Architectural Historian Vincent Scully Dies

Scully, who taught at Yale University for more than sixty years, passed away on November 30th at age 97.


vincent scully obituary
Vincent Scully Courtesy Yale University

Writing for Metropolis in 2013, architecture critic Paul Goldberger said of historian Vincent Scully that “the first and greatest part of his legacy…is in giving architecture a broader, deeper, more informed public—in building a constituency for it—among people for whom architecture would never be a vocation.” Scully’s lectures at Yale–which The Washington Post described as “an awe-inspiring form of performance art”–were wildly popular, commanding audiences of up to 400 students. His teaching combined art history and architecture, but moreover firmly situated buildings within their urban, cultural, and social context. His seminal 1962 book, The Earth, the Temple and the Gods, inspired by his time in the Mediterranean as a marine in World War II, analyzed Greek temples in their physical and cultural context instead of treating them as standalone objects.

Deborah Berke, currently Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, told Metropolis that “…Scully’s greatest contribution was his teaching. He lorded over the lecture hall with passionate intensity, encouraging many to become architects and perhaps more importantly, inspiring countless others to appreciate architecture and architectural history. The built environment we experience today was shaped by Scully’s intelligence, wit, and erudition, and is better for it.”

Scully was a central figure in many architectural movements, sometimes changing his positions significantly. In the mid-1960s he “moved from being a pure, romantic modernist, convinced of the heroic aspirations of orthodox modernism, to a clear post-modernist,” wrote Goldberger. Scully’s focus shifted from figures like Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe to Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi. Scully was among the first to see the importance of Kahn’s work, writing that his architecture was “healing the breach between the present and the near no less than the distant past.” Scully also declared Venturi’s 1966 Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture “the most important writing on architecture since Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture, of 1923.” His former students included designer Maya Lin and historian David McCullough, as well as architects and planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who would go on to create the New Urbanism movement.

Scully has a special relationship to New Haven, where he was born in 1920 to a blue-collar family. (His father was a car dealer and when Scully entered Yale at age 16, he served as a waiter to earn money.) An advocate of preservation–he described Penn Station as “a great martyr” for the movement–and a fan of Jane Jacobs, Scully fought against urban renewal schemes and a new highway that would’ve dramatically changed the city’s urban fabric. In his book American Architecture and Urbanism (1988), he wrote “Since civilization is based largely upon the capacity of human beings to remember, the architect builds visible history…. For this reason, art history ought to be able to help him if he will let it do so, because it will cause him to focus on new things, to value more things, and, most of all, to sense and to love their relationships to each other and to the multilevel life of humanity.”

The National Building Museum one of its highest honors for Scully; the award “recognizes excellence in practice, scholarship, or criticism in architecture, historic preservation, and urban design.” Since the prize was established in 1999, past winners have included Jane Jacobs, Aga Khan, Phyllis Lambert, Paul Goldberger, and Laurie Olin.

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