The patriarch

Alinari/Art Resource, NY

Alinari/Art Resource, NY

Scully describes Michelangelo's entry hall to the Laurentian Library in Florence as a metaphor for "the difficulty of getting to work" for the scholar. "You're looking up," he says, "and it looks like those big pilasters are going to tumble right out of the wall and fall on your head as in an earthquake." View full image

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."

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.

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.

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."