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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.”

The Creative Architect: Inside Psychology’s Most Ambitious and Influential Study of What Makes a Creative Person

“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.

IPAR researchers in the staff kitchen, c. 1961
IPAR researchers in the staff kitchen, c. 1961

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.

Cover of the 1962 “Man’s Creative Mind" issue of IBM’s THINK magazine, with cover art by Harry Bertoia
Cover of the 1962 “Man’s Creative Mind” issue of IBM’s THINK magazine, with cover art by Harry Bertoia

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.

IPAR researcher Ravenna Helson at her desk, c. 1960
IPAR researcher Ravenna Helson at her desk, c. 1960

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.

Cover of the Saturday Review, February 10, 1962, featuring Donald MacKinnon’s article “What Makes a Person Creative?”
Cover of the Saturday Review, February 10, 1962, featuring Donald MacKinnon’s article “What Makes a Person Creative?”

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.

Eero Saarinen's Architectural Aptitude Test
Eero Saarinen’s Architectural Aptitude Test

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.

Philip Johnson's Architectural Aptitude Test
Philip Johnson’s Architectural Aptitude Test

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:


Remembering Vera Rubin: The Trailblazing Astrophysicist Who Confirmed the Existence of Dark Matter and Paved the Way for Modern Women in Science

“Don’t shoot for the stars, we already know what’s there. Shoot for the space in between because that’s where the real mystery lies.”

In his insightful reflection on the crucial difference between talent and genius, Schopenhauer likened talent to a marksman who hits a target others cannot hit, and genius to a marksman who hits a target others cannot see. Among humanity’s rare genius-seers was pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928–December 25, 2016) — a coruscating intellect animated by a sinewy tenacity, who overcame towering cultural odds by the sheer force of her unbridled curiosity and rigorous devotion to science. In confirming the existence of dark matter, Rubin revolutionized our understanding of the universe, paved the way for modern women in science, and recalibrated the stilted norms of her profession.

Rubin fell in love with the night sky as a young girl, but knew no astronomer, living or dead, to hold as a role model. Eventually, she came upon a children’s book about 19th-century trailblazer Maria Mitchell — America’s first professional female astronomer and the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — whose story reframed Rubin’s landscape of possibility and emboldened her to pursue stargazing as a vocation rather than a hobby. “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be an astronomer,” she told Alan Lightman many years later in their wonderful 1990 conversation.

Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s
Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s

Rubin received a scholarship to Vassar, where Maria Mitchell had taught the first class of women astronomers as the first woman on the faculty nearly a century earlier. “As long as you stay away from science, you should do okay,” her chauvinist high school physics teacher counseled her upon receiving the admission news. Mercifully, she didn’t heed the unsubtle message — driven by the same tenacious obsessiveness that underlined her groundbreaking discoveries, she plunged straight into science and graduated from Vassar in 1948 as the only astronomy major in her class. Rejected from Princeton’s graduate program, which only admitted men, Rubin instead obtained her master’s degree from Cornell and Georgetown while nursing one child and pregnant with her second. (She would go on to raise four children, all of whom would become scientists.)

In her work on spectroscopy, Rubin drew on the revolutionary discoveries of the Harvard computers — the unheralded team of 19th-century women astronomers who classified stellar spectra decades before women were able to vote. In 1965, she broke a colossal glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to observe at the Palomar Observatory, home to the world’s most powerful telescopes at the time. She went on to do pioneering work on galaxy rotation, based on which she confirmed the existence of dark matter — a cornerstone of our modern understanding of the cosmos.

Vera Rubin with her "measuring engine" used to examine photographic plates, 1974
Vera Rubin with her “measuring engine” used to examine photographic plates, 1974

For decades, Rubin remained a tireless champion of science as a pillar of society. “We need senators who have studied physics and representatives who understand ecology,” she asserted in her electrifying 1996 Berkeley commencement address — a remark of chilling timeliness and urgency today.

That Rubin died without her Nobel Prize is nothing short of a travesty, bespeaking the flawed cultural machinery by which such honors are meted out. But there is higher-order consolation in the wise words of astrophysicist Janna Levin, whose own career was built on the path Rubin paved:

Scientists do not devote their lives to the sometimes lonely, agonizing, toilsome investigation of an austere universe because they want a prize.

In the preface to Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters (public library) — Rubin’s anthology of essays, papers, and speeches spanning 36 years, her commencement address among them — she addresses one of the most central and most misunderstood principles of science: that the power of not-knowing is as essential to science as it is to art and that ignorance, rather than hindering knowledge, is the springboard for it. Rubin writes:

Scientists too seldom stress the enormity of our ignorance. Virtually everything we know about galaxies we have learned during the last 100 years… But what are the questions for future astronomers? What questions will astronomers be asking of the universe 100 years from now? A thousand years from now?

The questions easiest to enumerate, Rubin points out, are those identified but unanswered by the era — questions about the precise rate of expansion of the universe, the amount of mass it contains, the nature of dark matter, and the potential for life on other planets. But the more interesting questions, she suggests, are those “we barely know enough to ask” — among them, the possibility of other universes and the question of how the detection of gravitational waves, merely a hypothetical feat at the time of her writing, would change our understanding of the cosmos. (We’ve only just answered the latter, two decades later; as Rubin anticipated, the answer has profoundly altered our understanding of the universe.)

Echoing her formative role model — “The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us,” Maria Mitchell had marveled in her diary more than a century earlier — Rubin writes:

As we peer into the universe we are peering into our past, but our “eyes” are weak and we have not yet seen to great distances. No one promised that we should live in the era that would unravel the mysteries of the cosmos. The edge of the universe is far beyond our grasp. Like Columbus, perhaps like the Vikings, we have peered into a new world and have seen that it is more mysterious and more complex than we had imagined. Still more mysteries of the universe remain hidden. Their discovery awaits the adventurous scientists of the future. I like it this way.

For a richer taste of Rubin’s genius and her extraordinary life-story, see her conversation with Alan Lightman about dark matter, women in science, and our never-ending quest to know the universe.


Simone de Beauvoir on Art, Science, Freedom, Busyness, and Why Happiness Is Our Moral Obligation

“The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laugh of a child at play.”

Simone de Beauvoir on Art, Science, Freedom, Busyness, and Why Happiness Is Our Moral Obligation

In her incisive inquiry into the intelligence of emotions, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote: “Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning.” But the moral system itself — what comprises it in a philosophical sense, how it is enacted in practical terms, and what it aims at in the daily act of living — remains one of the most conflicted ambiguities within and between human beings.

Those elements of the moral machinery are what the great French existentialist philosopher and trailblazing feminist Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) examines in The Ethics of Ambiguity (public library) — the paradigm-shifting 1947 treatise that gave us Beauvoir on vitality, the measure of intelligence, and what freedom really means.

Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir

To wrest a graspable conception of morality, Beauvoir turns to art and science:

Art and science do not establish themselves despite failure but through it; which does not prevent there being truths and errors, masterpieces and lemons, depending upon whether the discovery or the painting has or has not known how to win the adherence of human consciousnesses; this amounts to saying that failure, always ineluctable, is in certain cases spared and in others not.

For this reason, she suggests, success and failure bear no equivalence with right and wrong. If we are to seek an understanding of morality, the equivalence is to be found not in the outcomes of art and science but in their methods. She writes:

Which action is good? Which is bad? To ask such a question is also to fall into a naive abstraction. We don’t ask the physicist, “Which hypotheses are true?” Nor the artist, “By what procedures does one produce a work whose beauty is guaranteed?” Ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods. Thus, in science the fundamental problem is to make the idea adequate to its content and the law adequate to the facts; the logician finds that in the case where the pressure of the given fact bursts the concept which serves to comprehend it, one is obliged to invent another concept; but he can not define a priori the moment of invention, still less foresee it. Analogously, one may say that in the case where the content of the action falsifies its meaning, one must modify not the meaning, which is here willed absolutely, but the content itself; however, it is impossible to determine this relationship between meaning and content abstractly and universally: there must be a trial and decision in each case. But likewise just as the physicist finds it profitable to reflect on the conditions of scientific invention and the artist on those of artistic creation without expecting any ready-made solutions to come from these reflections, it is useful for the man of action to find out under what conditions his undertakings are valid.

In a sentiment that calls to mind her compatriot Albert Camus’s insistence that happiness is our moral obligation, Beauvoir considers the ethic of happiness at the heart of freedom:

It must not be forgotten that there is a concrete bond between freedom and existence; to will man free is … to will the disclosure of being in the joy of existence; in order for the idea of liberation to have a concrete meaning, the joy of existence must be asserted in each one, at every instant; the movement toward freedom assumes its real, flesh and blood figure in the world by thickening into pleasure, into happiness.

Echoing the poignant and increasingly timely rhetorical question which Bertrand Russell posed two decades earlier — “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” — she adds:

If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing, then production and wealth are only hollow myths; they have meaning only if they are capable of being retrieved in individual and living joy. The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laugh of a child at play.

The Ethics Of Ambiguity remains a cultural classic of timeless insight into the human experience. Complement this particular portion with Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being, German philosopher Josef Pieper on why leisure is the basis of culture, and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between how art and science illuminate the human condition, then revisit Sartre’s stunning love letter to Beauvoir.


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