The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study

"THEY COULDN'T BE quite as wild as artists." This was how a colleague explained the psychologist Donald MacKinnon's choice of architects as subjects for his landmark 1958–59 study of creativity at UC Berkeley's Institute of Personality Assessment and Research. MacKinnon had begun to focus on creativity a few years earlier, but he recognized one clear problem: Creativity could obviously take many forms—from the poet's mad genius to the scientist's brilliant logic. MacKinnon could never hope to gather all creative types into a single study. But what if he could find a middle ground, a creative practice where imagination evolved in dynamic response to the conditions of the real world? This was just what architecture seemed to offer, and MacKinnon set out to persuade a virtual who's who of the profession to join his study. Although a few invitees turned him down—Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer both regretfully declined, citing hectic schedules—the list of eventual participants included luminaries such as Richard Neutra, Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, and Philip Johnson.

MacKinnon never published his results, which remained buried in the Institute's archives until they were rediscovered by San Francisco–based architect Pierluigi Serraino. In The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study, Serraino presents a rich and meticulously sorted selection of this material, accompanied by his own analysis. A great (if slightly guilty) pleasure of the book is the behind-the-scenes look it offers into the minds of so many proto-starchitects: Johnson, a notorious self-promoter, ranked himself first when asked to evaluate the creative output of all participants; even more delicious are a psychologist's notes characterizing Johnson as "a controlled psychotic…. [who] showed many classic features of the manic." If anything, such snippets lack the sense of discovery that normally attends a new fact about a well-known figure, simply because they conform all too well to our expectations—sometimes hilariously so.

Worley Wong’s response to Donald Mackinnon’s Mosaic Construction test, 1958. Courtesy The Institute of Personality and Social Research, University of California, Berkeley/The Monacelli Press.

MacKinnon's insights themselves are often so vague and clichéd that they become nearly meaningless, as when he posits that "the truly creative person knows who he is, where he wants to go, and what he wants to achieve." This was perhaps because of the crudeness of his evaluative tools, which ranged from the Rorschach test to the Mosaic Construction test, a task in which subjects were asked to arrange one-square-inch colored tiles into a rectangular grid. Many of the resulting designs are beautifully reproduced in this book, but despite being graded on a numerical scale that includes such "scientific" criteria as "good use of color" and "pleasingness," they are scarcely revealing. Yet the limitations of the study's strict tests contain, in a sense, the most fundamental lesson of Serraino's book. If MacKinnon was correct in his hunch that architects are most inventive when confronting their inevitable entanglement in the world, he failed to recognize that this also means they do more than merely find solutions to problems. Their creativity lies in sorting through an immense array of information and evaluating myriad constraints to decide which problems are worth solving in the first place, and which rules should be followed to achieve a solution. MacKinnon discovered that there is no test that can measure an architect's greatest asset: his or her particular brand of omnivorous and synthetic thinking. Architects may well display their greatest creativity in designing their own creative process.