Former students and colleagues gather to honor the late Vincent Scully
With Vincent Scully's long, hefty wooden pointer behind them at the pulpit in Battell Chapel, a host of prominent admirers expressed their gratitude and appreciation for what they declared was the late art historian's singular contribution to the understanding of architecture.
President Peter Salovey, who began the memorial ceremony on Jan. 20, listed a number of spellbinding and charismatic teachers in Yale’s long history who moved knowledge forward and changed their students’ minds and lives.
“But I'm quite confident, confident that, even among these, there is no single person in all of our over 317 years who did this as well or for as long a time period as Vincent Scully,” Salovey said.
The architecture critic Paul Goldberger noted that as an undergraduate he attended Scully’s lectures every year, even though he had taken Scully’s course for credit in his first year.
“If his work contains any overriding message it is that architecture is part of that larger culture. And that its meaning comes from its connectedness to that larger culture,” he said, adding that Scully’s language about his subject was unequalled.
“For what Vince did for his entire life was to use words, spoken words and written words both, in all their grave and majestic power and beauty, as a way of helping us understand all that architecture is, and can be, and can mean,” he said.
Former President Richard C. Levin said his interactions with Scully were the beginning of his education in architecture and urban planning, in which he learned to honor the built environment of Yale and New Haven.
“Vince did not always make life easy for a Yale president,” Levin recalled. “His respect for the perfection of New Haven's plan, borrowed by John Davenport from Ezekiel's vision of God’s city, and his passion for the beauty and authenticity of its buildings and parks impelled him to hold Yale’s buildings and their placement to an exceedingly high standard.”
The architect Robert A.M. Stern, a student of Scully’s who went on become the dean of the School of Architecture, noted that the architect Philip Johnson had declared Scully to be the most influential architecture teacher ever.
“Through his writings, Vincent Scully will continue to be central to architectural thinking for generations to come,” Stern said. “The roster of architectural professionals who were Scully’s students constitutes a veritable Who’s Who of contemporary practice, extending from those of my generation to a younger generation now reaching maturity and even those who are just making their voices heard.”
The historian David McCullough described the inimitable lecture style that mesmerized Scully’s students.
“Already by the 1950s, when I was an undergraduate, his talks filled the lecture hall, the old lecture hall in the Art Gallery. Every seat was taken and many who were unregistered for the course would stand along the sidewalls or sit on the stairs leading up to the balcony. He would enter, moving fast and go immediately up on stage, make a few quick remarks about schedules or something of that kind in a rather nondescript, quick voice. Then the hall would turn dark. Very dark. A large image would fill a giant screen behind him and the show was underway. The voice, now strong, fervent, slightly theatrical, would unleash what one friend of his called a musical avalanche of picture-making words, never relying on his written script or notes and stopping only to bring out the heavy ten-foot-long pointer and bang it on the stage floor to signal a change in the image on the screen.”
McCullough also remembered when he and some other students were walking with Scully along the street and Scully stopped and looked at the tower of Sterling Memorial Library glowing in late afternoon sunshine.
“‘Look at that,’ he said. ‘Architects don’t build just with steel and stone. They build with light,’” McCullough recalled. “He helped us to see as no one ever had helped us.”
Architect Maya Lin called Scully the most inspiring and influential teacher she encountered while attending Yale College.
“He made you feel architecture was a living and breathing presence,” she said. “For those of us fortunate to pursue the arts and architecture, his was a voice that impressed upon us the deep responsibility we each would have in making our own works. And for so many others he inspired a sense of wonder, respect, and responsibility for the built environment.”
Penelope Laurans, who served as a head of Jonathan Edwards College and is senior advisor at the university, said that Scully would sit in the “cheap seats” for football games at the Yale Bowl, so she offered him coveted seats close to the action where Yale presidents sit. Laurans said Scully, the son of a New Haven alderman who had taken him to the Yale Bowl as a child, and the defender of Yale radicals, expressed horror at the offer and “twitted her mercilessly,” but eventually took the seats.
“Many who hardly knew our father loved him,” said Scully’s son, Stephen, a professor of classical studies at Boston University. “And what they loved about him was that he enabled them to see what they had only dimly imagined before. And he gave them soaring words to help them see what they now saw.”
“Yale has been the very center of Vince's life since that first football game with his father 93 years ago,” said Scully’s wife, architectural history Catherine Lynn. “It would've touched Vince beyond telling that Yale would memorialize him in the splendid way it has done today.”
Scully died Nov. 30 at the age of 97. He received his B.A. from Yale in 1940 and his doctorate in 1949. Sterling Professor Emeritus of the Arts at the time of his death, he taught at Yale for more than 60 years.