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Unveiling Vincent Scully: Chronicling His Impact on Postwar American Architecture

by A. Krista Sykes | Bloomsbury | $115

In 1983, a typically professorial man in his sixties, with a ruddy complexion and clad in a tweed blazer, took viewers on a leisurely two-hour exploration of American art history on public television. New World Visions: American Art and the Metropolitan Museum, 1650–1914 commenced in the renowned galleries of the Metropolitan Museum in New York but frequently transitioned to significant locations outside the museum walls. Here, the amiable and knowledgeable host delved into architectural marvels in Manhattan’s financial district, elegant rowing sculls in Philadelphia, faint battle scars lingering in Gettysburg’s landscape, and the grand Neoclassicism of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Following the broadcast of this two-part special on PBS, the host garnered widespread acclaim within academic and cultural circles. Nearly a decade earlier, People magazine had honored him as one of the “12 Great U.S. Professors.” Prior to that, he graced the cover of Time magazine as one of ten “Great Teachers.” Approximately ten years after the release of New World Visions, my own sister, who, despite seemingly majoring in Jimmy Buffett at the University of Miami and showing no prior interest in architecture, found herself captivated by the captivating professor she affectionately nicknamed “Vince.”

book cover for Vincent Scully biographyVincent Scully: Architecture, Urbanism, and a Life in Search of Community, by A. Krista Sykes (Bloomsbury Visual Arts)

The journey of how Vincent J. Scully, Jr. (1920–2017) ascended to such academic stardom is meticulously explored in A. Krista Sykes’s well-researched and eloquently written book, (Bloomsbury, 2023). Sykes traces Scully’s life from his upbringing in New Haven, Connecticut, through his education at Yale, his service in World War II, and his rapid emergence as a prominent figure in postwar academia.

According to Sykes, Scully was raised as an only child in a working-class family. A bright student and avid reader, he gained early admission to Yale, where he supported himself by serving meals to his affluent peers. The war years left Scully with a new family, a young wife, and psychological scars that haunted him for the rest of his life. Seeking solace in the study of art history at Yale, he was influenced by Henry-Russell Hitchcock, whose 1932 publication The International Style: Architecture Since 1922, written with Philip Johnson for their groundbreaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, introduced European modern architecture to mainstream American audiences.

While studying design concurrently with art history, Scully was immersed in an environment that predominantly championed European modernism. However, like his mentor Hitchcock, he shifted his focus to earlier architectural styles and eventually delved into American architecture as a whole. His dissertation on the American cottage style of the 19th century, later revised for publication as The Shingle Style: Architectural Theory and Design from Richardson to the Origins of Wright (1955), was well-received and contributed to his tenure at Yale, despite some critics pointing out the “extravagant phraseology” and “almost zealous fervor” in his vibrant prose.

This unbridled passion for his subject became a defining feature of Scully’s renowned lectures on art and modern architecture. He approached subsequent works on a wide array of topics with a similar zeal. Following The Shingle Style, he delved into in-depth studies of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn, examinations of modern architecture and American urbanism, analyses of ancient Greek sacred sites and those in the American Southwest, a study of Andrea Palladio’s villas, and a comprehensive exploration of the interplay between built structures and the surrounding environment in his final major work, Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade, in 1991.

portrait of Scully in military uniformScully, United States Marine Corp, circa 1941. (Collection of C. W. Lynn)

Sykes follows these pursuits alongside Scully’s development of his renowned courses at Yale and his growing influence in contemporary architecture and historic preservation. These endeavors solidified his reputation globally, even though his forays into neighboring academic domains sometimes drew harsh criticism. The backlash from archaeologists reviewing The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods (1962), for instance, deeply affected him and likely led to the cancellation of a planned sequel to his study of Greek sacred architecture. Nevertheless, as aptly put by Sykes, “Scully firmly believed that architecture and society engage in a reciprocal relationship—society influences and is influenced by the architecture it produces.”

Simultaneously, Scully both influenced and was influenced by the architectural and political milieu surrounding him. His early admiration for his friend Robert Venturi prompted him to laud Venturi’s seminal work Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) as “arguably the most significant architectural treatise since Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture from 1923.” While initially met with skepticism, this claim proved remarkably prescient over time. Scully’s advocacy for Venturi’s ideas helped pave the way for the architect’s unconventional concepts, just as his support for Robert A. M. Stern and the “gray” architects of the 1970s shaped the discourse on postmodern architecture in the United States.

Upon retiring from Yale, Scully accepted a visiting position at the University of Miami in Florida, bringing him into close contact with former students Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, key figures in the New Urbanism movement. In his later years, he ardently championed (and occasionally critiqued) New Urbanism’s emphasis on the “architecture of community,” embracing the American vernacular he had studied in his youth and the small-town ambiance reminiscent of his cherished New Haven, a place that held a special significance for him till the end.

Drawing on personal interviews with Scully, unprecedented access to his archives, and a profound understanding of 20th-century architectural culture, Sykes navigates these and other facets of Scully’s extensive career with insight, empathy, and remarkable clarity. Readers intrigued by the historian’s life and contributions or the evolution of American architecture from the postwar era to the present will discover a wealth of valuable insights here, though some specialized readers may desire a deeper analysis of Scully’s writings or a more extensive contextualization of his work alongside that of his contemporaries.

Vincent Scully and his wife TappyScully and Catherine “Tappy” Lynn, 2003. (Collection of C. W. Lynn)

While Sykes briefly touches on Scully’s connections with Colin Rowe and Reyner Banham, a more thorough comparison with these close contemporaries could prove enlightening. Additionally, despite the prominent presence of his friend and Yale colleague Harold Bloom, a discussion on Scully’s interactions with the theory discussions at Yale in the 1970s, particularly the deconstructionist movement led by the “Yale Critics” (Bloom, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller), would have added further depth. Sykes, who has previously curated insightful anthologies on architectural theory, is likely aware of these aspects but opts for a broader narrative approach in this biography rather than delving into intricate details. Much like Scully’s own texts, Sykes’s engaging narrative style and personal engagement do not diminish her scholarly rigor but instead offer a commendable model for contemporary scholars aiming to broaden the impact of their work and provide a compelling portrait of one of the most influential American architectural historians of the 20th century.