The Earth, The Temple, and the Guys

October 24, 2014

 

Vincent Scully is just a man, but there are those who revere him as some kind of deity. The now-retired, long-time historian of art and architecture at Yale gave famous lectures of great emotional energy and spiritual implication. Pacing back and forth on the stage of Yale’s Law School, he would remark on the slides projected on the immense screen above and point at them with a large bamboo stick, the better both to identify specifically the elements of interest and also to whack at them for noisy emphasis. 

 

A favorite anecdote described Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi, both Scully friends and favorites, in Russia, considering the domes of St. Basil’s. “Look,” Scully paraphrased Venturi, “at how they gesture! Upward!” But Kahn in the anecdote had a similarly convincing reply. “Ah, but see how they Hold! the Weight! Down!” 

 

I was simultaneously delighted and confused at the time. Under Scully’s remarkable spell, architecture was turning into this enterprise of dynamic sculpture and intense human endeavor. Buildings, however static they might seem sitting on the ground, were in fact as active and contentious as the people who created them, maybe even moreso. They were as dynamic as Scully thought them to be. 

 

Greek temples were not simply piles of stone, but rather great allegories of the human condition–tense, muscular entities that were more bodies than columns. They beseeched their great deities, in the form of horned mountains, to whom they would call across the great expanses of landscape that we all suddenly realized were just short stretches of the troubled intersection between heaven and earth. 

 

Those slivers of wood nailed against that nice frame house to keep the rain out? Those are a living skin stretched to expressive tautness around the fairly explosive energy of inchoate yet frenetic twentieth century space. 

 

He could be confusing at first, but he was always exciting. Like any good preacher, he would draw observers in by faith and drama, only to let their actual understanding develop a bit more slowly but richly. 

 

A favorite was the University of Virginia campus, which of course we are only allowed to call the grounds. For Jefferson, the landscape of the United States was a blank canvas. The site he chose was outside of Charlottesville, not in it. His desire to build a school ex nuovo was the best combination of eighteenth century rationalism of the merits of intellectual inquiry combined with nineteenth century idealization of the purifying qualities of (what Europeans claimed to be) the unspoiled American landscape. 

 

Jefferson was, of course, an architect, less because he saw that as the ideal profession in the way the 20th century has and more because he was a Renaissance man and a control freak. He had to know everything and try everything. A happy result was that he left behind perhaps the best American architecture library of his day, as well as sets of drawings in which he would calculate dimensions to the tens of thousandths of an inch, when a good bricklayer would be lucky to get within a quarter. 

 

Jefferson’s version of Enlightenment archaeology left him certain that one of the world’s best buildings was Rome’s Pantheon. (Let’s set aside for a moment that Jefferson actually loved the Maison Carrée in Nimes the most. He gazed at it as if it were a lover, to paraphrase. Presumably his love for the Pantheon was more decent). More importantly, the dome was a more universalizing shape, more evocative of the dome of the heavens, better able to lend itself to the program of rationalism and intellectual striving that Jefferson intended for his University. 

 

This was no easy shift. Rome’s Pantheon was built by Emperor Hadrian. The advantage that the Pantheon had in being built by a politician architect like Jefferson was potentially more than effaced by the troubling nature of totalitarian government. That would hardly be a problem. Make the dome into a library, evict any serious presence of the church, and the overarching power of the institution and the shape becomes learning itself. 

 

Thereby, one of the great paradoxes of architecture unfolds with great beauty. Built forms, which have the capacity to be so intrinsically meaningful, can also shift on a dime, or maybe a nickel, if you want another piece of Jeffersonian architecture. 

 

So the rest of Jefferson’s campus unfolds with clarity and usefulness. There are ten pavilions, two story brick houses to serve as classrooms below and professor’s residences above. They owe a strong debt to the residential traditions of Virginia’s Piedmont. They also unfold in these forms because Jefferson’s most pleasant recollections of collegiate experiences at William and Mary came, not from the poorly ventilated swirl of contagion and fire hazards that the Wren building was in its early reality, but rather, from the dinners he had at the homes of his favorite professors. He wanted to institutionalize that practice into the architecture of his own school. 

 

Similarly, whatever regional and practical roots the residences might have had, Jefferson wanted to mask them with the architectural details of his favorite buildings, or, more accurately, what he knew from illustrations of his favorite buildings. The grounds (don’t call it a campus, please) would be an outdoor museum, a living encyclopedia, of the best examples of architecture for future students to use as educational devices. 

 

Outside the inner sanctum of the lawn would be gardens. At the opposite end of the gardens, ably defining the square of the Academical Village would be the ranges, arch-fronted brick structures for student dining. 

 

Various jeffersonian delights would connect these structures. Serpentine walls lining gardens. Quaint passageways between structures. A delicate relation to the gradual slope of the property (which later researchers understood to be the result of give and take with his builders, not an imposition of Jefferson’s own genius). 

 

This was a symbolic playground for Scully. The distant mountain was a sacred one, made all the better because Jefferson’s own Monticello was visible at the top of it (from certain places, anyway). Like Zeus himself at the top of Olympus! 

 

And because columns were people, the march of the small-scale columns lining the student rooms with the larger scale ones for the professors was even more evocative. Literal and poetic at the same time. A dream of ancient order revived, not simply with the rigors of the Roman republic, but with the honest, spare dream of actual Greek Democracy resuscitated in built form. 

 

Make no mistake, the Jeffersonian dream of education is flawed, perhaps fatally. University, professor and student are delineated with admirable clarity in the living diagram of the University of Virginia. But the slaves who built and operated the place are nowhere to be seen in the drawings, typically hidden in basement spaces, but omnipresent nonetheless, a stunning embodiment of oppression. The Enlightenment was meant to eradicate such cruelty, not conceal it. 

 

Architecture does not make us achieve our dreams, it only allows us to visualize with greater purity what they are, to fail with greater beauty. 

 

So I went to the University of Virginia, partly to immerse myself in such an evocative environment, and partly to study with Richard Guy. Wilson, with no shortage of erudition, charm, and presence himself, is more evocative of a university and of learning than he is of some great religious experience. Wilson is encyclopedic and contextualizing. He is more of an embodiment of Jefferson’s desire for a rational knowledge, where Scully maintains more than a little of the shamanism that the Republic was supposed to shake off. 

 

So of course at one point in my graduate program, Wilson decided that Scully needed to come to the University for a few days to give a few lectures. 

 

I received the graduate student perk of being assigned to pick Scully up at the airport. To be clear, though I had taken a couple of courses with Scully and attended a variety of additional lectures, I had only spoken with the man a couple of times. Friends of mine had taken actual independent studies with him. These apparently amounted to having lunch with him each week and listening to him rant about favorite subjects. I was too timid to do so at the time. I felt as though I didn’t know enough. This airport rendezvous represented the chance of a small amount of redemption. 

 

The Charlottesville airport was small, so passengers deplaned onto the actual tarmac. The descent of the shaman/deity was mundane in the logistics, but became more remarkable as the moments went on. We got into my car and drove down Route 29, a straight state route turned unfortunate strip of Big Box retail. 

 

"I haven’t been here in decades!" Scully announced, to a larger crowd than the car was actually holding. "None of this was here before! None of this." He talked about Venturi and Scott Brown’s book–Learning From Las Vegas. They had understood the culture of the automobile very well, but they had never quite acknowledged how destructive could be.  

 

Then the conversation shifted. Something about the period of time when he was writing a book about Greek Architecture. That was, of course, The Earth, The Temple and the Gods. I had read it as an undergrad and struggled with it. But i remembered the gist. It was American Architecture and Urbanism as well as The Shingle Style and the Stick Style that I really loved. He talked about the Earth The Temple and the Gods as though it were some obscure thing, and not a book that architects and historians named widely in conversation with reverent tones. 

 

The drive was not long. We made the turn up the hill and approached Jefferson’s grounds. I had known Scully to be exciteable, but never profane. Still, this part of the monologue, I remember especially vividly.

 

"Oh, shit! Oh, my God. There’s just…there’s just nothing like it, certainly not anywhere in America. Shit!" 

 

I pulled past one of the ranges into the parking area of Pavilion VII, where he would be staying. This meant we had to walk up a few stairs through a narrow passageway, into the walkway and then to the right toward the Pavilion. As I turned right toward the Pavilion, Scully, bag in hand, still a bit wobbly from the flight, turned left. he walked out from the colonnade into the grass of the Lawn. He paused, put down his bag, and gazed at Jefferson’s Rotunda. Few buildings have engaged Euclidean geometry and the classical orders with such assured, yet naive conviction that they had the power to drive humanity toward greater ideals of education and democracy. Few buildings have gathered around themselves an iteration of architecture in so diagrammatic a fashion as to instruct people how to educate themselves. 

 

Architecture worked and it didn’t. The University of Virginia persists as a masterpiece of American architecture. Yet, in the first year or two of classes, student discipline among the exclusively wealthy and white students was so bad that they almost had to shut down the school. Who was one of the worst offenders? A younger generation of Jefferson’s own family. At the report of this in about 1820, by certain accounts, Jefferson wept. 

 

After a moment, Scully turned around, and I could see tears streaming down his face. I was surprised for a moment, but not really. The end of his pre-History to Renaissance class comes with the death of Michelangelo. The lecture ends, the class ends, the Renaissance ends as il Divigno struggles to finish the Rondanini pietà. The form of it curves, sags, and sinks, incomplete. Of course it is immobile, solid marble, but it seems to melt back into the earth, as would Michelangelo himself in 1564. As do we all. Though really only one of us took one of human kind’s great eras of artistic creativity with him. 

 

We age, we die. We work to leave great monuments of our proud achievements as artistic piles of baked clay on the land that our forebears bequeathed us. But every delight has the specter of mortality, disappointment. Every apogee of art is only a paean to frailty and frivolity. 

 

Scully stayed for a week or so, and gave lectures on Greek temples and Frank Lloyd Wright. Sometimes his freely associative comparisons from one genre of art to the next seemed a bit too Jungian. But they were always erudite. Once, in a grad student seminar, as if he was trying harder to persuade Zeus than a pack of master’s students, he banged on the table and shouted in classical Greek for much longer than was needed to make the point. 

 

It was some years later that I finally finished my dissertation and earned my PhD. I bought myself a(nother) bow tie to wear like Wilson and a laser pointer to stand in for Scully’s bamboo stick.

I will go back to the University of Virginia one of these days, because there is nothing quite like it. Like the horned mountains and Greek temples of Scully’s tome, it is a place where temples stand for the purpose of welcoming the heavenly powers who descend to walk briefly among us and speak oracularly. 

 

Why did Scully cry? Because God is dead? Because injustice persists? Because some rich kids are still violent jerks?

 

Or because of the fundamental persistence of humanism in architecture. Architecture may be a poignant document of our failures, but it nonetheless and perhaps therefore a means by which we measure our efforts to be our best selves over the centuries and the millennia. The pursuit itself, all bricks and bluster, thereby has a power that those dead old gods, the previous residents long since departed, could only have envied. The temples are the gods. 

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