Eminent architecture historian Vincent Scully dead at 97

Yale University scholar Vincent Scully, a revered architecture historian and professor who inspired generations of students ranging from David McCullough to Maya Lin, has died at age 97.

Scully died Nov. 30 at his home in Lynchburg, Virginia, the school announced. He had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

A native of New Haven, Connecticut, the home of Yale, Scully was a Yale undergraduate who joined the faculty in 1947 and remained for more than 60 years. He was known for his innovative ideas and compelling style as a lecturer, attracting stand-room-only audiences and often receiving ovations when he finished.

“Because of Vince, architects, urban planners, historic preservationists and landscape architects have gone about their work with a sharper eye and keener understanding,” Yale President Peter Salovey said in a statement.

Vincent Scully. Photo via Yale University.
Vincent Scully. Photo via Yale University.

Attuned to architecture’s place in the larger culture, Scully was a critic of urban renewal in the 1960s and ‘70s and became a leading advocate of historical preservation. He also reversed his early support for the Modernist style, telling the Yale Bulletin & Calendar in 2004 that Modernism “was a simplistic view of architecture. It was predicated on an arbitrary aesthetic. It was totalitarian in its mode of thinking. Everybody had to do things one way.”

Architect Philip Johnson called him “the most influential architecture teacher ever.” McCullough, who attended Yale in the 1950s, would credit Scully with inspiring his prize-winning book on the Brooklyn Bridge, “The Great Bridge.”

“He gave a lecture one day on the Brooklyn Bridge and said, ‘It’s a brilliant, triumphant expression of the theme of the open road, which is all through American art, American music, American culture,’” McCullough told The Associated Press in 2012. “’The open road.’ And I thought, ‘Isn’t that exciting!’”

Lin was studying at Yale in the early 1980s when she designed the stark, granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial that was dedicated in Washington in 1982. She was inspired in part by Scully’s lecture on a World War I memorial by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

“Professor Scully described one’s experience of that piece as a passage or journey through a yawning archway,” she wrote in an essay that appeared in The New York Review of Books in 2000. “As he described it, it resembled a gaping scream; after you passed through, you were left looking out on a simple graveyard with the crosses and tombstones of the French and the English. It was a journey to an awareness of immeasurable loss, with the names of the missing carved on every surface of this immense archway.

“I started writing furiously in Scully’s class. I think he has always been puzzled by my connection to the Lutyens memorial. Formally the two memorials could not be more different. But for me, the experiences of these two memorials describe a similar passage to an awareness about loss.”

Scully’s books include “The Shingle Style and the Stick Style,” ‘’The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods” and works on Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn. He is survived by his third wife, Catherine Lynn; four children from his two previous marriages; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Others who studied under him include New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger and the architects Sir Norman Foster and Robert A.M. Stern. Scully received a National Medal of Arts in 2004. Five years earlier, the National Building Museum in Washington established the Vincent Scully Prize for achievement in the “built environment,” and Scully was the first winner.

“His thinking has always been based on the notion that architecture is not purely aesthetics, and that the real meaning (of architecture) is how it can be used to make better places,” Goldberger once wrote of him. “He has taught the social value of architecture not just to architects, but to lawyers, real estate developers and others who have made the world a better place.”