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