The Creative Architect:
Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study
By Pierluigi Serraino
The Monacelli Press, 2016
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.
Unlocking one’s creativity is a perennial quest. In his new book, the indefatigable Pierluigi Serraino has unearthed an epic attempt—a 1960 study of architects by Donald MacKinnon and his collaborators at Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR). By studying successful professionals, MacKinnon hoped to find ways to unlock people’s creative potential in a broader sense. Many large organizations today share that interest, and Serraino’s look at IPAR’s study is timely.
MacKinnon was to creativity as Kinsey was to sex. And like sex, creativity is a topic with inexact norms and a preoccupation with individual performance. The IPAR team wore suits, not lab coats, but this was serious business. Turning to the architecture field’s academics, editors, and writers, IPAR put together a long list of luminaries to consider. Of the top 10 architects IPAR identified in its final ranking, only Saarinen, Kahn, and Neutra are still in the pantheon.
Once chosen, the architects descended on Berkeley for three days of tests. Among other tasks, IPAR asked them to discuss abstract problems with their peers; undergo personality assessments; note what they saw as the attributes of creative architects; and make mosaics of colored blocks and small, captioned drawings in two grids of blank squares.
A POSTWAR VIEW
IPAR drew on Ernest Jones’s 1957 account of Freud’s nine characteristics of genius to develop its own view of the key attributes of the creative personality. While some of Jones’s nuances are preserved, phrases like “the subject’s life history as recorded in the Personal Data Bank” reflect an era captivated by the computer and, more broadly, interested in giving the social sciences the perceived rigor of the hard sciences.
In architecture, this was the heyday of design methods, an outgrowth of the application of mathematics-based systems thinking to manufacturing and logistics during World War II. The hope was to extend this approach to fields like architecture, with creativity figuring in the mix of performance outcomes. By the end of the 1960s, this unalloyed faith that the methods of science and engineering could be so applied was in question. Architecture—famously nonlinear and rife with politics and emotions—was ripe for apostasy.
MacKinnon faced skepticism even from his would-be subjects that his research qualified as science, but his focus was on first identifying the traits of highly creative people and then understanding what would or would not contribute to their creative potential. This is why the IPAR study’s conclusions are still relevant and worth understanding.
BACK TO THE GREAT MEN
IPAR noted that the greatest of their Great Men scored INFP on the Meyers-Briggs spectrum. (INFJ placed second.) An INFP profile suggests a greater tolerance for keeping one’s options open. The F in INFP is for “feeling,” but MacKinnon equated it with “feminine”—a trait he saw as an attribute of the creative personality. While few of the Great Men cited themselves as “feminine,” MacKinnon felt that most were. This and the study’s complete lack of women as creative architects place it in its era. Though IPAR was interested in femininity as a characteristic, the role and influence of women went unexplored, despite the involvement of women researchers at IPAR—and despite the fact that Kahn and Saarinen, for example, had strong, creative women as partners and collaborators.
ALONE WITH OTHERS
Another limitation of the IPAR study is its insistence that creativity is best done alone. “Because creativity is so intertwined with unconventional associative processes in the minds of individuals, it will come as no surprise that for the creative individual the gap between conformance to group behavior and compulsion for self-expression is wide,” Serraino writes. For good measure, he quotes MacKinnon: “One of the best methods for nurturing creativity is to de-emphasize group participation.”
Today, teams are the focus and creativity is mainly considered in the context of distributed teams that work across time and space. The individual creator still matters, of course, and much effort goes into supporting her. It’s really both/and, not either/or.
So a question that arises is how the attributes of individual creators apply to teams. Larry Leifer of Stanford’s d.school points to autonomous teams as the creative force behind neo-industrial ventures like Tesla Motors. That there are visionaries behind these teams doesn’t negate their importance. Half a century later, some new MacKinnon may have creative teams in her sights.