Scully’s Way

Scully’s Way

Generations of Yale students share stories about special moments in Vincent Scully’s courses on art and architecture.


Generations of Yale students share stories about special moments in Vincent Scully’s courses on art and architecture. Scully’s wide-ranging knowledge counted, but it was the presentation that made the difference. Scully was a charismatic figure on the stage; his focus and passion made him a memorable classroom and public lecturer. No doubt it was the drama that prompted Time magazine to name him one of the ten “Great Teachers” in the United States in 1966. The first story I heard–now long ago–about Scully came from a political science major who was in one of Scully’s classes in the mid-1960s. He described how in one lecture Scully spontaneously responded to the image projected on the screen, seeing something new in what was to him a familiar image. As Scully described his new insight, he became so absorbed in his dialogue with the image and with the class that he stepped back to the edge of the stage and fell off. But he did not stop talking. He finished his point and then resumed the lecture back on the stage. Was it true? My friend insisted it was. Is it important that my friend did not tell me the work of art at issue? Perhaps. Is it relevant that my friend acquired from Scully a life-long interest in architecture? Of course.

His lectures were rhetorical, emotive and connotative. He did not marshal evidence in the usual academic way; he inclined toward an intuitive and declarative style, and it was often difficult to grasp the evidential links in the transit from projected image to the meaning he proposed. But if some students were not quite sure how it was done, they came away with an expansive and humanistic appreciation of architecture.

Undergraduates were not, however, Scully’s only audience at Yale. A large number of the architecture students who came in contact with him found inspiration and guidance into the central issues of modern architecture theory and practice. Among them were some of the most important architects practicing today, including Robert A.M. Stern, the current dean of architecture at Yale, to say nothing of the considerable number of architecture writers spawned in his classes. This collection of Scully’s essays invites a larger audience into that extended conversation.

Scully’s approach to architecture emphasized what he called “visual empiricism.” He translated his experience of a site or building into words. It was a subjective approach, yet he often presumed that his experience–and his interpretation of that experience–was universal. It comes as no surprise that he was early influenced by Carl Jung, and he expected to find universal archetypes in human form-making. Over time, his understanding of archetypes moved away from Jung’s ahistorical universalism to historically specific precedents, though a rhetorical tendency toward universal claims remained. He also emphasized the importance of empathy to understanding the experience of a building. This method was manifested on the printed page by fluent prose and warm sympathy. Often, however, the visual evidence Scully presented was neither supported by archeological or textual evidence, nor did it seem to express quite so much as he claimed. His most famous book, The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture (1962), revealed, at least to some, the perils of Scully’s subjectivity, and it received rather rough treatment from classicists, one of whom referred to its “mystical approach.”

While Scully is not likely to be remembered as one of the great architectural historians, he may find a place among the gallery of distinguished American critics–like Montgomery Schuyler, Lewis Mumford and Ada Louise Huxtable–for his historically grounded but engaged architectural criticism. That possibility is enhanced by the well-chosen essays in this volume. Not only did Neil Levine, professor of architectural history at Harvard, make an excellent selection, he also provided a brief but illuminating biographical essay tracing Scully’s career. Better yet, the headnotes he has written for each of Scully’s essays are themselves gemlike mini-essays. Since the pieces here reprinted were mostly written for special occasions, Levine identifies the significance of each occasion and the place of the essay in the context of architecture culture and in relation to Scully’s developing ideas.

In the range of his interests, his commitment to the value of history, his interest in the relation of landscape and building, his discomfort with the purist ideology of Modernism, his appreciation of the romantic sensibility and, indeed, his predilection toward moralism and rhetorical excess, Scully shares much with Mumford, who also found a large audience among architects and the general public. As with Mumford, this combination of concerns produced by the 1960s a growing unease with the direction of Modernism.

Yet Scully’s breadth is paired with a peculiar hermeticism. His essays and Levine’s contextualizing take note of a rather small number of individuals and movements as subjects or as relevant context. One does not get much sense of the increasingly heterogeneous and eclectic world of architecture over the course of the past half-century. The so-called New York Five (of whom Peter Eisenman and Richard Meier are today perhaps the most widely known) appear briefly, but other subsequent avant-garde movements and theorists do not. Even Frank Gehry is not mentioned until Bilbao. No Chicago architect after Sullivan and Wright is considered. The parallel concerns of Mumford and, to a lesser extent, Jane Jacobs, are not addressed. Nor are those of Huxtable, his contemporary and architecture’s most important public voice in their generation. Whether this apparent parochialism reflects the limits of Scully’s work or the accident of selection, a larger framing is warranted.

Scully’s core concern in these essays is the experience we identify as modern and how that experience finds appropriate expression in the architecture of the modern era. To phrase the issue this way is to make an important point: He locates himself within the domain of the modern, not within the Modernist movement. His is the broader terrain, and it provides a position from which he can examine the Modernist movement without becoming trapped in its teleology. It has been said–accurately–that he has put distance between himself and Modernism since his defense of Modernism against Norman Mailer’s 1963 assault. But it is not until his embrace of the New Urbanism in the 1990s that he might fairly be tagged an outright opponent, as distinct from an internal critic.

By Modernist movement, Scully meant the International Style. It was so named in an exhibit organized by Henry-Russell Hitchcock, later to be Scully’s dissertation adviser, and Philip Johnson at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932. It was probably the most influential architectural exhibit ever mounted. Heavily influenced by the German Bauhaus, it defined Modernism quite specifically, even narrowly, celebrating industrial materials and methods and demanding purity of form. (In this regard, it was not much different from Clement Greenberg’s slightly later program for painting or that of the New Critics for literature.) Frank Lloyd Wright was one of only four Americans in the exhibit, but he had been characterized by Hitchcock as a nineteenth-century architect and thus reduced to a precursor to the Modernists celebrated in the exhibition. Only a few years later Hitchcock would revise this judgment, but in The International Style (1932), the book that accompanied the show, Hitchcock and Johnson disparaged Wright as a “Romantic individualist.” It was Wright’s deviation and distinctiveness, however, that drew Scully to him and sustained his effort to define a more expansive Modernism.

Later, Johnson–as predictable as a jack-in-the-box–would change directions and become an ally of Scully in the critique of the Modernism he had himself done so much to promote. Kahn and Venturi were more important than Johnson. In their very different ways, they provided Scully with routes to a freer Modernism, “richly complicated, leavened, and extended.” He became their champions, in part because they were “gentle” revolutionaries, while the heroic “International Style” and its advocates were “more than a little totalitarian.” His hostility to the European-dominated movement and praise for the outspoken and self-consciously American Wright ought not to be misunderstood as a kind of nativism. In fact, during the McCarthy era Scully defended a cosmopolitan vision of architectural culture, publicly taking Wright to task for succumbing to antiforeign and anticommunist rhetoric.

Modern Architecture and Other Essays addresses inter alia many issues, but the recurring themes are three, and all are matters of continuing concern in American architectural culture and public discussion. First, there is the question of history and its place in modern architecture. That issue points to the second. What is the relation of Modernism and postmodernism? The third issue is larger than architecture–the condition of American cities. Scully approaches this issue through a consideration of the New Urbanism movement, a development in architecture that often blurs the line between the recuperation of historical forms and indulging nostalgia.

The International Style rejected historical styles and the eclecticism of the nineteenth century for forms that utilized and honestly expressed the materials and technologies of modern life. In addition, it declared the irrelevance of history. Modern life and its needs would generate new forms. But in fact, the first generation of Modernists could not dispense with the history they already knew. Who can miss the fundamental role of classicism in the work of Mies van der Rohe? Compare his New National Gallery in what was West Berlin with Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s extraordinary nineteenth-century Greek revival museum east of the Brandenburg Gate. Differences in style notwithstanding, both of these buildings are brilliantly conceived on classical premises.

But the ideology of Modernism insisted, and continues to insist, on its escape from history. Only the the avant-garde rejection of history no longer derives from revolutionary confidence, but from fear of the weight of history. History and invention are treated as mutually exclusive. For Bernard Tschumi, a leading avant-gardist who recently stepped down as dean of Columbia’s architecture school, history threatens originality. In fact, as Scully argues, invention depends upon history. In his essay on Louis Kahn, whose originality is without doubt, he makes the case with care and detail. Kahn’s visits to Egypt’s pyramids, the towers of San Gimignano and Roman vaults formed the historical ground of his remarkable innovation in the Trenton Bath House, the Richards Medical Research Building, the Kimbell Art Museum. Creativity flows out of a conversation with the past about present needs and conditions. Kahn regarded historical buildings as “friends rather than enemies.” For Kahn, Scully writes, the mind, when faced with an architectural program, “selects from the forms it has already stored away the one which seems to suit the situation best. Then, through Design, the architect bombards that chosen Form with the particulars of the program until it deforms in response to them. If, however, the original Form was the right one, the whole thing, however modified by Design, will still hold together in the end.”

Scully’s concern and argument goes beyond cognitive processes. He argues that modern architecture depends upon both classicism (history) and the vernacular, meaning the architecture of place or context. Kahn was helpful as Scully worked through these issues, but it was younger innovators, Venturi and Aldo Rossi, the Italian neorationalist architect, who moved through the door Kahn opened. In them, one finds “the revival of the classical and vernacular traditions of architecture and their reincorporation into the mainstream of modern architecture.” Here Scully is making reference to underlying principles, not the pastiche of historical styles or banal copying so often seen in so-called postmodern architecture. Too often the proponents of the contemporary avant-garde, like the critic Herbert Muschamp, uphold the dichotomy of history and creativity by building up these straw figures as warnings against history and context.

It is at this point that Robert Venturi’s remarkable book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), makes its vital contribution to architectural culture. Scully became aware of Venturi’s work only in 1961, at the urging of Robert Stern, his student at the time. As with Kahn, though along a different axis, Scully saw in Venturi’s early work another way to enrich and, to his mind, rescue the Modernist project. If Venturi called part of his book a “gentle manifesto,” the foreword that Scully wrote for it trumpeted its significance. In effect, Venturi was asking his elders in the Modernist movement: What is the big fear? Why the barricades? Why spend so much time warding off, purifying?

Venturi, too young to have lived in a nineteenth-century bourgeois home and family, may have been unable to grasp the psychic as well as aesthetic investment in clearing out the clutter. He also rejected the tough masculinity of the Modernist movement; indeed, his later partnership with Denise Scott Brown, his wife, was a genuine collaboration, something quite rare among the heroic international Modernists. He embraced both memory and innovation. Instead of protecting purity, he welcomed inclusion, accommodation and irony. He reminded his colleagues that Modernism was grounded in a recognition of the contemporary world. He even allowed in honky-tonk elements. In a later book, Learning From Las Vegas (1972), he accepted the “Strip.” More important, Venturi and his co-authors connected architecture with the economy of contemporary modernity, anticipating the age of the computer, the LCD screen, flexible production. But the book overdid a good point. The notoriety of the honky-tonk aspects of the second book displaced attention from the much wiser book and its more powerful ideas. Venturi’s best subsequent architecture derived from the first book, not the second.

The first book promised a rescue of Modernism, and plausibly so. Scully claimed that like FDR, who saved capitalism and was then attacked by capitalists, Venturi saved Modernism and became the target of Modernists. Partly that happened, I suspect, because of developments that encouraged a different way of discussing the crisis of Modernism. Postmodernism got recognition as a movement, something marked, perhaps, by the publication of The Language of Post-modern Architecture (1977), by Charles Jencks, and by the slightly later “Chippendale” skyscraper Johnson designed for AT&T (now the Sony Building). The public had received news of a new direction in architecture that defined itself against Modernism, and they found themselves suddenly surrounded by postmodern buildings. Far from examples of accommodating inclusion, many of these buildings were appalling–overscaled, pseudohistorical, pastiche. Irony devolved into a bad joke. Yet these buildings were probably no worse than the all-too-pervasive overscaled and banal modern buildings of the 1960s and 1970s that still scarred the cityscape.

Scully found the ground shifting, leaving little standing room for debate within a larger Modernism. What Kahn, Venturi and Scully were pointing toward was, in Venturi’s original formulation, a more inclusive Modernism, one that could contain the many threads of Modernism. There were always multiple threads in Modernism, and much that was tagged as postmodernism, and thus next in a sequence, had been there from the beginning, not only in architecture but across the arts. To some extent the modern/postmodern dichotomy derived from the truncated presentation of Modernism at the International Style exhibit. Alternative threads were ignored or marginalized. Alvar Aalto, Kahn, Wright and the threads they represented, to say nothing of the distinctive modernisms developed outside Western Europe, were pushed to the margins and made unavailable, somehow unmodern. A big-tent Modernism would have provided room for a plurality of practices and fruitful theoretical debate.

More recent developments played a role as well. Architecture became more academicized and theory-conscious, and creativity became confused with the pursuit of expressive individualism, which weakened any impulse to accommodation. Rather than building upon the “shoulders of giants,” as Isaac Newton put it, contemporary academe (not architecture alone) celebrates provocation and a selfish originality effectively defined as absolute difference. It is a style that diminishes the claims of history, devalues colleagues and displaces dialogue in favor of polemic. At the extreme it resembles a cult of academic celebrity. Scully, himself something of a celebrity, continually challenged this particular logic. But in the end he too left the big tent by embracing the New Urbanism.

The past half-century has been unkind to American cities, and New Haven is far from an exception. Scully, who was a resident of New Haven from birth to retirement, leaving only for military service, watched this history unfold. When urban renewal bulldozed the historic city, he turned to historic preservation, insisting that the city’s historic form and buildings could be part of the future. The turn to historic preservation ought not to be considered evidence of a turn from Modernism. Modernism needs the past if it is to represent the new. But with the city falling apart, socially and physically, more than the historic core was at issue. A new urbanism was needed, and he turned to a movement that called itself by that name.

The New Urbanism movement was international, pioneered in Europe by Léon Krier and in the United States by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, former students of Scully’s who formed a partnership in Miami. Their signature work was the development of the town of Seaside, Florida. Some of the best architects in the country were invited to design buildings there, following the design guidelines devised by Duany and Plater-Zyberk. Streets were scaled to humans, not cars, and open space suggested community. The utterly predictable homogeneity of the residents made a feeling of community almost automatic. Scully strongly supported this movement, but he was not so blind to its limitations as were its founding architects. He pointed out the class basis of Seaside, and he noted the obvious: It was really suburban, not urban. In its few specifically urban iterations, the New Urbanism is surely “city lite,” not the real thing.

To his credit, Scully prefers to call the work of his former students a new “Architecture of Community.” While more honest as to the intention and result, this title carries its own burden. The quest for community, almost by definition, is the pursuit of sameness, a sense of we-ness. And “we” implies an excluded “them.” Community also carries the heavy baggage of nostalgia, and the New Urbanism is an unending exercise in nostalgia for the privileged. It loses touch with, indeed escapes, the experience of contemporary life in urban America. Using Scully’s own wide definition of modern architecture, it is clear that the New Urbanism falls outside the tent, and Scully’s embrace carried him into opposition to the Modernism he so long championed.

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