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Conversation with Vincent Scully

NEH Chairman Sheldon Hackney spoke with art historian Vincent Scully, the 1995 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities.

HUMANITIES, May/June 1995 | Volume 16, Number 3

SHELDON HACKNEY: One of the continuous themes in your work seems to be the idea that buildings mediate between human beings and the natural world.

VINCENT SCULLY: There's a long pre-Greek and non-Greek tradition—for example, pre-Columbian architecture—in which manmade forms are as much as possible made to imitate, to echo, the forms of the landscape.

We see that beautifully in Teotihuacan, but everywhere in fact. We see it in pueblo architecture, as at Taos, for example. It goes right through to the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, to the pyramids of Egypt, and so on. The Greeks changed that. The Greek temple is the first of mankind's monumental buildings which fundamentally contrasts with the shapes of nature.

HACKNEY: Exactly.

SCULLY: You start to get that typically Greek tragic tension between nature's law, which is immutable, and human wish, which is boundless. In that relationship, the wonderful, luminous tension of classical thought takes form. A human voice comes into what becomes a dialogue rather than a communal chant, you might say.

The columns do call up images of human beings, the archaic ones especially. Each set of columns seems to have the character of the divinity as you can imagine it in that place. At the same time, the shape of the temple is in a way so much that of the Greek phalanx—the solid, geometric, ordered body of human beings which works its will upon other human beings by its discipline and cohesion.

I often quote Tyrtaeus about that. As you know, the Spartans were having trouble in one of their endless wars with the Messenians and they imported Tyrtaeus, an Ionian poet from the islands, to teach them, apparently, to march in step, to march to music. He wrote wonderful poetry which we still have, which is just full of the sound of clashing arms:

Kai poda parpodi theis ep aspidos aspid ereisos

En de Lophon te lopho kai kyneen kynee

Kai sternon sterno, peplemenoos andri mechesto

I find that very moving, it sounds the way the great archaic columns are.

HACKNEY: Rhythmic and arrayed.

SCULLY: Yes. And also awesome, physical, dangerous.

HACKNEY: Can you read a culture's fundamental values and commitments in its architecture?

SCULLY: All my life I've thought so. It's just this basic, simple, primitive idea of the relationship of the natural to the manmade, in the way different cultures handle that. You read their sense of their own identity, who they think they are, what they think they are, what they think about their relationship to fate, to nature, to nature's law—all of those things. Those great early civilizations, the Mesopotamian cities and the wonderful Egyptian agribusiness—you see them determining to make the manmade order work. Not having the sacred mountains there, they built their own. They shaped nature to their own will: In Mesopotamia it is the image of heroic kingship, the character of the king, the Gilgamesh who climbs the mountain and represents his people to the gods. The whole body of the ziggurat is jagged, aggressive, and active, like the city, always at war. Whereas, at Gizeh, the Egyptian transforms the sacred mountain into the rays of the sun and so harnesses nature's major power by magic, by science, just as he had harnessed the Nile.

HACKNEY: And Chartres?

SCHULLY: Well, Chartres—you know, one of the things that has interested me in the last twenty years or so is Freud—Freud's early criticism, especially the way it's embodied in The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he talks about the way he believes the dream work functions. He sees the forms that the dream work makes as visual, pictorial. If the dream breaks down, then you have nightmare and the destruction of sleep and the destruction of human health, even human life. So, dreams are the forms that humanity absolutely has to shape. The process whereby Freud says they are made I found very valuable. He says the first thing that happens is condensation—a condensation of things previously believed to be absolutely the opposite of each other—in order to make a new unity.

If you stop to think, just in terms of the Western tradition of the greatest works of architecture—if you start with the Parthenon, it is a condensation between Doric and Ionic temples. It's got the double rows of columns and the eight columns across the front of Ionic temples, and it's drawn very tautly into a condensed, active Doric body. There never was such a condensation before. It was a new unity. In Hagia Sofia, its counterpart at the end of antiquity, you have the condensation between the basilican modes of church building: the long, horizontal, axial extension of view from the entrance to the altar combined with the opposite, the central-plan—domed type—Old St. Peter's and San Vitale in Ravenna—condensed, as it were. And then you come to Chartres, which unleashed this torrent.

Actually, the very first work I did as a graduate student at Yale arose from the previous work of the French scholars, especially Henri Focillon, who had remade the Yale history of art department. One of the most distinguished of the Focillonistes was Jean Bony, who taught in England for a long time, and who wrote a wonderful article called La Technique normande du mur épais  à I'epoque romane on the Norman technique of thick wall construction in the Romanesque period. I missed a class of Sumner Crosby's, who had been a student of Henri Focillon at Yale, in my very first graduate year. And feeling guilty, I went and read the text they'd been studying that day, which was Bony. It really excited me. The very first work I did as a graduate student was to try to extend it to the Gothic wall, to the development of Gothic architecture in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries—I think with some success.

I got a Fulbright, and my original grant was to go to France. But the department wanted me to stay another year, and I did. In the meantime I decided, like so many Americans after World War II, that I wanted to go to Italy. I thank heaven that I did. All my work on Greek temples and medieval and Renaissance cities grew out of that trip. Thirty years later, I came back to those studies in France and picked the theme up. In a book I brought out in 1991, called Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade, I published two long chapters basically growing out of that work, on the structure of the Gothic wall.

My point is that this thick-wall technique, so-called, that Bony isolated for the Romanesque and which I tried to apply to the Gothic, is paralleled by a so-called thin-wall technique, which produces places like Paris, in the late twelfth century. Chartres combines the two. It brings these two opposites of the twelfth century together to make the new unity, which is what used to be called High Gothic architecture.

The other thing that is quite Freudian is the concept of displacement, and that's what Chartres does: All of a sudden the way the piers are constructed at Chartres, you can only read them lifting up, rising up. You don't feel compression coming down. They go up through the capitals at the level of the grand arcades. The whole thing rises up and opens up into the vault, and you feel it rising like a tree, the way the romantics thought of it later. That's a displacement of our vision of statics and of our relation to physical bodies. Here I agree with the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century psychologists. We experience physical bodies empathetically. We read them in terms of our own body standing in space, subject to laws of overturn and counterthrust and feeling that weight in our own bodies. I'm convinced that we perceive works of art in part that way. Empathetically, we can only read Chartres as lifting up.


SCULLY: But on the other hand, the other thing that Chartres has is its great big heavy piers, which is the first time that those are used in Gothic architecture, because when Suger at St. Denis "started" Gothic architecture, the main point was to have the thinnest possible columns, just as thin as he could make them. The columns of the ambulatory are so thin at St. Denis that in the nineteenth century the engineers—even though they had stood by that time for all those centuries—thought they couldn't possibly stand much longer, and they encased them in concrete. Even in concrete, as we see them today, even with that envelope, they look unbelievably thin.

Well, that was canonical for Gothic architecture right up through Paris, when this great architect of Chartres turned it right around. He brought in those great heavy piers with the thick cantonnées columns around them, and all of a sudden the lie de France got what it had never had before: a great school of Romanesque architecture—a school that was now, however, all Gothic, interwoven, skeletal structure.

HACKNEY: Are all great leaps forward in architecture condensations?

SCULLY: I wonder if they're not. Take Frank Lloyd Wright. His own house in Oak Park of 1889 with its frontal gable is a clear condensation of three different houses by Bruce Price at Tuxedo Park, New York—houses of 1885, '86, which had been published in several places and which were clearly available to Wright. In fact, the way he modifies them, it's clear that he saw the perspective of one out of Price's office that appeared in a magazine called Building.

Wright takes features from each one of them and he combines them with an intensity, the clear geometric intensity that he always had. Wright is a perfect example.

I might say that Robert Venturi is another. It was at that moment in late modern architecture—when the idea was that you weren't condensing anything, you were inventing—he began to put things together out of the past, to condense things again.

HACKNEY: But Wright offers another example. He strove to fit his buildings and houses into the terrain so that one felt that you were living in nature.

SCULLY: That's right. Wright, of course—how inadequate these labels are—Wright, after all, is a romantic, and he is the product of the romanticism of the nineteenth century; but it's not that simple.

Romanticism, of course, very consciously tried to revive the idea of the building echoing the landscape. But then, as Wright gets into it, I don't think there's any doubt that he feels the much more ancient, primordial meaning. His interest in Maya architecture, especially right in the beginning, indicates that. His interest in Bruce Price at Tuxedo, and especially Price's drawings, gives him an interest in the Maya. In fact, Price based Lorillard's own house on the Temple of the Moon at Palenque. You can see it: There it is, including a true arch in the middle, which at Palenque was caused by erosion of the Maya concrete mass, which didn't have a true arch in it at all.

Wright goes right to that. That's what he wants, that's what he sees. And then he himself uses it in other works, clearly in his serpent doorways, in mask doorways at the Charnley house, and in the Winslow house, which is his first great statement of independence after he leaves Louis Sullivan—there it is. The Maya doorways were right there. While, behind it, there's a Brunelleschian colonnade at minuscule scale.

Here in the rain of the last two weeks, I've been going repeatedly just up the road to the Millard house, and there it is in its wet jungle with the trees all over it; and I'm sorry to say, with the plastic sheet on the roof, which is required from the leaking that's been going on.

HACKNEY: Oh, my goodness.

SCULLY: Well, Wright's houses did leak often anyway, and in this rain, they can't help it. But in there, you can see it. It is a Maya ruin in the rain forest. It has a deeply moving, primitive, wet, moldy earth . . . humus . . . power that's wonderful, inimitable. Because it does evoke the Maya it has enormous associational resonance. Much of its power comes from that very relationship, which I think Wright was wrong to deny, as he normally did. It was in reality a resource, not a crutch.

HACKNEY: Meanwhile, Sullivan was taking architecture in a different direction?

SCULLY: Sullivan remains a great enigma. Although he was heroized in the high modern movement as a protomodernist, a functionalist, it isn't that simple. For example, there's no question that his ornament was more important to him than anything else. The modernist historians like Giedion, and even Philip Johnson himself in an article back in the fifties, deplored the ornament. They said it was bad taste and that it was "a nineteenth-century holdover." But clearly to Sullivan, everything was in it. He used it in the way the nineteenth century always had said ornament should be used; that is to say, he decorated construction; he didn't construct decoration. He's so powerful because he understands that basic cubical building type, basically an Italian palazzo, which Chicago construction created in the Loop. He saw that. And he saw how, with his ornament, he could enhance that, he could give it a power, a presence, and he does.


SCULLY: So he is not constructing decoration, like some of the late modern buildings of the fifties and sixties that tear the environment apart. Boston City Hall is a good example, and many others, which really are decoration constructed, with no fundamental type underneath that can get along with the other types to make a city.

HACKNEY: Is that why you don't like the International School?

SCULLY: My students say that when I'm talking about it, I sound like a prisoner in the old Stalinist trials. That is to say, I'm always apologizing for my past because, you see, I love modern architecture. I love Corbusier, especially early Corbusier. And who does not? But you have to bear two things in mind. The architecture was wonderful, but the urbanism was terrible.

When you have modern architecture with traditional urbanism, which you get, say, in Miami Beach, there is order because there are clearly defined streets and blocks of buildings that get along with other blocks to make a community. The buildings get along with each other lawfully the way people have to do in a community. However, when you get Corbusier's ideas of how the city should be rebuilt—or, even worse, Hilbersheimer's ideas—then you get all that order destroyed. The street goes, human scale goes, pedestrian scale goes, variety goes—everything goes. You have the terrible deserts that the centers of American cities were turned into during redevelopment for the free passage of the automobile. Our cities lie destroyed all around us. And, of course, as the cities were destroyed, the terrible thing in American society and politics is that the communities of the center of the city were destroyed with them. They tended to be viable, low-income communities. You can trace the route of I-95 right down the East Coast of the United States from Boston to Miami, and you can watch it destroying communities all along the way, pitilessly.

It happened in New Haven. That's what drew me—after years of preoccupation with things everywhere else—finally drew me into a realization of responsibility that all of us have to save our cities before this insane preoccupation with the automobile destroys them for all time.

HACKNEY: Are they salvageable, the cities?

SCULLY: I think they are. Let's put it this way. Where you have a viable economic base and a base in jobs—where the money is—the city can be saved.

The movement right now that calls itself the New Urbanism—and of which the most important people are certainly Andres Duany and his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, in Miami, and Peter Calthorpe along with Stephanos Polyzoides and his wife, Elizabeth Moule, on the West Coast—that movement, though it's interested in the city and wants to work there, has really been able to affect things in the suburbs. It's been able, especially in the work of Duany and Plater-Zyberk, to begin to remake the suburbs into towns that make sense and can discipline the automobile. The best example of that is Seaside on the Florida panhandle for the idealistic developer, Robert Davis. That little town has become almost the logo of Florida and it has created an image of community that everybody seems to want. Apparently almost everybody wants to live like that. It is the American dream after all: a single-family house in Our Town.

In any event, that's where the money is right now; in the suburb, and so work can be done there. But when you get into the center city, where it apparently has to be a government commitment to effect change, that's where the government has not yet made the necessary commitment. And the old types of projects, those International-style high rises that were built a generation ago, are literally being blown up or torn down everywhere because they proved to be unlivable and destructive of community values. They created a social wasteland, now a desert.

You know, the only people in America who really have ever wanted to live in apartments have been the rich, because in a sense the rich don't need community. If you have money, you're sheltered from a lot of things. The poor need community, but the rich have shown that they like it when they can get it. For example, Windsor, north of Vero Beach, by Duany and Plater-Zyberk, is as rich a development as you can imagine. It's got two polo fields. They were intended, I think, for Prince Charles to play and practice on. And there are houses available around a splendid golf course or along the ocean beach or on the inland waterway, but there are also house sites available in a tightly gridded town right in the middle. Every client so far has chosen to build in the tightly gridded town.

HACKNEY: That's very interesting.

SCULLY: Yes. The rich, who can choose, are choosing community or its image. It's deeply seated in human beings. That's what we've lost in America. We've come apart. Our community is torn apart. One of the worst things were those freeways that destroyed community. When you take I-95 right to its conclusion, right down into Miami, its very last act before it subsides down into U.S. 1 again is that it destroys Overtown, which was a stable, longstanding African-American community right in the heart of Miami. And when people's environments are destroyed—when their street pattern is gone, when their churches are gone, when the neighborhood bar is gone—when all of that's gone and you've got just the piers of the freeway, people go mad. They are driven mad, because the community really does mediate between the individual and nature's implacable laws. I might add that Caro solidly documented all that in his study of Robert Moses and his community-breaking expressways. People who have been disoriented in this way are emotionally disenfranchised from the American dream.

HACKNEY: There are paradoxical urges in human nature. We all want to be—especially Americans, in our culture—we want to be individuals. That is, different from everyone and set apart and special.

SCULLY: At the same time, we want to be protected.

HACKNEY: Protected, right, and connected. We want to belong, and we want also to have the freedom not to belong.

SCULLY: That's right. That's the very basis of Greek thought. The Greeks wanted to belong to the old religion of the earth, and they wanted to be buried in the breast of the goddess in the Tholos tomb. At the same time, they wanted to be kings like their Hittite cousins, they wanted to be conquerors, and out of that comes Agamemnon.

HACKNEY: That's right. So, how does architecture in America solve that problem, or urbanism, I should rather say?

SCULLY: Again, I don't know. One solution leads to another problem. We are, as you pointed out, so various, so ambiguous in our desires, so contradic­tory in our ways of thought, that the great thing about art is—and I think it's especially true of modern art—is its very ambiguity, its difficulty, its multiplicity of meanings. That is the thing that has infuriated so many people about modern art or about the reality of modern times, because they want a simple answer. They want one clear answer: "This is right and that's wrong." But all the way through, in literature and in art there is no single answer. Art mirrors that ambiguity.

One of the wonderful things that Focillon wrote sixty or more years ago is that meanings drain in and out of works of art. As the generations go on, they read the same works of art differently.

HACKNEY: Absolutely.

SCULLY: They read them according to their own needs. At the present time, that view of meaning seems much more true in terms of the way the human mind works than does, say, the more classical aesthetics of somebody like Panofsky, who felt that you could unpeel all the layers of meaning until you got down to the root meaning, the generating idea, the static core.

However, to take another point in terms of community, it's clear that you have to formulate laws. That's what a lot of architects don't like, and they tend to characterize work that defers to such considerations as "building, not architecture." Frank Gehry says something of the sort. Architecture for him is exploring the cutting edge of human ambiguity and the devil take the hindmost, even though his work is normally quite contextual, and gets along surprisingly well with what's around it. Nevertheless, you see what I mean.


SCULLY: And the old aestheticians, like the modernists, like really my master in these studies, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, in his great book, Modern Architecture, Romanticism, and Reintegration, of 1929 says of Hittorf's fine buildings shaping the Etoile that they are in fact "only building, not architecture." You see what he means in terms of the cutting edge of humanist exploration. But in terms of the human environment, it makes no sense at all.

The most important architecture—in my view, the most important, though there's no need to draw invidious comparisons—is the kind of architecture which is created by urban law and makes environments possible for people to live together. That's exactly what Duany and Plater-Zyberk do. They write the codes. Much of the mythology around Frank Lloyd Wright was about how he would despise the local codes and he'd always break them, and he'd be shown to be right. That's a fairly silly mythology. What so many of us would like to do now is to write the proper laws. When you think about it, it's clear that the law is the basic thing that makes it possible for human beings to live together. Only through law can we live together without fear of each other and act together in order—as the Pueblos of the Southwest with their great dances believe—to affect nature a little bit.

HACKNEY: That may be the bigger responsibility for architecture: to mediate between individuals.

SCULLY: I think without question. That's the basic problem of the city, isn't it? And it's the basis of community after all.

HACKNEY: Absolutely right. As I travel around talking about one of the NEH projects that I'm most interested in, which is a national conversation about what we share as Americans, what brings us together, what holds us together, I detect in people a huge sense that society is atomizing, and the bonds of allegiance of one to another are fraying.

There are forces that are pushing us apart and are isolating us. As you say, community is made by common understandings, and we need to refresh our understanding about how we live together.

SCULLY: Right. I think so many Americans do realize that. Without question, I think the ever increasing power of the National Trust for Historic Preservation is a very good example of that, because it's based on law. People who attack preservation always attack it saying, "That's bad law. That's a law of taking. You can't do it." 

HACKNEY: The role of taking is coming back to the fore.

SCULLY: That's right, of course. The political power which has grown up around preservation is something to be reckoned with, and I think may go a long way toward rehabilitating our cities, because so far it's been supported by conservatives and liberals alike.

HACKNEY: What criteria would you use in deciding what's to be preserved and what's not?

SCULLY: Ah, that's a very interesting question. I used to say when I was fighting redevelopment, "We've got to try to save everything, because the forces to destroy it are so strong that we're always going to lose a lot of battles. We'd better try to save as much as we can to save a part." It's like asking, "What do you think about censorship?" Almost your very first answer is, "I don't want any censorship. I don't want any kind of it, ever." Then you think about it and it's not that simple.

HACKNEY: Right, exactly.

SCULLY: My instinct, of course—and I am a profoundly conservative person—my instinct is still to try to save everything. On the other hand, take New Haven.

The New Haven City Hall was first built in 1859, and it's a very important building. It's the very first impressive building that the city itself—as against the Protestant establishment of Yale and the churches—built. It built it right there in the first decades of railroadism and immigration and factories and so on. It's a real image of the growing new multiethnic democracy of the United States. But here is this great big hulking form that bursts in among the beautiful white colonial houses that shape the square, that shape New Haven's great Green. And so what would I have said then? I'd probably have said, "Keep that thing out of here. It's destroying the scale of the place."

The problem of growth is always there. You ask, "When is the city finished?" And you'd say, "Well, downtown New York, the skyscrapers at the tip of Manhattan, they should have ended before Chase Manhattan got in there, before the International Style with its slabs, which cast all the old wonderful spires and mountains into question and changed the scale into a kind of hulking thing." The World Trade Center is another. Then along comes Battery Park City, by Cooper, Eckstut, Pelli, and so on, which I think is one of the great triumphs of modern urbanism. It not only locks into the old street pattern and the building alignment of the tip of Manhattan but also tries to recreate the old pyramidal grouping of the pre-International skyscrapers by drawing the World Trade Center towers into some kind of decent dialogue again. So it's hard to know when things are ended. You think it's over, you think it's ruined, and all of a sudden it takes on another lease on life.

However, one principle is certainly the control of the automobile. This goes right to the heart of the American experience because along with the single-family house, the other thing that everybody was taught to believe he had a right to was the automobile.

It is still, I think, to be decided in history whether the automobile and civilization as we know it—by which we mean the culture of cities—can coexist. Because the automobile has shown us that if we design only for the automobile, we smash every kind of decent urban grouping that there is, whether it's in the center of the city or in the suburbs. We cannot get rid of the automobile in most places in the foreseeable future, but we can learn how to design against it, to discipline it, to make it serve us, not us it.

In Florida, there are lots of communities trying to imitate Seaside. They try to use the vernacular architecture, the white picket fences, which are a way to define the street, and so on. But in almost every instance they don't succeed because they can't or won't control the width of the roads, which are normally much too wide, so that all sense of community disappears. And, once more, the road, the car, takes over.

The car, you know, has strange psychological effects on us. One of the major ones is that in the car, we don't feel that we have any community responsibility at all. We feel free. We feel alone.

HACKNEY: And you're encapsulated.

SCULLY: You're all by yourself in a perfectly controlled environment, but all sense of community is lost. We forget that if the community didn't build roads and provide police and signage and everything, we couldn't move around in the car at all.

There was a wonderful cartoon in the New Yorker many years ago where a gentle fellow is about to climb into his car in the garage. He starts the motor. His face begins to change. The garage door opens. His face turns animal. The car roars out and he's a werewolf. It's that savage territoriality and aggressiveness that the automobile seems to build.

HACKNEY: I think that's right. In my simplistic layman's way, I've divided American cities up into two kinds: the automobile cities—Los Angeles, Dallas to some extent, Houston, some others—versus the mainly older cities that were built before.

SCULLY: That's right, the cities that have resisted it. For all its faults, New York is one of the greatest examples still. And in a sense, Chicago, at least in the Loop.

In Los Angeles the towns themselves try to control the automobile to varying degrees. Pasadena and San Marino, for example—and it's clear that it happens where the neighborhood has some political clout—is full of bumps in the road. We can't do that in Connecticut. But they do here.

HACKNEY: Speed bumps, you mean.

SCULLY: Yes. The fancier the neighborhood, the more speed bumps.

HACKNEY: And that changes the whole nature of the community.

SCULLY: The cars have to crawl. And why not? It's only for a few minutes. You're not going anywhere at that speed. There is no reason why all streets have to be traversed at enormous velocities.

My wife, Catherine Lynn, fought heroically to save the Merritt Parkway. The Department of Transportation couldn't conceive of the idea that everybody doesn't have a right to drive at seventy miles an hour in his own private automobile through Connecticut to New York. That's ridiculous. If they would enforce the old speed limit on the Merritt—which was for a long time at forty-five and then fifty—they could take those curves without danger.

HACKNEY: It's a wonderful roadway. You're right; she's right.

SCULLY: It's absolutely insane when you think of all the alternatives we have in Connecticut—you think of the Hovercraft, for example, that we could have going up and down the Sound, how delightful it would be to climb on in New Haven on a Hovercraft, and be down to New York in an hour or so. All over the world they do that, where they have this kind of waterway. Of course, we used to have the legendary steamers that went from Boston to New York when I was a boy. We'd see them going down the Sound. It was lovely. All that's gone in favor of this obsession with the automobile.

HACKNEY: Yes, and with speed in getting there.

SCULLY: Right. In the long run, you have to have alternate roads and you have to filter, and the good old grids which everybody filters is a splendid urban instrument.

The setting of the Orange Bowl in Miami is the grand example of that. The thing is set down right in the middle of the grid. There's no particular parking around it, there are no special autoways. You can go to it on public transportation or walk, or you drive a car and park in somebody's front yard. And when you and all those other eighty thousand, or how many people they are, are let out all together, everybody's gone in ten minutes because everybody goes a different way and goes through a different yard and gets his car. Up in Joe Robbie stadium, a brand new stadium up there in the north, which is organized in relation to the throughways and with just a few ways out of the big parking lots, that's where you get the traffic jams.

It's a good example of how the automobile doesn't know what's good for itself. To design for its apparent wants is the wrong way out—you have to control its needs—as we do those of individuals in society. We have got to develop our public transportation. Clearly, I think government priorities are going to have to change a whole lot over the next ten to twenty years, or everything's going to be absolutely out of hand.

HACKNEY: Let me go off in a slightly different direction. It has to do with monuments. I guess the easiest way to get at it is to notice the contrast between the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Memorial. That raises the question of the relationship between monuments and the culture. Has something changed in America that is reflected in the difference between the older monuments and the Vietnam Memorial?

SCULLY: When you stop to think about it, the Vietnam Memorial and the Washington Monument have one thing very much in common, and it is that they are both curiously minimalist. They are one very simple shape embodying one very simple idea. What does the obelisk have to do with Washington? On the face of it, nothing. The obelisk is the symbol of the sun god Ra, and it was built in Egypt to point to him. And yet somehow that pure aspiration, that untouchable probity that has come to be the enduring myth of George Washington: his force, his power, his noble classical presence that astounded Europe, is there. It's wonderful.

And the Vietnam Memorial, it seems to me, turned out to be a really magical image—did it not?—because of the way it has touched the hearts of so many millions of people, and especially those of the veterans in whose honor it was built—and this despite the opposition of those who called it the black gash of shame. The truly terrible thing for Viet­nam veterans was that so many of them felt that their country didn't value what they'd done, and in fact regarded them as brutal for having done it, and they felt cast out of American society. In this memorial, when you go along the wall with these thousands and thousands of people looking for the names and then you and they reach out and touch them, the dead are brought back into the community. They are resurrected as members of a living community that values them. Nothing could be more moving.

HACKNEY: I don't think anybody, any American can go there without being moved by it.

SCULLY: And one wonderful idea Maya Lin had was not to list the names alphabetically, but to list them chronologically, as they died, so that there are few at the beginning, and then we are led down step by step into the dark depths of the war and there are more and more dead. Then it starts to dwindle off, and begins to move up to the light, and then it ends, and there's the Washington Monument pointing to the sky. It's really beyond belief.

HACKNEY: That's exactly right.

SCULLY: Maya Lin is really one of the wonders. She was a student of mine at Yale.

HACKNEY: You're proud of her, I would think.

SCULLY: Yes. She was only twenty years old, standing up to that inquisition she was subjected to in Washington, and pulling it off and making it be done exactly the way she wanted it. It's amazing. A whim of iron.

HACKNEY: That's right, and the persistence of the artistic vision.

SCULLY: Absolutely. She never, never compromised it, never.