It was one of the best compliments I have received in a long time. After seeing me lecture recently, a classmate of mine from my time at Yale University remarked: “You give pretty good Scully.” As someone whose eyes were opened to architecture by Vincent Scully, who passed away at the age of 97 last week, I couldn’t have been more flattered. For Scully not only taught me architecture, he also talked about architecture in a manner that made me believe it was the most beautiful and important human act. He changed my world not just by what he said, but how he said it. I have, along with many others, been aspiring to live up to the challenge of the greatest architecture teacher of the 20th century for most of my life.
Many of the obituaries that have appeared this last week have mentioned how Professor Scully could keep an auditorium full of us students at Yale completely rapt, rapping the screen with his pointer. All the while, he would be driving home the many ways that the buildings he showed responded to the landscape and to our popular culture, but, above all, to the human drive to mean. Great architecture did that in a manner so effective because it was built—a fact, a soaring aspiration in fact, a fact on and in the ground, a fact all around you.
For Scully, architecture was a way to experience our dreams and our fears, both individually and as a society. The classic Scully lecture for me was the one about American Neo-Classicism. He would describe Robert Kennedy’s body traveling across the country from where he was assassinated in Los Angeles, showing us images of people lining the railroad yard to be present as they saw their hope pass by. He would then trace the body’s arrival in Washington, D.C.—where Kennedy’s cortège moved past the city’s great monuments. Scully used that trip to discuss those memorials: Classicism, he pointed out, was a container for our shared values and our shared grief. At its best, it is truly monumental in its ability to fix and remind us what was important to us as humans.