It’s easy to picture Philip Johnson seated in his regular booth in the Grill Room at the Four Seasons; his back to the windows, his bespectacled eyes on the door, he’s confident and at the top of his game as he presides over a room of his own design.
Now imagine him jittery and hesitant in a different room on a different coast. It’s the late 1950s and, faced with a University of California, Berkeley researcher trying to uncover the secrets to his creativity, Johnson uses his ample verbal and social gifts to upend the interview. In a typed report, the researcher would later write, “He showed many classic features of the manic: self-centered, irritable, jumpy, flight of ideas, arrogance, use of humor to defend against serious consideration of anxiety-producing topics.”
It’s difficult to believe that Johnson would submit to such an uncomfortable interrogation, but he was one of 40 architects who willingly spent a weekend taking tests and filling out questionnaires that delved deep into the personality and processes behind a creative mind. Developed under the auspices of the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR) at UC Berkeley, the study set out to uncover both the psychology and the illusive process of creative acts. Led by Dr. Donald MacKinnon, IPAR’s research grew out of earlier testing of Air Force officers and involved subjects whose professions ranged from free-spirited to problem-solving: writers, scientists, mathematicians. Yet it was the group of architects—some of the finest in postwar America—that best exemplified the convergence of both analytical and artistic skills.
“What are the motivations that make people do what they do?” asks Pierluigi Serraino, a Berkeley-based architect and educator whose book, The Creative Architect (The Monacelli Press, 2016), chronicles the IPAR research. (ARCHITECT did a podcast with the author here.) The study revealed that each of the celebrated architects had something in their backgrounds that they had to overcome: lack of money, repressive parents, or poor health. “To declare in no uncertain terms the core trait of the creative person: The answer is courage,” Serraino writes.
Selecting the Participants
Over four weekends in 1958 and 1959, groups of architects arrived at a large house on Piedmont Avenue just off campus where the testing was conducted. Johnson, Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, Richard Neutra, I.M. Pei, FAIA, and other designers were invited to participate after an elaborate selection process that not only polled panels of architecture academics and editors for their top picks, but also ranked practitioners’ prominence based on media coverage.
Serraino’s book is remarkable in its reproductions of bureaucratic artifacts from the study, including examples of mimeographed questionnaires used to evaluate possible participants. Architect William Wilson Wurster, a member of the nomination evaluation committee, writes of Paul Rudolph, who was then the newly appointed chair of the Department of Architecture at Yale: “Youngish—Mannered—Egotistical—Perhaps thin in real content.” Nominator and California modernist Joseph Esherick praised Johnson’s writing: “He’s a tremendous perfectionist and no matter what hat he happens to be wearing at the moment does everything extremely well.”
Johnson, for his part, initially declined his invitation to participate and used his cutting wit to skewer the study’s premise. “I’m curious, however, as to how you pick a creative architect. Ninety-five percent of them are, of course, businessmen, organizers, salesmen and hucksters.”
During the course of the IPAR weekends, the architects were subjected to numerous verbal tests, each calibrated to measure aspects of the creative personality and process. But there was just one graphic procedure undertaken by the architects: The Mosaic Construction Test, developed by IPAR researcher Frank Barron to measure aesthetic sensibility. Subjects were given 1-inch colored squares in 22 different colors and asked to create a composition. In some notable cases, the results reveal (or rather confirm) what we now recognize as architectural signatures. Johnson, in a proto-postmodern move, channeled Mondrian in red, black, and white; Kahn chose a muted palette of brick-like browns and reds; and Saarinen created a grid of white—and only white—squares. “Saarinen wanted to be different,” explains Serraino. “People who were uncreative would fall back into formulaic patterns. Creatives take the lead.”
Or, as MacKinnon summed it up in his 1964 paper, “The Characteristics of Creative Architects”: “The truly creative person knows who he is, where he wants to go, and what he wants to achieve. In [German psychoanalyst] Erik Erikson’s phrase, the creative person has solved the problem of his own identity.”
IPAR’s conclusion—that the creative personality comes from knowing one’s mind and vision in the face of personal struggle—is reflected by the interview reports. Neutra is described as thinking of himself as a Superman able to solve all problems. The interviewer, however, discerned a palpable fear of abandonment and suggested that the architect’s domineering personality was a coping mechanism. In the case of Raphael Soriano, his report pinpointed his father’s loss of fortune and abusiveness as the drive behind the architect’s need for originality. “In observing these subjects, bombarded with tests in the Berkeley lab, the psychologists learned what theory alone could not confirm,” writes Serraino. “Creative individuals have a very important pattern in common: they consistently safeguard their self-determination in order to stay their course and pursue what interests them no matter what, in a fierce escape from conformism of thought and behavior.”
A Homogeneous Sample
MacKinnon published IPAR’s research, along with examples of mosaic tests, in national magazines such as Architectural Record and Scientific American. Serraino writes that the experiment findings influenced the nascent technology industry in nearby Silicon Valley, and eventually entered mainstream culture though lectures and radio shows, which goes a long way in explaining why the results sound so familiar. Today, the individualistic signifiers of creativity populate everything from advertising to app development, from bespoke fashion to the share economy. There are meditation workshops to unleash creativity, books on design thinking, and businesses of all kinds that value anything that will produce “out of the box” ideas. “A key recurring word is ‘innovation,’ ” says Serraino of IPAR’s reports, “but now it’s tainted with commerce.”
In hindsight, perhaps the most glaring thing about the IPAR study is the homogeneity of the participants. True to the demographics of the postwar profession, all were male, and most were white and middle-aged. At 36, Sarasota School architect Victor Lundy was the youngest and, at 67, legendary modernist Richard Neutra was the oldest. Notably, nearly all were sole practitioners with their name on the door.
One can’t help but wonder if these men truly embodied creativity or if the narrowness of the sample produced an equally narrow narrative of creative personality, which poses a false model for the pluralisms of the 21st century. Consider Bjarke Ingels. He certainly epitomizes the creative persona sketched out by MacKinnon. But his firm, Bjarke Ingels Group, tries for a more international, multidisciplinary, multigenerational, and collaborative approach than the standard midcentury architecture office. “For an architect, [creativity] means attempting to create the physical framework that allows us to live the way we want to live—rather than being forced into lifestyles imposed upon us by our societal structures or physical environment,” Ingels says. “I love the definition of complexity in computer programming: Complexity is defined as the capacity to communicate the maximum amount of information with the minimum amount of data. In other words, to express more with less. This is what we strive for: to facilitate the maximum freedom of human expression with the least possible means.”
Ann Lui, the founder with Craig Reschke, AIA, of the Chicago-based practice Future Firm, recalls something Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, wrote in a 1981 article in the Journal for Architectural Education. “The path of rationality will take us far, but not all the way,” the architect wrote. “We come at last to a gap. The implications of creativity—the need to ‘jump’—cannot be avoided.” It was that illusive jump that IPAR had hoped to explain.
There’s a reminder here of the tumultuous decade between 1959, the year of the study, and 1969, the year Scott Brown joined Venturi and Rauch—a decade in which the notions of identity, diversity, and collaboration were rapidly expanding. “Creativity is about constructing meaning within an ever-shifting cultural landscape,” says Barbara Bestor, AIA, of Bestor Architects. “It is a way of communicating and imagining new ways of being in the world.”
Both Bestor and Elena Manferdini of Atelier Manferdini define creativity not as an expression of difference, per se, but rather as an act connected to outside factors. “Artists are individuals that belong to their time,” Manferdini says. “Their unique ability is their sensibility to absorb contemporary culture and, in the case of architects, formalize it as built environment. Architects, even when working on personal projects, end up bringing to reality the latent collective visions of our time.”
The Ethics Problem
The IPAR testing weekends in Berkeley were not all questionnaires and Rorschach tests. Group discussions were conducted in a kind of cocktail party format, where tricky topics were put to each group of gathered architects. Indeed, Serraino uncovered a 35-minute recording of Johnson, Saarinen, Lundy, Gregory Ain, and Ernest Born tackling an “Ethics Problem.” They were asked respond to a scenario where client imposed a do-or-die change to an important commission. The question: Do you keep the project and make the changes that undermine the vision of your design? Or do you walk away?
The IPAR study used the test to identify personality traits around ego and professional expertise. But today, the subject of ethics resonates beyond just the realization of a perfect architectural vision, and has expanded to include human rights at home and abroad, as well as architecture and urban design’s role in responding to homelessness and systemic discrimination. Peter Zellner of Zellner Naecker Architects suggests that it’s no longer possible to treat architecture as solely an aesthetic pursuit. “I define architectural creativity as a social and political act, not exclusively an artistic and personal activity,” he says.
In Berkeley, after a couple of martinis and a lively round of debate about the “Ethics Problem,” Saarinen said he’d walk off the project, thus preserving his professional design integrity, since a building lasts longer than any individual. Johnson balked at the verity of the question. “It doesn’t happen that way in architecture,” he replied. And, with a nod to the very clichéd description of the heroic architect we hold today, accused Saarinen of reading too much Ayn Rand.
How do you define creativity? We asked leading architects today. Here are their responses:
Eric Höweler, co-founder of Höweler+Yoon
"Creativity is a something that is so deeply ingrained in architecture that it is presupposed. Is there such a thing as a non-creative architecture? Maybe not.
"On the other hand, creativity may be a kind of fetishized quality, like originality, mastery, and genius. In the mythologizing of creativity we have tended to treat it like a scarce natural resource. There is either oil, or there is no oil. You either have it or you don’t. Or, you just have to wait until creativity strikes, like a freak weather event.
"Creative work is actually much more active, requiring both preparation and action. Ideas rarely emerge fully formed, but often require some ritual coaxing. Doing, testing, re-doing. Like a rain dance, creativity is an iterative process to make the lighting strike."
Elena Manferdini, principal of Atelier Manferdini
"Creation is often associated with the religious act of a superior individual that from nothing makes something. Creativity is not something that one owns or a concept that exists in a vacuum. Creativity belongs to the medium of each art, its traditions, its technical abilities, its battles, and its references; and, in the case of architecture, its industry. Creativity is a sensibility to culture and contemporaneity, and it is a quintessential technical problem!
"Creativity is part of expressing our humanity and finding meaning in our existence. Although one can try to hide it, it always finds its way out in the world. And so it does in my practice. Sometimes I wonder if creativity is something I should try to contain more, but it turns out that it is a lost battle."
Bjarke Ingels, principal of BIG
"Creativity is the capacity to channel life in to the world. To order and organize matter in new combinations and compositions in such ways that it opens up possibilities for the unfolding of life that would otherwise not have been possible.
"I think our office at BIG is quite close to my ideal creative environment: lots of resources (the more trash you generate in the design process, the less you end up building in the real world); lots of tools and technology (we seek knowledge and skill wherever we can find it—in media, in tools, materials, technologies—the question is never 'technology or not' but always which tools to deploy for what purpose); lots of intelligence (it is always fun to work with brilliant people); lots of perspectives (having accumulated architects and thinkers from more than 25 different nationalities spanning four generations we have a lot of different angles on each problem or potential we encounter); and finally, no fear (sometimes the most stupid question or the lamest idea is the seed that triggers the final breakthrough—if it is never asked or proposed it will never occur—so the first barrier to overcome is your own prejudice).
"People who through their work or expression expand my perception of the world. Be it a painter or photographer that captures parts of the world (light, situations, conditions, colors), or a writer who identifies aspects of human life or society that I was otherwise unaware of, once my perception has been alerted to these conditions I won't be able to forget them, even after I am done contemplating the artwork or reading the book. The same counts for science, music, philosophy, architecture. Once my attention has been alerted and the idea has been planted, it becomes part of me, my worldview and my future engagement with the world. The list is endless but Charles Darwin, Douglas Coupland, Friedrich Nietsche, Christopher Nolan, and Ray Kurzweil have been significant influences."
Barbara Bestor, AIA, principal of Bestor Architecture
"Architecture is a creative practice in that when we design, we are never only problem solving—there is a load of cultural tradition and associations behind architecture whatever the typology and budget range. One of the fun things about being an architect is that you get to be creative in ever-changing situations—sometimes you are almost in a Houdini-like straightjacket of budget and time, but those constraints can make it even more fun and challenging to come up with a successful project.
"I’m interested in pushing along expectations of what our built environment looks and feels like in American cities. I like to make work that is unexpected and brings joy to daily life. I think our creative approach to mundane questions: daily living, food service, multifamily housing, has allowed us to work at very different scales and typology, and this gives the office a lot of energy and agility."
Peter Zellner, Assoc. AIA, co-founder of Zellner Naecker Architects
"Sometimes architecture is a creative practice. That said, I would offer that it is neither a pure art, like painting, or one of the new forms of creative work aligned with so-called tech innovation, such as web or app design. If art still seems more free to promote a radically personal or political voice, and other new forms of 'creative' work rarely develop beyond existing exclusively for fast promotional output, I would define the value of architectural creativity according to the degree to which a creative idea can be productively applied, in part or in whole, to a social and/or an environmental problem. Absent any dynamic real world effect, whether in the short or long term, I would argue that creative architectural action ultimately fails.
"Creativity in our practice is tied to strategies that have a set urban goal that are, hopefully, implemented at the scale of unique and uncanny architectural incidents."
Michel Rojkind, founder of Rojkind Arquitectos
"It starts with an energetic interrelation to the world, how we perceive that energy and its physical forms, and with a specific outcome that once was an idea. Of course, and even more so in these modern times, we have to be creative enough to design a business strategy that enriches and defines a better outcome: What I call projects with 'added value,' or going beyond the original program.
"We are fueled by curiosity and are always looking for a shared responsibility between our client, users, the municipality, the neighborhood. But [creativity] starts with us raising questions: Can we reprogram the program to have a better outcome? Can we make the client aware of the opportunity to give something back to society? Can we help negotiate between all the people involved to have more meaningful results and create better cities?"
Ann Lui, founding partner of Future Firm
"When you are operating within complex frameworks of building code, budgets, historical context, public and private requirements, as well as you and your office’s own agendas, hopes, debts, promises, it ends up that landing on even one solution seems like a magical stroke of luck. In contrast, 'creativity' sounds like the freewheeling ability to conjure many possible options. Still, there is always that moment, 'the jump,' when you turn off your brain and try to put something on the page before re-evaluating it. So in the end, I guess I believe architecture is a creative practice."