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The write stuff

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Modern Architecture and Other Essays By Vincent Scully. Edited by Neil Levine. Princeton University Press, 2003. 399pp. £30

There are many good reasons to read Vincent Scully. To begin with, there is the extent of his influence: through his work as teacher, lecturer and critic, Scully can truly claim to have shaped the modern architecture he describes. One of the essays in this collection deals with the Florida resort town of Seaside, planned by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, former students of Scully's at Yale. Beyond its historical importance in affecting architectural practice, though, Scully's writing repays re-reading, and by bringing together examples of his work from the 1950s to the 1990s, Neil Levine (another former student) has provided the ideal introduction to it.

The sheer breadth of Scully's interest is well represented. There are essays on the architecture of 5th-century BC Athens, on the pueblos of the American Southwest, and on the Classical gardens of 17th-century France. There is a brilliant study of Picasso's Guernica, and an extraordinary analysis of Frank Lloyd Wright's work in the light of Freudian psychology. There is a depth of literary reference in these essays too, with frequent allusions to Shelley, Melville and Whitman in particular.

Scully's own writing demonstrates a facility with language that has drawn comparisons with Ruskin. He comes across as the best kind of teacher - patient, and with a genuine desire to be understood (many of these essays began as slide lectures, and retain the immediacy of the speaking voice).

There are no unnecessary obscurities here, but often sophisticated arguments fashioned out of simple words. Purely as a prose stylist Scully is a pleasure to read, nowhere more so than when he is finding verbal equivalents for plastic experience, such as the sense of movement or weight that a building or sculpture conveys.

Beyond this verbal dexterity, though, Scully's writing reflects a nuanced understanding, in which there is room for doubt, and change of heart. In particular, these essays reveal a writer who clearly feels the allure of the grand Modernist architectural gesture, even while in his later work he expresses disquiet about what it might lead to. He writes of certain architects who regard their trade as 'a purely self-referential game': taking abstract painting as their model, they try to liberate themselves from constraint, and produce work that is freestanding and autonomous.

By denying urban and natural context, for Scully this means that they are ultimately rejecting the claims of community.

But he counts himself as one of those who have been beguiled by the monumental isolation of some Modernist styles. 'How meagre and wrong the architectural models of the past decades now look to us, ' he writes in the late '60s. 'How blinded by vulgarly genteel taste and how insensitive to fundamental human values we surely were. But some of us have tried to change.'

Scully's work deals with the competing claims of history and memory on the one hand, including Classical and vernacular tradition, and the ideal of new creation on the other. Ultimately, he turns against the arrogance and brutalism that he sees embodied in much Modern architecture, and the impoverishment that he associates with it.

Writing in the shadow of the Vietnam War, Scully sets out the vision of community that he presents as an alternative. 'If heroic attitudinising goes, what is left?

Why, everything: the town with its people, [] the country, and the road; all of it, all of architecture that is, made possible by good Government: decent policy, the consent of the governed, justice, and peace. It is that principle which emerges, and remains. In the end, when all the perceptions are in, it is that principle which the architectural historian and critic must serve, and for which he must fight in every way he can.'

Scully's is an activist approach to the role of architectural commentator. But above all it is a humane one, which fights shy of absolutes and simplifications.

The essays in this volume have been chosen both because they are representative of his career, and because of their relative unavailability in recent times. None are excerpts from Scully's 15 published books.

Add the fact that it is stylish and beautifully illustrated, and we have a volume that is of value both to those who are new to Scully's work, and those who are already admirers.

Matt Shinn is a writer and editor in London

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