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.