He opened my eyes to a whole new world. That’s the sentiment most commonly expressed in hundreds of remembrances left for Yale University professor Vincent Scully upon his death at age 97 in 2017.
By Ian Spula
From being featured on the cover of TIME magazine for his remarkable achievements to earning the title of “most influential architecture teacher ever” by one of Modernism’s most renowned architects, Scully was truly a legend—and not just among designers.
Scully made his mark through more than 60 years of leading engaging lectures enjoyed by students on many different career paths. Even those with little to no interest in architecture were drawn to his courses as he made built environment topics vital, accessible and intoxicating for everyone in the room.
This spring, the Chicago Architecture Center is launching a series of three classes that will strive to connect with people in the same way.
WHO WAS VINCENT SCULLY?
Scully was born in New Haven, Conn. in 1920. He stayed in his hometown and studied at Yale before beginning his teaching career there in 1947 as an art historian. Feeling scorned by the traditionalists who dominated the field, he started to feature architecture more prominently in his lectures on art history, and this soon became his calling card.
As something of an outsider himself, Scully had a penchant for redirecting impressionable undergraduates into architecture. Nationally recognized commentator Reed Kroloff considers himself a direct product of Vincent Scully. Kroloff, who is also a special adviser to the CAC’s public programming team, will lead the first set of CAC classes this April.
“I would have gone to law school had I not encountered his lectures early on. I took every class I could [with Scully] as an undergrad at Yale,” Kroloff said.
When Kroloff was a student, he was most impressed with Scully’s ability to ground architecture in popular culture. With an authoritative yet approachable style, he taught students how to see the built environment, and how to value architecture’s role in society.
Furthermore, Scully didn't just chronicle the past. Instead, according to Kroloff, he would turn to current events to critique Modernist orthodoxy. Witnessing firsthand the destructive toll Urban Renewal had on New Haven, Scully sprang into action as an early champion of historic preservation.
SPARKING INTEREST IN ARCHITECTURE TODAY
In the CAC’s classes, Kroloff hopes to give a fresh interpretation of a subject as expansive as American architecture—based on one of Scully’s most popular lectures—by distilling it down to key figures, movements and innovations, while exploring new directions that are bound to shape our homes, workplaces and cities of the future.
“This is not about veneration through replication,” Kroloff said. “It is about saluting the spirit of Scully and helping a broad-based audience develop an appreciation for how cities and everyday surroundings matter in their lives—never more crucial, with both our human and natural environments under threat.”
Scully outlived most of the architectural luminaries of his time—Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Robert Venturi and many more. But Scully's own influence as a peerless educator and communicator—“the most influential architecture teacher ever,” according to Johnson—is likely to outlive even the built works of these titans.
There may not be a long wooden pointer thrusting at the stage this time around (Scully’s preferred classroom prop, according to the series’ sponsor, Rich Carr), but if we can bring some lightning into the room, we will have done Scully proud.