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Tribute to Vincent Scully

National Building Museum, Washington D.C.
November 12th, 1999

I had an extraordinary experience the other day. I took my son, who is a high school senior, to look at Yale, and the first thing we did was stop in the lecture hall of the Art Gallery for the 11:30 lecture of one Professor Vincent Scully. The room was full – so full that there were students on the floor, on the steps, in the aisles – or standing against the back wall, as we were. The lecture lasted almost an hour, and no one left, no one stirred, even when an elevator alarm in the next room sent an irritating bell through the room. It seemed barely to dent the surface of the deep concentration, of the deep engagement, that filled the entire room. The cavalcade of slides went on, continuous and unbroken, a river of images, borne along on the rapid current of a language that was at once art historical and poetic, language that spoke to the essential facts of each and every one of those images while at the same time filling us with emotion.

My son was among those who were gripped by this moment. He stared at the screen, completely enraptured as he had never expected to be enraptured by images of the work of Louis Sullivan and John Welborn Root and Daniel Burnham and H. H. Richardson, and on the way out, he looked at me and all he said was, “Dad, now I get what you mean when you talk about how Scully changed your life.” Vince changed my life, and he changed the lives of more people than we can count. There was a particularly special joy to me of walking into the lecture hall that morning a few weeks ago, because I first heard Vince speak when I was the age my son is now, and every parent is warmed by seeing his child moved by what moved him. But the point is far greater than my family and the way in which Vince’s longevity has spanned generations. It is more than Vince’s longevity, period, and the fact that he has been teaching at Yale for more than half a century. What is more important is the fact of what Vince does, and how he does it, and the way in which his lectures in 1999 have every bit of the freshness and energy and passion that they had at the beginning.

To be a Scully student is to sit in that lecture hall and be thrilled. It is to expect the transcendent, and to be taught that learning about architecture can bring you to the transcendent. You sit, if you are lucky enough to have a seat, and look up at a man of average height who prances back and forth on a small platform in front of a large screen. He holds in his hand a huge pointer, the size of a broomstick, with which he bangs the screen each time his voice mounts to a crescendo, which is almost every sentence. He is rarely still, except for an occasional moment when he might pause to read a quote, perhaps from Wallace Stevens. And then he begins to move again, speaking not from notes but from the slides and, it would seem, from his very soul. If the subject is, say, Frank Lloyd Wright, he will talk about Wright not in the dry manner of an art historian, but almost as a preacher might speak of God: with a combination of awe, passion, and respect. I have heard him compare Wright to Melville, compare him to Whitman, compare him to Mark Twain. It hardly matters. Vince was right, and completely convincing, each time.

The notion that an architect might be discussed by comparing him to a literary figure rather than to another architect – or that architecture could be analyzed in the manner of literature – was a stunning revelation to me, an instant introduction to the belief that underlies all that Vincent Scully has said and written in his long and extraordinary career, which is that architecture is a part of the larger culture, and that its meaning comes from its connections to that larger culture. The lesson, then, is the opposite of hermetic; Scully’s is an academic approach that reaches outward, not turns inward. An easier way to say this, perhaps, is with this simple sentence: that everything Vince has done has been based on the belief that architecture matters. And learning that architecture matters is really the greatest lesson anyone can take from Vince; it means more than anything you learn about Michelangelo or Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis Kahn. More important than any architect is the way in which we come to understand from Vince that serious intellectual inquiry need not be inconsistent with passion, and that empathy is a true and legitimate part of analysis, and most important of all, that the making of architecture cannot be separated from the making of community; indeed, that the very purpose of architecture is to make a visible civilization over time. Vince teaches this by his own example. He believes profoundly in the ability of history and criticism to affect society, and for two generations now he has been the conscience of New Haven’s redevelopment, and of Yale’s treatment of its own physical fabric. Scholarship exists, he knows, to make the world better – and that when we develop knowledge, we have a responsibility to use it. There is a Hebrew phrase that I have always felt described Vince’s motivation as a scholar, Tikkun Olam, which means “to heal the world.” Vince, as a teacher, heals the world.

Vince’s lectures remain fresh not only because they are filled with this passion that communicates itself so brilliantly and feels perpetually new – it is also because his teaching is, in so many ways, truly new. He is the farthest thing in the world from those professors who say the same thing, year after year, reading from ever-more-yellowed lecture notes. Vince has continued to change, and grow, all the time, and he has never been afraid to hide his rethinkings from his students. This can sometimes be in the simplest, most obvious way – Dan Rose tells a wonderful story of Vince in the late forties, at the very beginning of his career, stopping right in the middle of a lecture, turned to face the class, and saying, “I think what I just told you was gibberish. When I wrote it last night it looked good, but it is nothing but gibberish.” Who else would do that? Yet when Vince underwent a profound shift in his thinking about modernism in the late nineteen-sixties, heavily influenced by Robert Venturi who had been introduced to him by Bob Stern, Vince spoke with extraordinary candor in his lectures of the intellectual changes he was undergoing, and shared his anguish over his new doubts about what the legacy of modernism might be.

It is because the experience of attending a Scully lecture is so much a part of everyone’s connection to Vince that when he retired officially from Yale in 1991 – of course, as you know, he has continued to teach in the status of an emeritus professor – but when Vince stepped down some seventy-five of his former students returned to New Haven without notifying him on the day of his final lecture, and as a surprise sat in the lecture hall. It was an extraordinary tribute – not an award, not a party, just to say that the way in which we want to honor this professor is to make ourselves, symbolically, once again his students. I don’t know any other teacher in the world whose students have chosen to honor him in this way.

It seemed natural, of course, because we have always been his students, because we have never stopped being his students: architects, scholars, critics, city planners, preservationists, urbanists, and those who passed through his class who never connected directly to these fields, but who, because of Vince, became better clients, more civilized bankers, maybe even, perhaps, more honorable politicians.

Let me close with a word about my own field. Those of us who have chosen to focus our lives around the intersection of words and architecture – which is to say those of us who attempt in our careers to find a way to use the power of words to somehow express the power of architecture – owe a special debt to Vince, connected to the very heart and soul of what we do. For what Vince has done for his entire life is to use words – spoken words and written words both –in all their great and majestic power and beauty, as a way of helping us understand all that architecture can be and can mean. By now it is almost a commonplace to observe that to honor Vince is almost like honoring architecture itself, which indeed it is, for he and this profession’s noblest instincts are virtually synonymous. But I want to say also that when we honor Vince we honor something else as much as architecture, and that is the idea of the word, and of the way in which it, in connection to architecture, can inspire the making of civilized community.

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