For Vincent Scully, architecture was so much more than buildings.
It was about education. History. Space.
Scully died Thursday at his home of six years in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was 97 and had Parkinson’s disease. He recently had a heart attack, his wife, Catherine Lynn, told The Washington Post.
Teaching at Yale University for more than six decades, beginning in 1947, and then teaching for almost 20 years at the University of Miami School of Architecture as a distinguished visiting professor, Scully was renowned as the foremost architectural historian of his time. He proved a major influence on how the public, which included professional architects and people who just loved the art of architecture, understood the purpose of architecture.
“Vincent Scully changed my life, and he put me on the path toward art,” Jeffrey Loria, the art dealer and former Marlins owner, told the Miami Herald in 2005. Loria had enrolled in Scully’s art history course at Yale.
Scully’s introductory art history classes at Yale proved so popular that the school had to move his class to the law school’s lecture room. At the time, it was the only hall on campus large enough to hold 400 students. He insisted on including architecture as a component of art history, every bit as important as painting and sculpture.
Scully, born in New Haven, Connecticut, wasn’t a trained architect, but that didn’t faze countless architects who learned from the master. In a 1996 Herald story on Scully, one of architecture’s elder statesmen, Philip Johnson, called the educator “the most influential architecture teacher ever.”
Scully, the Post said, helped popularize the historic preservation movement and was the spiritual father of New Urbanism, a school of design that promotes architecture on a human scale.
During his time in Coral Gables after joining the University of Miami in 1991, he opined often on his adopted South Florida community and how its architecture worked — and didn’t.
“Almost immediately upon his arrival, Scully became fascinated by the Florida that many of us don’t notice,” said Andres Duany, a former faculty member of UM’s School of Architecture. “He became enamored of the small scale ranch houses of the ’50s, those built by Mackle in Key Biscayne and Fort Lauderdale. He found them modest, dignified, tropical and exceedingly convenient.”
Scully and his wife Catherine “Tappy” Lynn lived in such a house in Coral Gables.
“He never ceased to amaze us with his love and insight for our South Florida architecture,” Duany said. “In the end, he was even excited by our new downtown skyline. There has probably never been such an open-minded professor of architecture. He was completely free of ideology, but with a prejudice towards the modest.”
In the 1997 photo essay book “Coral Gables: An American Garden City,” by editors Roberto M. Behar and Maurice G. Culot, Scully wrote some of the most pointed essays. The Gables’ Mediterranean architecture was not suited for the tropical climate of Florida, he wrote. He called city founder George Merrick “as much huckster as utopian.”
A year earlier, in 1996, Scully drove around South Florida with a Herald reporter and lavished praise and damnation over what he saw.
He called the 20-story federal jail on Fourth Street in Miami a “tragic image of incarceration,” the elevated plaza in front of the main library “a great opportunity to create public space — missed,” and the then rising Portofino Tower on South Pointe in South Beach “terrible ... of brutish proportion.”
Scully was kinder toward the Arquitectonica-designed condominiums on Brickell Avenue. “Delightful, especially the one with the hole in the middle,” he said. He noted the resemblance to Rem Koolhaas’ early work.
South Beach’s Art Deco style captured his imagination. It “is wonderful for a city by the sea — it’s urban, and at the same time it says, ‘Holiday! Mediterranean fun!’ ”
But overall, he saw South Florida as a place resplendent with majestic homes and yards with water views but staggeringly devoid of public places where people could come together.
“What Miami lacks is a great public space. When Flagler laid out Miami there was no public space. There was just some grass around the hotels. Today, that's a real problem for Miami. When you think about Miami, you think of it from the outside, usually when you’re driving and looking back at it. But when you get inside Miami, you don’t find many places in it that you’d want to be, or which are memorable,” Scully told the Herald.
“Scully was as much critic and activist as historian, a public intellectual interested in the present as much as the past,” Keith Eggener, a University of Oregon historian of architecture, wrote in the online Places Journal in 2015. “He played a seminal role in defining the character of architectural history during the second half of the 20th Century, and ultimately had as much impact on designers as on scholars.”
Among his honors, Scully received the first award presented by the National Building Museum for outstanding achievement in architecture, architectural scholarship, historic preservation and urban design. The prize was named in his honor. He also received the National Medal of Arts in 2004 from President George W. Bush, like Scully, a Yale graduate.
“His presence among us gave impetus to faculty and students alike to seek a regional identity,” said Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, former dean of UM’s School of Architecture. “He loved the diversity of Miami culture, its affinity with the Caribbean, and he encouraged us to emphasize these as a distinction.”
Scully’s survivors include his third wife, architectural historian Catherine Lynn; his children Daniel, Stephen, John and Katherine Scully; five grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.
Material from The Washington Post supplemented this report.