale: “He said, ‘You should do the whole thing in glass, make it all glass,’ and I said, ‘Vince, I can’t believe you’d say that.’ It was definitely a Scully moment, I can tell you. Just right at you, boom!” Gwathmey went back and rethought his plans (though not in glass).

“Vincent Scully sees things in our buildings more clearly than we do ourselves,” says Stern, “and he’s not given to holding back.” Scully “knows how architects create, how they think, how they’re threatened by each other, why they do irrational things,” says Duany. He sees how they influence one another and also how they “swerve to disguise influences.” The result is that “he doesn’t just change architectural history, he changes architecture itself.” Philip Johnson once called Scully “the most influential architectural teacher ever,” and Stern adds, a little ruefully, “We’re all still trying to figure out how we can please Vince. We’re still doing it for him.”

Having grown up a mile to one side of the New Haven Green, Scully now lives a mile to the other, off Whitney Avenue out beyond the Peabody Museum, in a modest wood-frame house behind a scrim of birch trees. A big husky named Aldo (after Scully’s late friend, the architect Aldo Rossi) presides there, occupying most of a small couch in the bay window of the front room, stately and territorial, two paws up on one arm. From childhood, says Scully, “I always had dogs, and I used to run my dogs,” on Edgewood Avenue, where the grassy median was planted after an Olmsted design, with a double row of elm trees. “So it was like a great cathedral,” with tree trunks like Gothic columns and the branches forming the ribs of a vaulted ceiling.

When he wasn’t immersed in a book, Scully spent much of his childhood in Edgewood Park, skating, sledding, or playing sports. (He still keeps his tattered leather football helmet in the room where he writes.) He also wandered the city on foot or by trolley. In memory, New Haven can sound improbably idyllic: “The summer trolleys were open and they had cane seats, and it was so tropical, and you just sat in the open or hung on the sides, and kids ran alongside.” But Scully uses a plainer term for it: “decent urbanism” was simply normal then.

Scully’s deep attachment to New Haven has always shaped his thinking about architecture—most notably in the 1960s, when he suddenly realized that the modernist architects and planners he had passionately advocated were tearing decent urbanism to shreds and paving it under. The turning point for him came in 1964 when Architectural Forum reprinted a diatribe by Norman Mailer against modernist architecture (“the first art to be engulfed by the totalitarians … beheads individuality … blinds vision … deadens instinct … obliterates the past”). At the request of the editors, Scully produced a feisty rebuttal to Mailer’s “lazy, pot-boiling paragraphs.” To Mailer’s yearning for old styles, Scully replied, “Why couldn’t The Naked and the Dead have been another Chanson de Roland?” And he ended with the moral, “A little horseshit never hurt anybody. Look at Mailer.” The combat was gleeful on both sides. (According to Scully, Mailer later remarked, “He’s a better writer than me, but I know more about architecture.”) But Scully also came away haunted for life, he says, by Mailer’s argument that the work of the heroic modern architect was leaving us “isolated in the empty landscapes of psychosis.”

Scully had already seen it for himself at Beinecke Plaza and in the “fat, wide slab” of the Pan Am building by Walter Gropius, which had recently killed the view down Park Avenue in Manhattan. But Mailer’s “exact and terrible phrase” made him step back and see the problem whole. At about that time, highways were beginning to cut through New Haven, including one proposed connector that would have sent six lanes down Trumbull Street to loop around the city and back to Route 95, leaving the Yale campus and the New Haven Green in the position of the island at Indianapolis Raceway. Scully helped kill that plan and also worked on a successful campaign to halt the demolition of historic buildings on the Green.

At about that time, Bob Stern, then a student at the School of Architecture, introduced Scully to the work of Robert Venturi. Scully ended up writing the foreword to Venturi’s “gentle manifesto,” Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. In place of the clean sweep being inflicted on cities by modernists, Venturi embraced the “messy vitality” of the built environment. Instead of ego-driven architectural statements, he wanted buildings to pay attention to context, to respect or at least acknowledge the past, and to accommodate human needs. Scully liked everything about this manifesto except perhaps the gentle part. He called Venturi’s book “the most necessary antidote to that cataclysmic purism of contemporary urban renewal which has presently brought so many cities to the brink of catastrophe.”

The “contextual” approach, which Scully called the “architecture of community,” became the key to his architectural thinking and opened the way to the New Urbanism in the 1980s. In time, he would go on to attack even his old heroes, founders of modernism like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, for “despising the structure of the traditional city” and “being determined to outrage it as much as possible in their individual buildings.” He was sounding, as the Harvard art historian Neil Levine '75PhD, a former student, puts it, “almost as categorical as Mailer.”

Scully characteristically admitted what he saw as his own past errors. “One thing I will never forget,” says Andres Duany, was a lecture in which the image on the screen was a grand old Victorian building, which Scully had once been happy to see the city of New Haven demolish. “And now he looked at the slide and said, ‘Oh, my God, how I regret that! But we hated Victorians then.’” Scully taught his students, Duany adds, to love architecture “for the quality, not for the ideology.”

For the past 16 years, Scully and Catherine Lynn have spent most spring semesters at the University of Miami, where Plater-Zyberk is dean of the School of Architecture. Scully teaches modern architecture; Lynn teaches architectural preservation. They own a house in Coral Gables. He rows there on the canals, where the main hazard is that basking manatees will go sighing “thalasses, thalasses” beneath the keel. Apart from the effects of exercise, Duany attributes Scully’s persistent vitality to Lynn. They met when she came to Yale as an art history graduate student in 1978, and they married in 1980. “He wouldn’t be as alive, as exciting, without her. She is a colleague, not just a wife. They write together, and edit each other’s articles.” With the architectural critic Paul Goldberger '72 and Erik Vogt '99MEnvD, they co-authored a 2004 book, Yale in New Haven: Architecture and Urbanism. (It had originally been intended for Yale’s Tercentennial celebration in 2001 but arrived late, and perhaps just as well, since it was characteristically not all that flattering.)

“Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t like last classes, this one least of all.”

In addition to the two endowed Yale professorships, Scully has been honored by the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, which in 1999 established the Vincent Scully Prize for achievement in architecture and urban design. (Recipients have included Jane Jacobs and Prince Charles.) In 2004, Scully received the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor in the arts. (In the official photograph, he smiles wanly beside a beaming President George W. Bush '68.)

Scully tells a story about an honor that, though less formal, was plainly more thrilling. It’s also, as it happens, a story about male rivalries, and marriage. In the mid-1990s, a 90th birthday party for Philip Johnson, the doyen of the architectural world, took place at the Four Seasons in New York. Jackie Onassis was greeting guests at the top of the stairs when the Scullys arrived with the architect Michael Graves. After they'd passed by, “Michael and I were like, Wo-o-o-o-o-w. She turns. Looks at you. She used to focus—focus, that’s what she'd do.”

Later, Scully and Lynn found themselves directed to the head table, where Onassis, who knew Scully’s work, beckoned for him to sit beside her. Scully proceeded to entertain her through much of the party, on topics from architecture to a Kipling verse about a dog named “Monsieur Bouvier de Brie.” Meanwhile, the guest of honor, neglected on Jackie’s other side, “was getting madder and madder at me. She was talking to me all the time. She wasn’t talking to Philip. So when it came time for Philip to take a bow he said, ‘Now I want everybody in this room who’s an architect to join me here. I don’t want anybody who’s not an architect. I don’t want anybody who writes about architecture. I want the architects.’” The memory of it makes Scully laugh.

Later, on the walk home, when he was still hovering a foot or two above the pavement, it dawned on him that his wife might also, perhaps, be mad. But Lynn merely patted him on the forearm and said, in a tone of affectionate irony, “Don’t worry, Vince. It would be un-American to resist Jackie Kennedy.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Scully is saying, as the auditorium lights go dim. “I don’t like last classes, this one least of all. I’ve been teaching at Yale for 61 years.” Here his voice trembles, then gravels down into the sort of cough meant to conceal emotion. “But I’ve enjoyed this class more than any other. Part of that’s due to you, and I owe you thanks for your attentiveness. The other reason I like this one most is that I feel for the first time in all those years I’m beginning to get it right.” He gets a laugh, but also means it. “Sometimes they say the mathematician is brightest in his twenties, but that’s not true for us,” for humanists. “We slowly grow and then, just at the time when we think, 'Yes, we know,' then it’s too late. It’s too late for us, but not maybe for the next generation.”

The lecture is about Michelangelo and he begins with the way the artist, young as he was, could express the “real affection, real sorrow, real love” in his Pieta: the “wonderful, simple movement” of the mother’s right knee hiking up and lifting the body, one arm reaching behind, the fingers pressing into the slack flesh of the rib cage, while the upraised palm of her other hand says, “This is my dead child.” He moves on to Michelangelo’s David, commissioned by the city fathers of Florence, and focuses on how the artist exaggerates the right arm, “the one that’s going to do the business,” clutching the stone with which to slay Goliath. The two sculptures, carved at almost the same time, depict, says Scully, the artist’s two great loves, Christ and the Republic of Florence. “He cares about Florence. He cares for the fact that it is a republic. And when it falls under a Medici tyranny, his heart dissolves with sorrow.”

He moves to a side view of the David and points out the face, contorted with “doubt, irresolution,” and “baser emotions—fear, disgust, revulsion.” Scully, a soldier once himself, shows how, from the side, David’s body doesn’t convey “any sense of young manhood stretched, young and tight and resolute. It’s like a stalk, the head looks too big, and it’s as if he’s asking the fundamental sculptural question: Must you act? What have I got against the giant? What is this act that I must commit?”

The lecture circles around, through Michelangelo’s architecture, back to a final sculpture that the artist struggled with until the day of his death, at 89. The slide on the screen shows a half-formed work in which “this shaky-legged Christ is falling back in the arms of his mother,” and the two of them seem to be “melting into each other, dying away at one time, into one flesh.” The “wonderful dexterity” of the artist’s youth has vanished, Scully says, and “now here at the very end he’s using the crudest sculptural tools. He’s trying to make it breathe. He’s trying to breathe himself, I suppose. Everything about it has to do with death”—of Christ, the Virgin, and the artist. But again Scully moves the audience around to the side, to see how the long, loose arm of Christ forms an arc, and the intractable stone seems to move with it “into pure spirit,” and thus he leaves his students with an image not of death, but of art overcoming it to form “one great neoplatonic circle in the sky.”

The applause begins and Scully thanks his listeners two or three times. Then he does something no one in this class has seen thus far: instead of staying by the stage to speak with students and visitors, his usual practice, he steps away from the lectern and strides resolutely to the back of the room. People look around, as if to ask whether this is, after all, the end. But later, Scully explains that it’s the way he finishes every semester, walking out of the room and back into the streets of New Haven. “You don’t want to stand there like the royal family acknowledging applause. It’s too disgusting.”

Leaving is simply the best way to make them stop clapping.  the end


©1992–2012, Yale Alumni Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Yale Alumni Magazine, P.O. Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, USA. yam@yale.edu