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Shaped Environments

An architectural historian sums up his vision of the builder's art

THE author of more than a dozen books on ancient and modern architecture - from the Pueblo architecture of the Southwest to the works of Louis I. Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright - Vincent Scully is widely considered one of America's most influential art historians. His is a reputation based not only upon his published writings, but even more upon his work as a teacher in the classroom. At Yale University, where he taught for 4 1/2 decades before his retirement at the mandatory age of 70 this past year, Scully's brilliant lectures on the history of architecture made him a campus legend to generations of students, including many who went on to pursue distinguished careers in the field, such as Cesar Pelli, Robert Climent, Robert A. M. Stern, Robert Venturi, Paul Goldberger, and Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C. Professor Scully's latest book, Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade (St. Martin's Press, 388 pp., illustrated, $40), offers a magisterial survey of the ways in which people have shaped their environment from prehistoric times to the present. It also represents the culmination of a lifetime's work, gathering up and pulling together the themes that have informed Scully's vision of the builder's art. Defining "the shape of architecture" as "the shape of the earth as it is modified by the structures of mankind," Scully proceeds to divide architecture into two huge categories: The first - which he finds in pre-Greek and non-Greek cultures - tends to echo the shapes of the surrounding landscape; the second - largely invented by the Greeks, he believes - tends to be shaped in contrast to its natural surroundings, expressing thereby a very different conception of man's role in nature. In the temples of th e Aztecs, the pyramids of Egypt, the ziggurats of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia, Scully traces the form of the "sacred mountain," which was seen as a bridge between earth and heaven. With the advent of the Greeks and the form of the Greek temple, the gods became humanized - distinct from nature. Whether he is ruminating on "sacred mountains" and their modern-day resurrection in the form of Manhattan skyscrapers or discoursing on the Gothic architects' attempts to create light-filled, heavenly interior spaces in the cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame, Scully possesses in abundance the quality of passionate commitment that makes for memorable teaching. He ranges freely over the domains of music, art, politics, and literature. Greek temples have him quoting passages from Homer. The achievements of ancient Rome spur him to defend that underrated style, whose commodiousness, he feels, modern-day builders would do well to emulate: "The generosity of Roman public space in comparison with the squalor that has overtaken our own during the later twentieth century was underscored by the destruction of Pennsylvania Station's high vaults in favor of low tunnels, like the burrows of rats through which we proletarians now sniff our way while the homeless, refuse of our barbarous tribe, lie huddled against the walls." In the Italian gardens of the 16th century, he finds the seeds of English Romanticism: a summoning up of wild nature, previously banished from the cities, brought back in gushing fountains and bosky dells that evoke a heady mixture of panic and delight. Turning to the less inviting subject of classical French gardens, he shows us how they represent a continuation of the Roman desire to create vast interior spaces - only in this case, the world-ordering impulse is extended to the exterior space of the lan dscape, now brought under human domain. Scully perceives architecture as a product of religious and cultural values, an expression of the way that people feel about their relationship to nature, to the sacred, and to other people. His approach is a formidable blend of erudition and intuition. He is master of the sudden insight, the bold speculation, and the inspired guess. An astute observer, he keeps one eye trained on the concrete details, while the other ranges over the broad sweep of history. The occasional thinness of some of the argument s and evidence supporting his hypotheses, however, is more apparent in a book than it would be in the classroom or lecture hall, where presence and personality can more easily carry the day. A certain touch of ivory-tower insouciance, not to say arrogance, creeps into his tone from time to time, as when he offers this speculation about the peasants who built the Egyptian pyramids: "We may assume, I think, that despite the view of the matter held in later ages, they did so willingly, since the Pharaoh's immo rtality clearly had something central to do with the quality of their lives on earth and, in their view, hereafter." But Scully is a consistently throught-provoking and eye-opening guide to the temples, tombs, gardens, and dwelling places humans have made. For everyone who has not had the pleasure of experiencing his inspiring lectures in person, this handsomely illustrated volume provides a matchless opportunity to survey architectural history from a truly global perspective.

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