Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 8, 2004
Vincent Scully Modern Architecture and Other Essays Intro Neil Levine Princeton University Press, 2003. 416 pp.; 300 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0691074410)

Vincent Scully, Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale University, is probably the best-known architectural historian in the United States. During a teaching career that stretched from 1947 to 1991, Scully established a reputation as one of Yale’s most inspiring lecturers. How many other architectural historians have been profiled in the New Yorker, had their retirement covered on the front page of the New York Times, or lectured at the White House? A new collection of twenty Scully essays spanning from 1954 to 1998, edited by Harvard professor and former Scully student Neil Levine, allows us to reconsider this acclaimed figure based on a synoptic view of his writings over half a century. The range of the collection and Levine’s exemplary editing make Modern Architecture and Other Essays a valuable resource for anyone interested in the historiography of modern architecture. At the same time, this new anthology makes it clear that Scully’s interpretations do not meet contemporary standards of historical scholarship.

Scully gained prominence with the publication of The Shingle Style: Architectural Theory and Design from Richardson to the Origins of Wright (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), which derived from his dissertation (conducted at Yale under Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Jr.) on the late-nineteenth-century American domestic architecture that he was first to designate the “Stick Style” and the “Shingle Style.” That book’s major contribution to the growing historiography of modern architecture was to root the spatial and formal innovations of Frank Lloyd Wright in a body of domestic architecture (by Joseph Lyman Silsbee; McKim, Mead & White; Bruce Price; and others) marked by the increasing integration of surface and of space. By filiating Wright in an evolutionary tradition based in part on the shingled houses of colonial New England, Scully was doing revisionist work. In contrast to Siegfried Giedion, whose authoritative Space Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1941) had marginalized Wright’s contributions to the emergence of modernist continuous space, Scully gave modern architecture a firmly American lineage. Like Bruno Zevi, whose Towards an Organic Architecture (London: Faber & Faber, 1950; originally published as Verso un’architettura organica [Turin: Einaudi, 1945]) had already championed Wright as a superior alternative to the International Style architects associated with Giedion through the International Congress of International Architecture (CIAM), Scully cherished as the greatest accomplishment of modern architecture the emergence in the Prairie Houses of what Wright called “plastic humanitarian space.” Scully valorized Wright’s work for what the author would later call the “illumination of the individual human spirit and its release into the ultimate family, the community of mankind” (193).

Drawing on Emil Kaufmann, Guido Freiherr von Kaschnitz-Weinberg, and Geoffrey Scott, Scully developed his humanist and nationalist reading of modernism into his Modern Architecture: The Architecture of Democracy (New York: George Braziller, 1961). In this and other books, Scully formulated an interpretive approach premised on the primacy of empathic bodily experience of buildings as sculptural objects and spatial containers within particular natural settings. This primary empathic experience, according to Scully, is enriched by a secondary associational level of meaning. Influenced by the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud and especially of Carl Jung, Scully usually read this associational content in terms of such Jungian archetypes as cave, labyrinth, and sacred mountain. Subsequent books, including The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), Pueblo: Mountain, Village, Dance (New York: Viking Press, 1975), and Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), applied Scully’s fusion of empathy theory with associationalism to a widening range of material.

These books are represented in the new anthology by the lectures and articles in which Scully developed their concerns. These essays, and others dealing with Scully’s Yale colleagues Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi, as well as his students Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, are valuable for their full-spectrum engagement with the built environment. Scully is a perceptive critic, attuned to the experience of encountering and exploring a building in its topographical context. The author’s great virtues are his critical acuity, his ability to translate experience and interpretation into lyrical prose, and his consistent foregrounding of the ways architecture orients us toward one another and toward a larger cosmos.

Even as it provides ample evidence of these critical strengths, however, the new anthology confirms that Scully’s essays should not be read for historical knowledge of the architecture they discuss. They contain little that we would recognize today as scholarship: it is rare for Scully to marshal evidence, to read projects closely, or to cite even key sources. The empathic response that distinguishes this work is authorized by personal experience, and, at least in these generally synoptic pieces, it is usually linked to only a travel-guide level discussion of cultural context. Scully’s tendency to universalize his own empathic response dehistoricizes his objects of study.

Scully’s emphasis on contemporary experience rather than historical contextualization combines with his tendency to integrate buildings into macrohistorical narratives that, like his popular undergraduate art-history course, stretch from prehistory to the present. One of the macronarratives that recurs in this collection is a tragic confrontation between free will and its limits, which Scully sees in the dialectical tension between “act and environment”: architecture treated primarily as sculpture or as space. The former is epitomized by such freestanding, autonomous buildings as the Parthenon and the Villa Savoie. The latter is ultimately nature itself, architecturally emulated by works that merge with nature to constitute total environments: “sacred mountains” such as Taos Pueblo and the pyramids of Teotihuacán, or comprehensive designs such as Vaux-le-Vicomte and Wright’s Taliesin. In some instances, Scully characterizes these two poles as the abstract and the mimetic, or as the confrontational and the subservient. The former figures the willful individual, standing proud against society, nature, and the gods; the latter conveys the power of those larger forces in order to discipline will to their social, ecological, and existential imperatives.

Scully’s writing showcases his ambivalent relationship to these antinomial modes of architectural representation. For instance, while Scully values the Greek temple as a paradigm of assertive masculinist humanism, he responded to the advent of the nuclear age by calling for recognition of the limits to human action. Writing for a society newly capable of destroying the global ecosystem, Scully projects twentieth-century concerns back as far as the fifth century B.C.E. “The Parthenon,” he wrote in 1991, “represents, literally, the definitive embodiment of European hubris and pride. From this moment, one feels, the order of nature was everywhere endangered by the power of mankind” (290). In the same essay, he identified Taos Pueblo as a corrective: “We would seem to require broader and simpler modes of identification based not upon political life … but upon the very fact of life itself. In a way, Taos is that, where all are one: man and mountain, snake, eagle, and cloud. Each is real, and worthy of respect as living: all are divine” (297).

The limitations of this empathic approach are evident in the way it leads Scully to homogenize disparate cultures. Reading Taos and Tesuque Pueblos, on the one hand, and the Temples of the Moon and of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacán, on the other, as echoes of the surrounding mountains, Scully sees “the same divinity” (285) at work in both cases. Scully’s enumeration of these “sacred mountains” as examples of an architectural approach that imitates nature to elicit human subservience (to nature, the gods, and the social order) precludes recognition of fundamental differences among the cultures under consideration. When Scully stretches his argument to encompass the pyramids of Egypt—where, as he acknowledges, there are no nearby mountains to emulate—or describes the pueblo-builders as “non-Greek,” we get the sense that works under consideration are merely screens for Scully’s projective identifications, sources of renewal for a society that threatens global annihilation.

In Scully’s recurring counterpoint between act and environment, free will and its limits, we learn little of what gives each building he discusses geographical and historical specificity. Instead, we absorb the agon of a mid-twentieth-century American maverick searching for images of his own masculinist, liberal-democratic ethos in the built environment. This approach eschews history for myth. Scully’s accounts are at once sensual and ideal, without ever quite becoming social or historical. They teach readers to assess how well a building uses empathy and association to strengthen virtuous social ideals. This is not necessarily a bad critical program, but such distorting interpretations jeopardize scholarly authority.

So what is the value of Scully’s work today? Republishing old essays tends to reanimate and integrate them. In the case of Modern Architecture and Other Essays, this effect is enhanced by a contemporary typeface and layout combined with high-quality paper stock and illustrations, as well as by useful features such as a bibliography of Scully’s writings and cross-referencing of illustrations across chapters. There is an obviously hagiographic dimension to any such enterprise, especially one that has been blurbed by former Scully student Robert Stern, who as dean of the Yale School of Architecture is continuing his teacher’s booster tradition. Yet as editor, Levine meticulously contextualizes and historicizes Scully’s work, laying the groundwork for scholars developing revisionist accounts. Levine’s introduction, and his shorter texts that preface each of the twenty essays, elucidate connections and contradictions within Scully’s oeuvre while reconstructing the social matrix from which it emerged.

Reading this series of essays spanning half a century, cued by Levine’s detailed introductions, I found myself increasingly intrigued by the historiography of modern architecture. Every essay stimulates questions about members of the second generation of modernist historians, including not only Scully but also Zevi, Reyner Banham, James Marston Fitch, and others. What were their goals? What kinds of evidence did they marshal to advance their respective projects? These men are now objects of historical study in their own right (sacred mountains, if you will—or hubristic temples, depending on your vantage), and the chief merit of this anthology is that it helps us better to reckon with Scully as a key figure among them.

Jonathan Massey
Assistant Professor, School of Architecture, Syracuse University