This Book Unearths a Midcentury Personality Study on Architectural Giants

This Book Unearths a Midcentury Personality Study on Architectural Giants

By Jenny Xie
Suppose humans developed a third arm. Where would it grow on the body, and how would it function? Would it have any distinguishing characteristics? What impact would it have on our surroundings and lives?

So went one of the questions posed to the 40 preeminent architects who gathered at the University of California, Berkeley from 1958 to 1959 for a study on creativity conducted by the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR). The impressive roster included such titans as Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, George Nelson, and I.M. Pei. Separated into groups of 10, the architects converged in a former fraternity house for three-day sessions of exhaustive testing that included physical and written exercises, questionnaires, group discussions, and in-depth interviews. Led by IPAR director Dr. Donald MacKinnon, the tests were designed to identify the personality traits of the creative individual, a set of variables that was a looming topic in postwar America.

MacKinnon enlisted the help of William Wilson Wurster, Bay Area architect and dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, to select architects for the study. In turn, Wurster assembled a five-person team to name the participants. Of the 64 invited, 40 would make up Group I, the top tier professionals. To obtain comparative data, IPAR also studied 43 subjects in Group II, architects who had spent at least two years working with those in Group I, and 41 subjects in Group III, who were randomly chosen from the 1955 National Directory of Architects.

The IPAR staff conducts a practice run of the Bingo Test, a "situational procedure involving group interaction." Wallace Hall, the institute's chief deputy, is seated in front.

Though the findings of the study were slated to appear in a book, the manuscript was never published. Here to complete the narrative nearly 60 years later is The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study, published by Monacelli Press. The author Pierluigi Serraino, himself a practicing architect, referenced a trove of primary documents for the project, though he cautions that "it is very unlikely that what is presented here mirrors what the two psychologists primarily in charge of the study...had envisioned for the original publication." Serraino had access to behind-the-scenes information that shines a light on the researchers, subjects, and context surrounding the study, which gives the book a valuable vantage point.

The initial findings of the study graced the front page of Carnegie Corporation of New York Quarterly in July 1961. The Carnegie Corporation was a source of funding for IPAR, which asked for $150,000 over a five-year period (which would be about $1,400,000 today).

Researchers simulate the Conformity Test. In this scenario, five subjects in private booths estimate distances after a light indicates the other participants' answers—the supplied answers are fake, however, allowing this test to measure the effect of peer pressure on judgment. While Victor Lundy saw through the deception, others deferred to the false responses. 

The chapters are methodically divided to cover the stages leading up to the study, its execution, and the results. The granular way in which Serraino details the logistics can feel cumbersome at times; the reader wants to leave the academic report and get to the "action," so to speak, of the study itself. With 150 illustrations, however, The Creative Architect gives readers plenty of diversion. Ranging from photographs to letters and completed forms to written notes, they give us intimate access to the personalities of both subjects and IPAR researchers. Most fascinating of all is the insight we get into how the legendary architects viewed themselves and each other. On a peer-ranking sheet, a number of them named themselves as most creative out the 40 listed: Robert Anshen, Warren Callister, Philip Johnson, A. Quincy Jones, Victor Lundy, Eero Saarinen, and Raphael Soriano marked their own names first. From an adjective check list, we know that despite his confidence, A. Quincy Jones considered himself "argumentative, complicated, emotional, high-strung, impatient, moody, nervous, self-controlled, self-denying, temperamental, and tense."

For the Mosaic Construction Test, the architects used one-inch tiles in 22 colors to create a design which, "when completed, you can honestly say is something you like," according to the instructions. They then filled out a questionnaire about the exercise. Pictured above is Richard Neutra's creation.

Eero Saarinen stated that his design had "no meaning other than the pleasure of the texture itself."

"Creative people want to arrive at a beautiful solution to the problem that concerns them. This aesthetic necessity is a common benchmark to those who embrace their work as a vocation rather than as a chore." -Serraino

Victor Lundy's mosaic is demonstrative of the difference between Group I and Group III architects. While those in Group I used all the time available and produced distinctive designs, Group III relied on "predictable motifs...conforming to readymade geometrical patterns such as symmetrical layouts, axial arrays, or diagonal alignments." 

Philip Johnson took the work of Piet Mondrian as inspiration.

The most absorbing chapter, "The Mind of an Architect," dives into the personal interviews of 10 architects. Over sessions of an hour and fifty minutes, researchers probed for connections between personal and professional development. "During these sessions," writes Serraino, "seemingly unrelated topics were discussed: smoking habits, sleeping patterns, experiences with hypnosis, suicidal tendencies, dream patterns, depressive episodes, and more esoteric areas, including belief in telepathy, miracles, and black magic." Each section paints a compelling portrait that is sensitive to the architect’s upbringing and how it affected his career: John Johansen benefited from artistic parents who adored him whereas George Nelson’s family was divided over its Jewish heritage, troubling his own identity. Some sections are surprising; contrary to the architect’s flattering public image, Philip Johnson’s interviewer reported that "occasionally he jumped up from his chair and looked at things on the wall or stared out the window….The subject seems like a controlled psychotic."

In groups of five, the architects discussed both the Third Arm Problem and the Ethics Problem. In the latter, a hypothetical architect named Mr. Brown has shown his plan to a client who is poised to accept the design, but on one condition: the client requires a change that conflicts with Mr. Brown's vision. Mr. Brown can't sway the client but wants to keep the project to broaden his reputation, keep his professional contract, and support himself and his staff. The architects wrote down what they would do in Mr. Brown's position, then debated among themselves to reach a consensus. The recordings of these sessions are revealing of personality: "Emerging from the background noises of ice clinking in martinis and vigorous pencil writing, the energy level of each candidate is captured on tape." Above is Eero Saarinen's response.

Pictured above is the first page of Philip Johnson's Architectural Aptitude Test, which challenged subjects to create as many drawings as they could using the provided lines.

Reproduced here is the second page of Ralph Rapson's test.

Despite the media attention that the IPAR study garnered, the findings eventually faded into obscurity. The Creative Architect does important work in reviving them, and though we can intuit much of the outcome—that "the truly creative person tends to be a non-conformist and is profoundly independent in judgment, thought, and action"—the constellation of perspectives and individual results is new. Overall, the book affirms the qualities of the creative spirit in a dissertation that still holds tremendous value today.

The IPAR staff takes a break in the kitchen. In 1992, the organization renamed itself the Institute of Personality and Social Research, which still operates at UC Berkeley today.

This chart reveals that aesthetic concerns ruled over economic and social ones in the minds of architects; the difference in importance is most exaggerated for participants in Group I. As Serraino puts it, "Creative people want to arrive at a beautiful solution to the problem that concerns them. This aesthetic necessity is a common benchmark to those who embrace their work as a vocation rather than as a chore."  

The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study is available for purchase for $28.


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