Yale University; Department of Manuscripts and Archives

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.

Yale University; Department of Manuscripts and Archives

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.

Carl Mueller The entrance to Louis Sullivan's Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. Building

Then there was the end of his lecture on Louis Sullivan, when he would show images of the Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. department store while reading passages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake describing the flows of the sea. You could hear and see the comparison he would make between the cathedral at Chartres, which he showed rising up out of the wheat fields around the town, and the silos of the Great Plains. Both of these instances, he said, were vertical expressions of the land’s wealth, gathered and stored, one to be transformed into bread, the other to be turned into a stone-and-glass exaltation of God. I can still see his hands describing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style houses: sweeping out to describe how their roofs extended over the landscape, then pointing up to the top of the auditorium and coming down with two balled fists to show how Wright had anchored this spread across the Jeffersonian grid with the chimney, around the hearth where the family gathered with a final balling of his fists in front of his chest.

Radu Razvan The cathedral at Chartres rising from the wheat fields

He made such description and comparisons work not only through his scholarship, but also with his voice, his ability to manipulate words to make things sound right, and his gestures. He was an actor with a Ph.D., a performer who wrote lines better than any playwright could. The words flowed without notes, accompanying slide comparisons that made his logic appear right. He crafted the whole every week in the art history department slide room, where he would spend days preparing his sequences of slides and rehearsing his lines, pacing back and forth as those of us that came to find our own images there tiptoed around him.

Paul Sableman Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building

Scully’s direct influence was enormous. He helped J. Irwin Miller turn Columbus, Ind., into an experimental laboratory for architecture, and was instrumental in saving the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Mo. (Or so I’ve heard, but it’s a story that I believe.) More than that, he was the intellectual voice for the “grays” (those postmodernists who believed in reviving American domestic forms, such as Scully’s beloved Shingle Style), for other historicists, and, later, for New Urbanism. Beyond that role as the guru of American Postmodernism, he had a more lasting influence, reminding architects of the importance of buildings’ responses to both the natural and the human landscape, and, on a deeper level, to the structures that shaped those landscapes. His mechanism for doing so was the evocation of a mythic world in which architects worked with mountains that could signify either bulls or breasts, where ornament was alive, and where the tragic battle for the meaning of our society was fought with light, space, and form.

Yale University Press

A year ago, I returned to the classic sites in Greece, including Delphi, Olympia, and Epidaurus, carrying Scully’s The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods with me on my phone. (It was initially published by the Yale University Press in 1962, but I was reading a newer version in my Kindle app.) To read his passages on how these structures echoed and responded—or even more than that, how they made human the grandeur of the mountains, valleys, and sea—transported me to a realm in which the importance of Ancient Greek civilization made fundamental sense.

Scully’s was a world that generations of architects came to inhabit. If we sometimes wake from the sorcerer’s enchantments to confront the banality of the world and its insipid evil that seeps through the studs of Type III apartment buildings, a developer’s bastardization of The Shingle Style Today (the title of one of Scully’s most influential books; George Braziller, 2003), or the white-bread versions of America peddled by the New Urbanists, it is with the echo of Vincent Scully’s words still ringing in our heads and the drumbeat of his pointer whacking the screen, reminding us that architecture is not just an act of constructing, but of erecting the dignity, the beauty, and the tragedy of the human.

For more videos of Scully and his famous Yale lectures, check out this YouTube channel.