RAY SUAREZ: The National Building Museum in Washington has announced a new award to honor the people who encourage us to think about the built world through scholarship and criticism in architecture, city planning, and urban design. The award is named for its first winner, Vincent Scully. The renowned architectural historian has taught at Yale University for over 50 years. His students are a "who's who" of American architecture. An author and critic, he's written numerous books on topics ranging from Greek temples to American urbanism, and he continues to stir debate over the future shape of the American city. Vincent Scully, good to see you.
VINCENT SCULLY, Architectural Historian: Thanks.
RAY SUAREZ: And as gratifying as it is to win any award, having it named after you and being the first honoree must be pretty heady stuff.
VINCENT SCULLY: It's much too much. It's more than I can handle. It's completely undeserved.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, that's not what other people say about you.
VINCENT SCULLY: I'm sure it's what you said, I've been around so long that they felt they had to do something.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you've been writing about the things that are currently driving these topics...
VINCENT SCULLY: Yes, I have.
RAY SUAREZ: ...For a long time.
VINCENT SCULLY: For a long time.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you get a sense that we're entering a moment where it's possible to rethink urban form, the way we design the effect of the automobile on our environment, these various things?
VINCENT SCULLY: Yes, I do. I mean, I think we've been rethinking that for the last generation. And right now, it's really beginning to take shape. There are a lot of people now who are designing new towns that make sense, that discipline the automobile and give people a sense of community, and diminish urban sprawl and get people out of cars for a while, so they can walk a little bit. And that's been handled pretty well, now, in many places at the more or less suburban level. The challenge now is to bring that right into the city, right into the center of the city -- because what's going on, compared with the way we used to think about cities 30 years ago, is not the city as some utopian dreams of some hero architect, but a city pretty much the way American cities, especially American towns, have always been. I mean, American architecture was always very good at putting towns together, and with the automobile, and with the modern age, we forgot a good many things. The automobile led us away, it created a landscape where it was very difficult to feel a sense of community. Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of what America should be was that the town just spread out across the landscape like a wastebasket. Everybody in contact with everybody else only by automobile. And a lot of that's happened. I mean, he's not responsible for creating it. It's happened around the country, and people are clearly impatient with it.
RAY SUAREZ: But there's tremendous appeal for that model. One of the reasons that Frank Lloyd Wright championed it was that he thought that offering people that kind of mobility, mobility at the moment that you choose to have it, was democratizing, made you a citizen.
VINCENT SCULLY: You can still have that mobility, after all. You just don't have to create the environment so that the automobile is what shapes the whole environment. You can have that mobility in a town. Your car is somewhere. If you want to go somewhere in your car, you can go and get in your car and go off somewhere else. You've still got the highways. You just don't have to shape the places where you live for the convenience of the automobile, a very simple thing. Departments of Transportation everywhere will tell you, you have to have enormously broad streets, and if you look at American developments over the last 15 years or so, if you were to look down on them from above, you find the streets are getting wider and wider and wider all the time, because the demands are getting more and more unreasonable. But you don't have to have that. American planners used to know... tried to make the streets narrow. Or when you come to an intersection, you just don't cut it back for the car so it can "zoop" around. You make them stop and turn. And why not? On the highway, full speed. In town, town speed, pedestrian speed. At the service of the pedestrian, at the service of the house, not always at the service of the automobile. It's perfectly possible to have both. You don't have to get rid of the automobile.
RAY SUAREZ: So the new urbanism that we're hearing so much about...
VINCENT SCULLY: The new urbanism.
RAY SUAREZ: ...Would look ideally a lot like the old urbanism that you remember as a kid growing up New Haven.
VINCENT SCULLY: Yes, it would, and I think that's why people like it. And a lot of modernists, all of whom are my friends, who get impatient with it call it nostalgic, but you know, nostalgia's a very strange word. A lot of civilizations have been built on nostalgia. And you might say that Greek civilization was built on the sense that once everything was greater and more beautiful and wonderful, before the terrible age of the heroes came, and so on. And it's not false to say that once the world, before the automobile, was in many ways quieter, gentler, a better place to live, safer for everybody, for kids and for animals. The streets were friendly, they weren't terrors. We had front porches that looked out on the street. We had sidewalks. We sat on the front porch, we looked at the neighbors across the street. We walked up and down the sidewalk. It was possible to cross the street without getting killed. All of that made sense. And it's possible to design that without destroying the world for the automobile, for a while anyway, while it still runs out its course. It can still be king on the highway, offering the choices, as you rightly put it. On the other hand, we need public transportation very badly now. And it's tragic that when the interstates were put through in the 50's, so little thought was given... no thought was given to integrating them with other kinds of transportation. If they had only thought then, rather than smashing through the city and letting the various city plan agencies in various places tell them which neighborhoods to destroy... and they were usually neighborhoods that the city planners felt were slums. But what they didn't know and people like Ganz and so on pointed out very soon, some of those were real communities. They really worked. And a great many of them... you can follow I-95 right down the East Coast smashing community after community, and as its last act in Miami, just before it subsides back and becomes U.S. 1 again, it destroyed a viable African American community of long standing, one of the most stable communities in Miami, Overtown, where Cab Calloway loved to play. It was a wonderful, rich culture. They obliterated it.
RAY SUAREZ: One of the things that you're credited with doing is helping to bring this dialogue down to a man-on-the-street level, taking architecture away strictly from the academy, strictly from art historians and critics, and elite dialogues about this. Is that really the key to making your vision of a more humane- built environment worth getting other regular people involved?
VINCENT SCULLY: Once a friend of mine, a sort of modernist, said to me, "Why, your view is just the sort of view that anybody in the street would have." And I said, "That's it. That's right. That's it." Because you know, modernism, high modernism told people they didn't know how to live. And there was a certain way you were supposed to live. And their view of how you're supposed to live was sort of formed in large measure by European class struggle. And you were supposed to live in apartment blocks. And in Vienna, they built wonderful social democratic apartment blocks, you know, which were Red Vienna, at war with the right wing, and the army stormed them in 1934, created terrific architecture, wonderful architecture, but it's not our way, and it's not the way anybody here wants to live. Very few people in the United States, except the very rich, have really wanted to live in high-rise apartments. They've hated it. And as you know, in the high- rises, the projects were built -- everywhere from the 30's on, they destroyed communities everywhere. And it's not only in St. Louis, not only in Pruitt-Igoe, but it's also in New Haven and Bridgeport and everywhere else that those things have been torn down, in some cases blown up, because people couldn't live that way. They destroyed people's environment. They destroyed the community. They destroyed the streets, the squares, the places, the ability to be near the ground, all those things. You know, everybody in America, on the whole, except the very rich who don't have to worry about these things-- if you have enough money, you don't have to worry about community, you don't have to worry about much of anything-- but if you're poor especially, you need community. And most of us need community pretty badly. And we used to have it. And there's no reason we can't have it now. People have a pretty good idea of what they want. They've always loved, in America, the idea of the single- family house. And it's one of the most touching things. And some of our best housing projects, you know, were emergency wartime housing in World War I, where in places like Bridgeport, Connecticut, which at that time was called the Essen of the United States by the Germans, who knew...
RAY SUAREZ: But they were good looking, too, which...
VINCENT SCULLY: They were great.
RAY SUAREZ: …Which a lot of our emergency housing hasn't been.
VINCENT SCULLY: They were beautiful. And what they did, they had the image of traditional American towns, influenced by the English Garden City movement, which involved the same thing. And you can take those English towns, like Port Sunlight and so on, and you can take this wonderful group of houses done by the government in that period-- say in Bridgeport, say the one called Seaside Park-- and you can see them there, they were designed for a very low- paid workers in the factory, designed for the lowest-paid workers, that particular group. And now take a single-family house, like a mansion, and subdivide it four or five times so that you always have the image, the people have the image of the single-family house. It has the dignity. Each one has a good doorway, and a good window, and a grass strip, and a sidewalk, and the elms planted and a narrow street, and the green, and able to walk. And that place, Seaside Park, now, in 1999, is a beloved and carefully taken care of neighborhood in Bridgeport. Everybody loves it. It's cherished. And right across the street, which is Iranistan Boulevard, named for P.T. Barnum's house in Bridgeport, there's a housing project put up in the late 30's in which all of that is gone, in which they're barracks in asphalt, in which there's no identification of anybody in these barracks, and it's had to be rebuilt at least once, and it was for a long time, I'm told, the center of drug distribution in that part of Bridgeport. Whereas across the way, a totally different environment, a totally different town, totally different place.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, it's apparent from the passion you bring to this subject why the first winner of the Vincent Scully Award is Vincent Scully. Good to talk to you.
VINCENT SCULLY: Thank you. Thank you very much.