March 29, 2006
A Monumental Discussion with Vincent Scully
The renowned architecture historian discusses his views on the topic of memorials.
Legendary art historian Vincent Scully—a man Philip Johnson once called “the most influential architecture teacher, ever”—makes three appearances in our 25th anniversary issue: his venerable name appears on our cover sandwiched between “9-11” and “Philippe Starck; he analyzes the impact of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in our historic assessments section; and he’s one of the six teachers profiled in Alexander Gorlin’s witty reflection on life as an architecture student.
“As a lecturer Scully was astounding,” writes Gorlin in his essay entitled Passion Plays. “He commanded the audience, mesmerizing everyone with his language and intonation. He was preacher, magician, and conjurer.” Scully remains a commanding presence, even at the age of eighty-six, even in the slightly disembodied forum of a telephone interview. When I interviewed him for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, I had difficultly hearing him at first, but speaking from his winter home in Coral Gables, Florida, he seemed to gather steam, gradually marshalling his grasp of history and aesthetics, treating me to series of impressive verbal riffs, mini arias. Below are edited versions from our talk:
On his role inspiring Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“It’s a very small role. I was talking in class about Edwin Lutyens’ Thiepval Memorial, the WWI memorial. I think that’s the greatest war memorial ever. It does have a lot of names on it, but that’s not its major characteristic. It’s totally different from the Vietnam memorial—it’s a great monster that looms over the dead. Anyway, I was talking about it, showing slides, and toward the end of my lecture Maya picked up her pen and began writing the essay that accompanied her application. She had already drawn up her scheme, I believe, but she hadn’t yet been able to write the description. Somehow, the Lutyens unlocked her. Later when she had to defend the design against people who were attacking it as ‘the black gash of shame,’ she called up Yale and had those slides reproduced, using them in her defense of the project.”
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On how the memorial works as both cultural symbol and object.
“The Vietnam veterans were rapidly becoming a kind of lost generation, and somehow this memorial brought them back into the American community. As an object, it’s a slit in the ground. Lin covers the vertical face of that slit with a shiny, black stone, so that when you look at or lean against it, you’re reflected in it. It’s very moving. The other brilliant move was her determination that the names on the memorial reflect the chronology of their deaths. The authorities wanted very much to make it alphabetical. But I’ve heard people standing in front of that wall, pointing up to a cluster of names, and saying: ‘They were all killed by the same burst.’ The memorial is very close to the sequence of how people died. So it’s the whole story of the war. And in a way, symbolically, it starts out with the first casualty, and then it goes in the depths of the war, where the casualties were massive, and then it goes to the last.”
On how people’s perceptions of the memorial are likely to change over time.
“It’s possible that a good deal of our emotion to it is related to what it accomplished. Once that particular cultural association dwindles, it’s hard to tell how it will be perceived. Now with the Lutyens memorial, if you didn’t know anything about WWI, or how many people were killed, or you couldn’t read the names, you would know empathetically that it expressed horror, death and pain. Now what you’ll feel with the Vietnam memorial in the long, long run is harder to predict. Conceptual art is very dependent on associational factors. But I think the memorial will always be seen in that beautiful relationship to the two monuments. When you enter it, with the Lincoln Memorial at your back, you travel down into the depths, and this black wall looms over you. Then you turn and there before you is this obelisk pointing to the sun. That relationship will never die. People will always feel something wonderful and uplifting about that.”