The Magazine

Falling Down

Vincent Scully on American architecture and its disappointments.

Sep 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 03 • By CATESBY LEIGH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Modern Architecture and Other Essays

by Vincent Scully

Princeton Univ. Press, 400 pp., $45

IF ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY had a star over the past few decades, Vincent Scully was it. Time recognized him as one of the nation's ten "Great Teachers" in 1966, and People ranked him as one of the "12 Great U.S. Professors" ten years later. When he retired from Yale in 1991, his final lecture made the front page of the New York Times. In 1998 he gave a lecture at the White House.

"Modern Architecture and Other Essays" collects twenty Scully essays spanning five decades. These essays tend to shed more heat than light on their subject matter. Scully often plays the role of handicapper--spotting and advocating architectural trends as "breaking news"--and so a number of them read like dated editorials. The significance of this book lies mainly in the fact that we see the nation's most influential architecture historian gradually renouncing his modernist faith.

Scully's student, Neil Levine, who selected the essays and provided introductions, renders a service in giving a detailed account of an exchange between Scully and Norman Mailer after Mailer denounced "the plague of modern architecture" in Esquire in 1963. This "totalitarian architecture," Mailer declared, "destroys the past," leaving Americans "isolated in the empty landscapes of psychosis." Scully lambasted Mailer's "lazy, pot-boiling paragraphs," but came closer, over time, to Mailer's viewpoint, eventually becoming an outspoken advocate of the traditional town planning of his pupils Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.

The change came gradually because the apocalyptic reveries of heroic, 1950s-vintage modernism sank very deep into Scully's psyche, and along with them any number of fallacies. The first essay in Levine's collection, "American Villas: Inventiveness in the American Suburb from Downing to Wright" (1954), concerns the nineteenth-century development of wood-framed cottage architecture in the northeastern United States and its influence on Frank Lloyd Wright's early residential work. Here Scully instructively demonstrates the East Coast origins of Wright's Prairie Style architecture. More questionably, Scully portrays this "vernacular" tradition--influenced by American colonial architecture, Norman Shaw's "Old English" houses, and even the Japanese abodes displayed at Philadelphia's 1876 centennial exposition--as an expression of Jacksonian egalitarianism and an agrarian idealism rooted in Jefferson.

BASED ON Scully's doctoral dissertation research, this essay is redolent of his hostility to the "antiquarian," the "academic," the "eclectic" (though the cottage architecture was certainly that)--hostility, in short, to the classically oriented architectural practice that came to the fore in this country during the 1880s. Scully's essay becomes a morality play; the American suburb started to turn "palatial, and rather snobbish," thereby losing "the general cultural creativity which it had previously possessed." Open, spatially innovative interiors fell by the wayside with the advent of a more formal, conventional, and stately architecture during the Gilded Age. The Renaissance splendor of the Vanderbilts' Breakers at Newport, Scully avers, shows the mansion's architect, the great Richard Morris Hunt, to have grown "pillowy, sickly rich, and flatulent."

In this first essay, then, spatial invention is an indicator of cultural health, and the classical retreat into "separate rooms" an indicator of pathology. But only until it emerges, in another essay published the very same year, that the likes of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson have renounced the preoccupation with "flowing space." This leads Scully to relabel that preoccupation as one of the "curious academicisms" of the recent past.

Early in his career, Scully was imbued with a psycho-sociological outlook deeply influenced by existentialism, which reinforced the subjective character of his enthusiasms. His tendency then, was to look at architecture through the wrong end of the telescope. The social vision espoused in Scully's essays of the late 1950s is grounded in the idea of a "remade humanity" resulting from the existential discovery of the self in the context of the vertiginous social changes that got underway during the nineteenth century. The "sense of identity which is style," Scully writes in "Modern Architecture: Toward a Redefinition of Style" (1957), "can only come when the nature and objectives of the self--with its present, its hopes, and its memory--are truly identified and humanly defined." This is a useless recipe, and perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that the architect who enthralls Scully at this time--and for years to come--is the utterly idiosyncratic Le Corbusier, whom Scully all but apotheosizes in the essays "Modern Architecture" and "The Nature of the Classical in Art."