Vincent Scully, the beloved Yale University professor and scholar of architecture, died Thursday, November 30, at the age of 97. Considered the most famous and influential architectural historian of the last half of the 20th century, Scully inspired generations of students—including Maya Lin, Paul Goldberger, and Robert Stern—and architects with his impassioned and incisive views of architecture and its role in the world.
“Dr. Scully sought to impart several central ideas: that buildings help define a culture, that architecture should be a humanizing force and that a well-built community can foster a well-lived life,” the Washington Post wrote.
After earning his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees from Yale, Dr. Scully began teaching there in 1947. He officially retired in 1991 but returned a year later to give a lecture each fall. He continued to teach until 2009. In addition to teaching, he wrote numerous books including The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture (1962), American Architecture and Urbanism (1969), as well as works on architects Louis Khan and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Philip Johnson once said that Scully was “the most influential architectural teacher ever,” while architect Alexander Gorlin described his lectures as “astounding”: “He commanded the audience, mesmerizing everyone with his language and intonation. He was preacher, magician, and conjurer.”
Scully was also known for his lucid prose. Keith Eggener described his style in an essay for Places Journal:
He seduces and cajoles, demands and rewards. His ardent, evocative, intensely descriptive language foregrounds his own empathic involvement with sites and artifacts and, just as importantly, his efforts to recreate those experiences for readers. He analyzes a building’s broader architectural and environmental contexts and makes pointed observations about its cultural, social, and psychological ones as well.
An example from man himself illustrates this perfectly. Writing of the original Penn Station in New York City that was demolished in 1963:
During World War II, how many times our emotions were stirred by coming into the city via that wonderful station, that great forest of steel. As we moved forward, all of a sudden the steel was clothed with the glory of public space—not private space, but public space for everyone. It all disappeared.
He concluded with this now-famous line: “Once, we entered the city like gods. Now we scurry in like rats, which is probably what we deserve.”
And of Mies van der Rohe, he wrote, “His architecture cried on nobody’s lapel; it made perfect, technologically appropriate cages, and limpid volumes of air, and that was all.”
Watch Scully in action below.