Democracy Dies in Darkness


Vincent Scully, Yale scholar who explored architecture’s humanizing force, dies at 97

December 1, 2017 at 5:48 PM

Vincent Scully in 1966. (Harry Naltchayan/The Washington Post)

For Vincent Scully, architecture wasn't just about buildings. In more than six decades as a Yale University professor, he became known as the foremost architectural historian of his time and exerted a profound influence on how the wider public understands the purpose of architecture.

Even though Dr. Scully was not a trained architect, dozens of renowned architects studied with him, prompting one of the field's elder statesmen, Philip Johnson, to call him "the most influential architecture teacher ever."

In more than a dozen books and thousands of lectures that were an awe-inspiring form of performance art, Dr. Scully sought to impart several central ideas: that buildings help define a culture, that architecture should be a humanizing force and that a well-built community can foster a well-lived life.

Dr. Scully died Nov. 30 at his home in Lynchburg, Va. He was 97.

He had Parkinson's disease and recently had a heart attack, said his wife, Catherine W. Lynn. He had lived in Lynchburg, his wife's home town, for six years.

Vincent Scully in 1995 at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was designed by his former student, Maya Lin. (Frank Johnston/The Washington Post)

Hardly a cloistered academic, Dr. Scully influenced the ideas of people as varied as historian David McCullough, designer Maya Lin and thousands of urban planners around the world. He helped popularize the historic preservation movement and was the spiritual father of New Urbanism, a school of design that promotes architecture on a human scale by, in effect, looking toward the past to build the future.

"Scully was as much critic and activist as historian, a public intellectual interested in the present as much as the past," Keith Eggener, a University of Oregon historian of architecture, wrote in the online Places Journal in 2015. "He played a seminal role in defining the character of architectural history during the second half of the 20th century, and ultimately had as much impact on designers as on scholars."

Dr. Scully began teaching at Yale in 1947. Before long, his introductory course in art history was so popular that it had to be moved to the law school, which had the only lecture hall large enough to accommodate as many as 400 students at a time. He included architecture as a component of art history, along with painting and sculpture.

The lights were lowered in the hall at 11:30 a.m., when Dr. Scully began his lecture, accompanied by photographic slides. Inevitably, students dubbed the class "Darkness at Noon."

Dr. Scully, who considered his lectures his greatest creative achievements, spent a full day preparing for each class, even late into his career. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1966 as one of the country's finest college teachers and was later profiled in the New Yorker.

Early in his career, Dr. Scully shared the conventional view that architects were heroic artists of material and space, imposing an almost godlike vision on the world.

In a 2008 interview with the Yale Alumni Magazine, he recalled a conversation he once had with Frank Lloyd Wright, the renowned architect who developed his linear Prairie Style of architecture in the first decade of the 20th century: "He said, 'Son, architecture began when I began building houses out there on the prairie.' What a confidence man, what a crook!"

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Dr. Scully admired some of the buildings by Wright and other towering giants of modern architecture, including Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, but he began to see an emptiness at the core of their designs.

What they lacked, Dr. Scully concluded, was the human touch. He began to teach that architecture was about more than pure design. Its purpose was not to burnish the ego of the architect but to provide humane and beautiful places for community life to flourish.

Practically alone among architectural scholars of the time, Dr. Scully began to emphasize the importance of the past. In his lectures, he stalked the stage, using a long wooden pointer to direct attention to images of Greek temples, the Sistine Chapel, French formal gardens, American Indian dwellings, New England town squares and Italian villages.

He delivered his lectures in a seamless, grammatically perfect monologue, without using notes. Once, he reportedly slipped off the stage in mid-lecture, only to bounce up without missing a word of his commentary.

"Scully was astounding," architect Alexander Gorlin told Places Journal in 2015. "He commanded the audience, mesmerizing everyone with his language and intonation. He was preacher, magician, and conjurer."

Among the buildings Dr. Scully spoke about in his class was Pennsylvania Station, the monumental train terminal on the West Side of Manhattan that welcomed millions of travelers to New York City for more than 50 years. Its demolition in the 1960s gave rise to historic preservation, which Dr. Scully called the most important architectural movement in his lifetime.

"The preservation movement started, like many of the movements in human life," he wrote in his 1996 essay "The Architecture of Community," "with a great martyr: the mindless destruction of Penn Station in 1963."

Dr. Scully had traveled through Penn Station as a Marine and later as a globe-trotting professor, and his experience gave his writing a personal, impassioned fire.

"During World War II," he wrote, "how many times our emotions were stirred by coming into the city via that wonderful station, that great forest of steel. As we moved forward, all of a sudden the steel was clothed with the glory of public space — not private space, but public space for everyone. It all disappeared."

His conclusion was a final thrust of the dagger:

"Once, we entered the city like gods. Now we scurry in like rats, which is probably what we deserve."

When Dr. Scully reached Yale's mandatory retirement age of 70, his final lecture was featured on the front page of the New York Times. Architects and Yale alumni attended from around the world.

For many students, Dr. Scully's class proved to be an avenue to personal and professional discovery. McCullough, the best-selling historian and biographer, who went to Yale in the 1950s, said Dr. Scully encouraged him to see the Brooklyn Bridge as a work of art, rather than as a utilitarian structure. That insight led to one of McCullough's first books, "The Great Bridge" (1972).

Two of Dr. Scully's students in the 1970s, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, used his principles to develop a movement in architecture and planning called New Urbanism. With an emphasis on historic preservation and the idea that architecture could build a sense of community, Duany and Plater-Zyberk — a married couple based in Miami — seemed to have drawn their vision directly from Dr. Scully's lectures.

"We were interested in the idea that the culture of a place, the history of a place, the geography of a place should be influences on form," Plater-Zyberk said in an interview with The Washington Post. "That very much grew out of his ideas."

Another of Dr. Scully's students, Lin, recalled a lecture about a World War I memorial in France commemorating soldiers killed in the trenches.

"As he described it," Lin later wrote in the New York Review of Books, "it resembled a gaping scream; after you passed through, you were left looking out on a simple graveyard with the crosses and tombstones of the French and the English."

While still a Yale undergraduate, Lin sketched designs for what became the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington — in essence, an elegant, elongated trench carved in the Mall.

"He doesn't just change architectural history," Duany told the Yale Alumni Magazine about Dr. Scully, "he changes architecture itself."

Vincent Joseph Scully Jr. was born Aug. 21, 1920, in New Haven, Conn., where his father sold cars. He grew up as a middle-class "townie" who attended public high school. When he entered Yale at 16, he felt out of place among his wealthy classmates, whom he served as a waiter to earn money.

He received a bachelor's degree in English literature in 1940 and began graduate study in art history before entering the Marine Corps.

He served in the Mediterranean and the Pacific and reached the rank of major, but he steadfastly refused to discuss his five years as a Marine, except to say that the first time he saw the treasures of Greek architecture was from the deck of a troop ship during World War II.

"I saw the sacred landscape, the sacred buildings," he told the Yale Alumni Magazine. "I saw the relationship between the two. It changed my life." The experience led to one of Dr. Scully's most significant books, "The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture" (1962).

When he returned to Yale, he focused his studies on architectural history, receiving a master's degree in 1947 and a doctorate two years later.

In the early 1960s, when transportation planners sought to build a multilane highway through New Haven, Dr. Scully was outraged by plans to raze much of his home town.

Inspired by Jane Jacobs's 1961 book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," he led a successful fight to preserve New Haven's old neighborhoods from "urban renewal." He began to consider the country's reliance on the automobile, with its resulting suburban sprawl and tangled highways, a social blight.

"As neighborhoods were destroyed, the mediation of architecture between human beings and madness dissolved," Dr. Scully said in his 1995 Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center. "In countless American cities, redevelopment destroyed the very fabric of urban life."

Dr. Scully published more than a dozen books, including "Modern Architecture" (1961), which became a standard college text. His 1969 book, "American Architecture and Urbanism," articulated his changing views, weaving pueblo dwellings of the Southwest, urban brownstones and town squares of Colonial New England into a tapestry reflecting the varied strains of American life.

In "Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade" (1991), perhaps his most personal book, Dr. Scully illuminated the relations between buildings and nature, writing that architecture should embody a kind of civic and moral responsibility.

Among his honors, Dr. Scully received the first award presented by the National Building Museum for outstanding achievement in architecture, architectural scholarship, historic preservation and urban design. The prize was named in his honor. He received the National Medal of Arts in 2004 from President George W. Bush, a Yale graduate.

Dr. Scully was deeply learned in history and literature. When he went rowing, his favorite form of exercise, he would often recite Homer — in the original Greek.

His first two marriages, to Nancy Keith and Marian LaFollete Wohl, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of nearly 37 years, architectural historian Catherine W. Lynn of Lynchburg; three sons from his first marriage, Daniel Scully of Dublin, N.H., Stephen Scully of Boston and John Scully of Woodbridge, Conn.; a daughter from his second marriage, Katherine Scully of Tarrytown, N.Y.; five grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

After his formal retirement from Yale, Dr. Scully taught at the University of Miami, where his former students Duany and Plater-Zyberk led the architecture school. He ultimately settled in Lynchburg but continued to teach one course each fall at Yale until 2009, when he was 89.

At the end of his final lecture at Yale, Dr. Scully's students rose as one, and he thanked them for their attention, as he always did.

He walked briskly up the steps, then out the door, as the sound of applause went on and on, spilling from the lecture hall and ringing among the buildings he understood better than anyone else.

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Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida.

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