His flair for the dramatic was aided by a gift for the sonorous phrase — of Mies van der Rohe, he wrote, “His architecture cried on nobody’s lapel; it made perfect, technologically appropriate cages, and limpid volumes of air, and that was all” — or the biting put-down: He once dismissed the buildings of Kevin Roche as “paramilitary dandyism.”
Unlike many academics, Professor Scully spoke out on issues of the day and was not afraid to change his mind. He was instrumental in promoting modernist doctrine and challenged the ossification of its legacy during the 1960s. To his chagrin, his rebellious open-mindedness became identified with postmodernism and its excesses.
“I think he probably did more than anyone else over the last 60 years to affect not just architecture but architecture culture as well,” said the former New York Times and New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, one of many former Scully students to enter the field because of him. “He showed us that architecture is not just forms in a vacuum. It’s about what kind of society you want to build.”
Professor Scully knew almost every American architect of note in his era and did not hide his enthusiasms or sugarcoat his disappointments about what they did. Philip Johnson was a close friend and frequent sparring partner. Professor Scully’s support for the underappreciated Louis Kahn in the early 1960s helped elevate his stature and acquire commissions for him to build two of his masterworks at Yale, the Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art.
Writing the introduction to Robert Venturi’s incendiary 1966 book, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” Professor Scully endorsed it as “probably the most important writing on the making of architecture” since Le Corbusier’s “Towards a New Architecture.”
Both Professor Scully and Mr. Venturi argued that irony, ornament, humor, insider historical references — a “multiplicity” of styles and forms — should be allowed back into architecture. Debunking modernist orthodoxies and beginning what became known as postmodernism — a word both men grew to loathe — the Scully piece also fought a rear-guard action against Mr. Venturi’s critics, accusing them of a “preoccupation with a rather prissily puristic aesthetic.”
Professor Scully had himself held such views not so long before, and expressed shame at being slow to recognize the destruction of America’s cities in the name of urban renewal.
“I didn’t pay any attention when Philip Johnson and John Lindsay tried to save Pennsylvania Station in 1963,” he once said, referring to the architect and the future mayor of New York City, who was a congressman at that time. “Like most modernists of that time, I didn’t think it was worth saving. Everything had to be new.”
His 1969 book, “American Architecture and Urbanism,” tried to make amends. He spoke out against displacement of the poor to make room for wider highways, and he became an active critic of redevelopment in New Haven. His “Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade,” published in 1991, further chastised modernists for failing to respect the surrounding city and neighborhood — the context — in which a modernist structure might be built.
In the 1990s he allied himself with New Urbanism, an international movement pioneered in the United States by two of his former students, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk; it stressed the importance of the pedestrian and human-scale construction in maintaining a sense of community.
Other critics hoped to shape opinion in their newspaper and magazine columns. Besides his books, Professor Scully had the classroom. “The most important students he ever had at Yale were the bankers and the lawyers who went on to support architecture,” Mr. Goldberger said. “He made them informed clients.”
Professor Scully was an anomaly on Yale’s faculty: He was a New Haven native, born Vincent Joseph Scully Jr. on Aug. 21, 1920, an only child. His mother, the former Mary Catherine McCormick, was a coloratura soprano who, he said, “had performed professionally, although where and when is shrouded in mythology.” His father was a car salesman who later became a Democratic city alderman.
A product of New Haven public schools, including Hillhouse High School, Vincent entered Yale at age 16 on a full scholarship (the Depression had wrecked his father’s business) and majored in English.
Disliking graduate school, he joined the Army Air Forces in 1940 but presently “washed out of pilot training,” as he put it, and joined the Marine Corps. On his return to Yale in 1946 his interests had turned to art history, specifically architecture.
As a scholar, he first made his mark with “The Shingle Style: Architectural Theory and Design From Richardson to the Origins of Wright.” Submitted (under another title) as his Ph.D. thesis in 1949 and published as a book in 1955, his analysis found a continuity between the enormous “cottages” that McKim, Mead & White and others had built for upper-class clients in the 1870s and ’80s — powerful, volumetric forms clad in a skin of cedar shingles — and Frank Lloyd Wright’s early domestic architecture in the Midwest.
“At that time, no one liked 19th-century architecture,” he said in a 1980 profile in The New Yorker. “My aim was to rehabilitate it. That’s what dissertations should do: bring back great areas of human experience that have been jettisoned.”
By mapping out a coherent and glorious American past, Scully also invigorated those who wanted to succeed upon it. In the words of the historian and architect Robert A. M. Stern — another former Scully student who became the dean of the Yale School of Architecture — “What were just buildings became architecture.”
Both Mr. Stern and Mr. Venturi were prompted by reading “The Shingle Style” to rethink their own stylistic approach and models.
Drawing on his reading of Freud and Jung, Professor Scully was mindful that various societies had looked to architecture as places to cohabit with the divine. “The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture,” published in 1962, resulted from numerous walking trips around Greece during the 1950s, when he was in his 30s, a period he later called “the most intense and profound intellectual and spiritual experience of my life.”
Classicists and archaeologists were generally scornful of his theories, though, and he never published a planned second volume.
In 1975, car trips with his son around the American Southwest produced “Pueblo: Mountain, Village, Dance.” That he was attacked again by professionals in the field after its publication did not deter him from celebrating the unified view of the world and respect for the landscape shown by the Pueblo Indian.
In a 2004 piece for College Art Association Reviews about a collection of Mr. Scully’s essays on modern architecture, the architect Jonathan Massey summarized the view of some critics when he wrote that “Scully’s tendency to universalize his own empathic response dehistoricizes his objects of study.”
A passionate advocate for his favorite architects, Professor Scully often enlisted his commanding rhetoric to promote their work. In 1964, describing Paul Rudolph’s controversial Brutalist-style Art and Architecture Building (now the Paul Rudolph Hall), which opened at Yale in 1963, he declared:
“This is the most dramatic entrance in the United States of America, bar none. It does not lead anywhere in particular, however, so tentatively pluralistic are the choices it offers. That is to say, movement from it to the left brings one rather indecisively into the exhibition area, movement right merely to the stairs and elevators that serve the other floors.”
Among his many honors is an award that bears his name: the Vincent Scully Prize, established in 1999 by the National Building Museum in Washington and given for “exemplary practice, scholarship or criticism in architecture, historic preservation and urban design.” He received the National Medal of Arts in 2004.
In addition to his emeritus position at Yale, Professor Scully was distinguished visiting professor at the University of Miami, where in his later years he rode out the New England winters.
Professor Scully was married three times, to Nancy Keith, Marian LaFollette and the architectural historian Catherine Willis Lynn. She survives him, as do three sons, Daniel, Stephen and John; a daughter, Katherine Mary Scully; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
One of his last works, “Yale in New Haven: Architecture and Urbanism,” published in 2004 and written with Ms. Lynn, Mr. Goldberger and Eric Vogt, allowed Professor Scully to come full circle in his life. In the introduction he compared sunset at New Haven’s red East Rock, under which he grew up, to a “butte bursting up from Arizona to dominate the Connecticut shore.”
As Mr. Goldberger says in “Vincent Scully: An Art Historian Among Architects,” a 2010 documentary about his mentor, “He has been defined by New Haven, but in a way that is not provincial at all.”
“He’s used the architecture of the whole world to illuminate New Haven,” Mr. Goldberger added, “as he’s used New Haven to illuminate the architecture of the world.”
Correction: December 1, 2017
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to Professor Scully’s comment about “when Philip Johnson and John Lindsay tried to save Penn Station in 1963.” John V. Lindsay was a congressman in 1963, not the mayor of New York. (He was elected mayor in 1965.)
Correction: December 1, 2017
An earlier version of this obituary misspelled the surname of Professor Scully’s second wife. She is Marian LaFollette, not Lafolette.