The Creative Architect: Inside Psychology’s Most Ambitious and Influential Study of What Makes a Creative Person
“The creative person has the courage to experience opposites of his nature and to attempt some reconciliation of them in an individuated expression of himself.”
By Maria Popova
“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating,” John Cleese proclaimed in his widely beloved 1991 lecture on the five factors of creativity. What may seem like the clever packaging of a commonplace truism today was once a radical proposition, the seed for which was planted just three decades before Cleese’s proclamation. Although this “way of operating” — the constellation of intuitions, cognitive patterns, and habits of mind which we call “creativity” — is responsible for every human civilization that has ever existed, it is only in the last blink of evolutionary history that we have turned an inquisitive eye toward what creativity actually is and how it can be cultivated.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, creativity was considered a nebulous and hokey subject unfit for scientific study. It may be a rather curious system bug of our consciousness that we so easily dismiss the most elemental and highest-order objects of human aspiration as somehow unserious and unworthy of rigorous research — Harvard’s pioneering study of happiness, which began in 1938, had to upend enormous cultural and academic norms, as did the first systematic study of love in 1958.
The turning point for creativity came in 1959, thanks to a researcher by the name of Dr. Donald MacKinnon, director of the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR) at UC Berkeley.
Just as trailblazing Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner was revolutionizing the study of creativity on the East Coast, his West Coast counterpart was undertaking a study of unprecedented size and range at IPAR — a rigorous inquiry into what makes a person “creative,” what motivates such people’s work, how they are able to overcome self-doubt, what environmental conditions are most conducive to manifesting creativity, and whether it is possible to identify the creatively gifted before their talents bear tangible fruit.
The subjects of IPAR’s most landmark study were forty of the era’s greatest architects, including Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson, and I.M. Pei. Subsequent studies over the course of three decades focused on other groups of high achievement — Air Force officers, women mathematicians, research scientists, and managers. Their insights, which laid the foundation for contemporary research into the psychology of creativity, have been cited in innumerable publications for decades, but the original findings have remained buried in university archives for more than half a century — until now.
Pierluigi Serraino tells the story of IPAR’s revolutionary endeavor and its lasting legacy in The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study (public library). He writes:
IPAR was determined to take the alchemy out of any conversation on creativity and use fieldwork to corroborate their hypothesis that creativity was the result of a set of conditions, external and internal to individuals, without any teleological explanation of its origins. Adopting a solid research angle and studying creativity through a direct examination of the individuals hailed as leaders in their fields was of the essence to circumvent the precariousness and unreliability of the countless opinions that pseudo-experts were circulating on the topic.
More than that, IPAR’s research, with its focus on creativity as a profoundly human and humane faculty, became a counterpoint to the era’s growing fear of mechanization. Serraino explains:
At the core of the effective functioning of the IPAR research unit was a fundamental position shared by MacKinnon and his colleagues: that creativity conformed to certain rules and that its patterns of appearance could be objectively measured and explained. But even more importantly, all those involved in the study — researchers, sponsoring agencies, the subjects themselves — held the mental process of the individual to be the center of the creative processes, dispelling all the rhetoric associated with genius.
As alarming visions of an Orwellian society dominated by automated technologies were going viral in postwar Western civilization, the investigation on creativity was seen as a crucial tool in the race for humanity’s very survival, saving it form an obliteration of its own making by solving problems such as the population boom, the anxiety of a nuclear annihilation, and the intelligent use of technology in civic life.
Due to the demands of postwar society, IPAR’s initial focus wasn’t on creativity but on effectiveness. Serraino quotes original IPAR researcher Ravenna Helson, the only surviving team member at the time of his writing:
One could be effective — meet one’s goals, such as running a tight ship, making a lot of money, getting a PhD in a short time — without the goals involving creativity.
In 1953, IPAR’s focus began to shift toward creativity, commencing their trailblazing studies of writers and architects, which were unlike anything that had been done before in psychology. Serraino reports on their process:
A staff of psychologists would observe and test the creative people during “live-in” assessments at the Institute’s lab, a three-day block of intensive testing on-site, so as to extract for the first time a veritable picture of their inner drives and of the external circumstances supporting their creative expression. A new element in the IPAR approach was the study of group dynamics, undertaken by observation of subjects in a social context. Assorted into groups of varying sizes according to the nature of the experiment at hand, subjects and researchers were to discuss pre-established questions, resulting in formal and informal exchanges that opened new paths to unique data retrieval.
The researchers identified four key areas of interest — “the creative person, the creative process, the creative product, and the creative situation.” Serraino writes of the first one:
Certain hypotheses had already formed: for instance, that creative people have an above-average capacity to retrieve information from their pasts and exhibit a marked absence of repression of their own impulses. Their findings, thus far, led IPAR to surmise that “the greater expressiveness of the creative person contributes also to a greater independence of thought and action.” At this early stage, they had already detected a correlation between intelligence and self-assertiveness as predictors of autonomous thought and performance. Furthermore, [the researchers] saw a stable link between complex visual and conceptual capacity and originality in creative people. Psychodynamic complexity, greater personal scope, independence of judgment, self-assertiveness, social dominance, and the suppression of impulse control were firm points in the growing understanding of the emotional universe within the creative person.
Alongside the four dimensions of creativity the scientists identified three types of creative people: Those whose creative work embodied Ann Truitt’s assertion that “artists have no choice but to express their lives” — novelists, poets, and playwrights fell within that category; those whose work aimed at objective goals drawing on an external reality — this class included physicists, mathematicians, chemists, and engineers; and those whose work was a combination of the other two, partway between subjective self-expression and objective, testable inquiry — architects and music arrangers were placed in that group.
The researchers found a number of intriguing patterns and correlations: In the arts, creative work seemed to arise from psychic restlessness and resolve some internal conflict, whereas in the sciences it seemed to express what Serraino terms “personal cosmologies of external reality.” The notable common denominator was that across all fields, creative breakthroughs required a solid foundation of preexisting expert knowledge — a testament to Pasteur’s famous tenet of ideation, “chance favors the prepared mind.
Of all the different types in the study, MacKinnon was most intrigued by and invested in the architects — a profession that tempers the creative wildness of the artist with the testable prototyping of the scientist and the savvy of the entrepreneur. He identified 64 high achievers in architecture — alarmingly but unsurprisingly, given the era, all male and almost entirely white — and invited them to what he promised would be a landmark study of creativity and the qualities of successful people. Astonishingly, forty of them — including some of the most renowned architects of the time — agreed to participate. They became Group I and were joined by another 84 lesser-accomplished architects subdivided into two more groups, for a total of 124 participants.
But as rigorous a psychologist as MacKinnon was, he lacked the expertise needed for identifying what constitutes creativity in architecture. So he enlisted the help of architecturally adroit collaborators like Elizabeth Kendall Thompson, a powerful tastemaker and West Coast editor of Architectural Record. With their help, MacKinnon designed a sophisticated study, which was to be conducted over the course of a weekend — an impressive time investment for participants of this caliber, but many of the architects were lured by the opportunity to mingle with their peers and competitors. The researchers proceeded to study such dimensions of creativity and character as thinking and feeling, introversion and extroversion, individualism and collaboration, self-awareness, childhood conditions, and much more, enlisting existing tests like the Myers-Briggs alongside their own original questionnaires.
MacKinnon echoed Virginia Woolf’s assertion that the most creative mind is the androgynous mind in summarizing the most crucial findings:
The evidence is clear: the more creative a person is the more he reveals an openness to his own feelings and emotions, a sensitive intellect and understanding, self-awareness, and wide-ranging interests, including many which in the American culture are thought to be feminine.
One of the subtler, most paradoxical, yet most important findings had to do with the role of parenting in the development of the creative person. Serraino writes:
Many subjects indicated that as children they had enjoyed a marked degree of autonomy from their parents. They were entrusted with independent judgment and allowed to develop curiosity at their own pace without overt supervision or interference. MacKinnon noted of these parents, “They did not hesitate to grant him rather unusual freedom in exploring his universe and in making decisions for himself — and this early as well as late. The expectation of the parent that the child would act independently but reasonably and responsibly appears to have contributed immensely to the latter’s sense of personal autonomy which was to develop to such a marked degree.”
But this autonomy had a darker side — it coexisted with a certain emotional detachment from one or both parents. Serraino writes:
The offspring often reported a sense of remoteness, a distance from their elders, which ultimately helped them avoid, the scientists argued, the overdependence — or momentous rejection — that often characterizes parent-child relationships, both of which were believed to interfere with the unencumbered unfolding of the self through the creative process.
Despite this sense of disconnectedness, one parent — typically the mother — played a significant role in emboldening the child’s creative exploits during his formative years. While the fathers modeled work ethic, the mothers of the most creative architects — and the layered cultural significance of this finding couldn’t be emphasized more — displayed an uncommon degree of independence from their husbands and led highly engaged lives animated by professional, intellectual, and creative interests of their own.
Another crucial factor in the development of the creative person was the influence of a teacher or mentor in their formative years — something the impact of which Albert Camus articulated in a touching letter of gratitude to his boyhood teacher days after he received the Nobel Prize. Serraino writes of this influential figure:
This person is a portal into the challenging and intense joy of practicing an art. The vocation of architecture requires a combination of skill, competence, knowledge, devotion, and enthusiasm, traits that together launch these individuals on a life-long mission to excel and enjoy the fruit of their commitment to a meaningful activity offering them a way to demonstrate their capabilities and self-worth to themselves first and foremost.
But perhaps the most important finding, as well as the one most difficult to swallow as we face a culture which increasingly demands of us to fragment ourselves along identity variables, had to do with the elusive art of inner wholeness, conveyed in MacKinnon’s own poignant words:
Most persons live a sort of half-life, giving expression to only a very limited part of themselves and realizing only a few of their many potentialities. The creative person has the courage to experience opposites of his nature and to attempt some reconciliation of them in an individuated expression of himself.
Half a century later, Mary Oliver would articulate the same sentiment in her piercing observation that “the most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
In the remainder of The Creative Architect, Serraino delves into the finer details of the study, down to the original handwritten questionnaires, to reveal the inner workings of the creative mind and the equally fascinating meta-creativity of designing and implementing this enormously inventive, daring, influential, and still unparalleled study. Complement it with physicist David Bohm on the nature of creativity and pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on its six pillars, then hear Serraino’s Design Matters interview about the backstory of his ambitious project: