The Mind of an Architect

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There’s this old story and it goes something like this. A visitor arrives at the pearly gates and asks Saint Peter if he can meet the greatest general who ever lived. And Saint Peter points out one of the people in heaven and says, “There he is, the greatest general in the world.”

Roman Mars:
And the visitor is shocked. And he says, “No way. That’s not the greatest general. I mean, that guy isn’t even a general. I knew him on earth and he was a cobbler.”

Roman Mars:
“I know,” responds Saint Peter. “But if he had been a general, he would have been the greatest of them all.”

Avery Trufelman:
It’s a bit corny sure but the story raises some interesting questions.

Roman Mars:
That’s general Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
How does a person discover their greatest creative potential, their best skills and talents and capabilities? You might be a brilliant novelist if you could find the time, or maybe if you had the training, you could have changed the course of modern dance or particle physics or, you know, been a great general. So, what makes brilliant and creative people tick? And how did they get that way?

Roman Mars:
Today, there are thousands of self-help books and counselors and consultants and websites that promise to help you find your creative essence. They teach you the habits of successful, effective, and creative people. But this idea that you can study something as elusive as creativity and learn step-by-step how to be more creative, it was unthinkable back in the 1950s.

Ravenna Helson:
Creativity has always had something magical about it, unexpected. It’s surprising. And that’s why people thought that you couldn’t study creativity. It was too nebulous and unconscious and not accessible to scientific inquiry.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Ravenna Helson.

Ravenna Helson:
My name is Ravenna Helson. I’m very old, 91. What else shall I say?

Roman Mars:
Ravenna Helson is a very prominent personality psychologist and she got her start at an unusual department at UC Berkeley in 1949. It was called the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, also known as IPAR.

Ravenna Helson:
And what IPAR was was an institute with procedures for studying personality in a fairly new, complicated way. And we thought we were working on something really unique and good for humanity.

Avery Trufelman:
The scientists at IPAR attempted what many people thought was impossible. This was at a time when creativity was thought to be this kind of magical, inexplicable force. But IPAR set out to capture it, to study it in a methodical, scientific way, and identify the specific personality traits that make certain people creative.

Roman Mars:
IPAR invited a whole variety of creative people to come to Berkeley and be studied.

Ravenna Helson:
Authors of fantasy for children…

Avery Trufelman:
Women studying at Mills College…

Roman Mars:
Research scientists…

Ravenna Helson:
Women mathematicians…

Avery Trufelman:
And writers, including some real heavy hitters like Truman Capote and William Carlos Williams.

Roman Mars:
But one of the biggest and most successful studies that IPAR conducted was with architects.

Ravenna Helson:
It’s always important what the architects show because they were the largest sample and clearest in some ways.

Roman Mars:
Over the course of four weekends, in 1958 and 1959, IPAR brought together 40 of the most famous and important architects in the world, observed them, gave them tests, and asked them all kinds of questions, including some fairly ridiculous ones.

Researcher:
“Now for the next 45 minutes, we would like you to discuss this notion, that is, what if men had developed a third arm? Where might this arm be best attached?”

Avery Trufelman:
That is an actual recording from the actual study. IPAR got really famous architects like Richard Neutra, I.M Pei, Louis Kahn, all the big names of modern architecture. And I love that at one point, they were asked to discuss where a third arm should go on the human body.

Architect:
“I would suggest that the most effective place would if it came right out of the top of your head.”

Architect:
“I disagree with that.”

Architect:
“Why?”

Architect:
“I think it ought to come straight out of his back, between his shoulder blades, so he could either scratch his bottom or his head at will.”

Roman Mars:
IPAR scientists observed the architects as they filled out questionnaires, made mosaics out of colored tiles, and discussed hypothetical problems together. And what they learned helped transform the way people think about creativity today. It all started with one of the first personality psychologists, the man who founded IPAR and led the charge on the architect study. His name was Donald MacKinnon.

Avery Trufelman:
MacKinnon liked to start his speeches with that story about the visitor to heaven and Saint Peter, which makes sense. MacKinnon himself had a vested interest in finding the secret great general hiding within the cobbler. Because during World War II, he had served in the Office of Strategic Services, which was the precursor to the CIA.

Roman Mars:
MacKinnon’s job was to assess the personalities of American troops, to see which of them could perform well in combat. When the war was over, he joined the faculty at Berkeley and founded IPAR in 1949 to continue his personality research. But in the mid-’50s, IPAR switched from studying combat readiness and efficiency to creativity-

Avery Trufelman:
In large part because of Sputnik.

Pierluigi Serra:
The Soviets launched the Sputnik and that gave a huge priority to this study. How can we make our folks, the Americans, more creative so that we can beat the Russians?

Avery Trufelman:
The space race was part of why IPAR embarked on this mission. They wanted to study the personalities of particularly creative people, so they categorized a group of analytic creatives like scientists and mathematicians, and a second group of artistic creatives like painters and writers.

Pierluigi Serra:
But then there was this hybrid where it was neither one nor the other. They was both and they put architects in that group.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Pierluigi Serraino, an architect himself and author of ‘The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study’, a book that chronicles IPAR’s architect study, because they thought architects were a perfect mix of mathematician and artist.

Roman Mars:
Architects were also interesting study subjects because understanding their creative habits could potentially apply to a lot of different kinds of people. Successful architects have to master numerous rules. They have to be businessmen, artists, engineers, lawyers, philosophers, psychologists, and educators, all rolled into one.

Avery Trufelman:
IPAR wanted a huge test sample of architects, from small firms and large. Some were sent surveys and participated from a distance, but an elite group was selected to come to Berkeley for in-person testing.

Pierluigi Serra:
That was the first step, to invite architects. Everybody will come up with some names, then they would rate them.

Avery Trufelman:
IPAR rallied a selection of architectural magazine editors and museum curators and professors to help select the most creative architects alive and working in the United States.

Pierluigi Serra:
So they came up with a chart, and out of that, they started getting letters of invitation. So, some folks never returned. Frank Lloyd Wright never answered.

Avery Trufelman:
But they actually did convince 40 of the architects on their list to come down on four separate weekends. And they warned them, this was not going to be easy.

Pierluigi Serra:
This was grueling. You know, in fairness, MacKinnon said, this is not going to be a relaxing weekend.

Avery Trufelman:
The test began pretty much right away. As soon as the architects arrived at the fraternity house that IPAR had borrowed for the study, they had just 15 minutes of introduction before they took their first test. It was constant over the course of the weekend. The architects would be asked to make mosaics, to assess their aesthetic sensibilities, go into in-depth interviews about their childhoods, and even see if they could be hypnotized.

Roman Mars:
And during the downtime, they were still being observed by researchers with clipboards.

Pierluigi Serra:
Even cocktails and dinner, it’s a time of study. It’s a very, very tight schedule.

Avery Trufelman:
But my favorite test that the architects did, was one IPAR called the ethics problem.

Researcher:
“The ethics problem, group one.”

Avery Trufelman:
I like it because it deals with a question that comes up all the time for architects and for creative people of all kinds actually. It’s about whether a creative person should be willing to sacrifice parts of their vision to please a client. And it’s one of the tests IPAR did where they actually recorded the architects having this discussion.

Pierluigi Serra:
In the course of that, you realize who’s self-absorbed, who is more collegial.

Researcher:
“Architects group number four, April 25th.”

Roman Mars:
So in this discussion group on April 25th, 1959, we’re going to focus on three characters. And to keep them all straight, we’ve got a musical cue for each one. The first and foremost is architect Eero Saarinen. He designed the St. Louis Arch, the Dulles airport, these dynamic, soaring structures that blend sculpture and architecture. He is iconic today and was a superstar then. It was a huge deal that he participated in the study.

Avery Trufelman:
The second character we’re going to talk about in this group is Philip Johnson, the minimalist architect responsible for Lincoln Center and The Glass House. His work is very square, very tidy. Actually, the selection committee described Phillip Johnson as…

Researcher:
“Interested in the perfection of certain limited aims, very disciplined in all of his work, completely disregards human beings.”

Avery Trufelman:
And the third character who we’ll focus on was a promising up-and-coming architect named Victor Lundy. At 36 years old, he was the youngest and least established in the group with a very small but very impressive portfolio.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so the virtuoso Eero Saarinen, the perfectionist Philip Johnson, and the young upstart Victor Lundy, along with two other architects, were served cocktails and given a hypothetical situation concerning a hypothetical architect named Mr. Brown.

Researcher:
“Mr. Brown is faced with a difficult decision. He has just finished the preliminary drawings for a very challenging and important structure. His client has told him that he likes Mr. Brown’s proposal very much and will accept it if he will change one fairly important aspect of the design.”

Roman Mars:
Basically, the client would like the design altered in a specific way and says he will have to reject Mr. Brown’s proposal if the change isn’t made.

Avery Trufelman:
Brown really hates this alteration but this commission is highly prized and prominent. And of course, Brown wants the client to be happy with the building and he has to support himself and his practice.

Researcher:
“As he’s weighing these factors, the phone rings and the client asks for his answer. If you were Brown, what would you do?”

Avery Trufelman:
The architects then had to decide. Should Brown accept the change or ditch the project?

Researcher:
“Now, we’d like you to discuss the issue candidly among yourselves and reach a joint conclusion at the end of 35 minutes.”

Architect:
“Does that mean we have to read?”

Roman Mars:
This archival audio has never been heard in any public way before. Like maybe only 10 people have heard it. So, just sit back for a second and listen to the architects and the ice clinking in their glasses.

Avery Trufelman:
So Saarinen, the visionary, starts the discussion.

Eero Saarinen:
“I think, should I have anticipated this? Brown should have had some alternates.”

Avery Trufelman:
And Saarinen says that since Brown doesn’t have any other solutions prepared, he should walk away.

Eero Saarinen:
“He has to be willing to drop the job at this time or else he has no future.”

Philip Johnson:
“It doesn’t happen that way in architecture.”

Roman Mars:
That’s Philip ‘disregards human beings’ Johnson butting in.

Philip Johnson:
“It’s a problem that’s contrary to experience. It sounds very much like you’ve been reading Ayn Rand.”

Avery Trufelman:
It sounds like you’ve been reading Ayn Rand. Johnson is referencing the book, ‘The Fountainhead’, where the main character is a fiercely independent architect who blows up his own building, rather than compromise with a client. Make no mistake, Johnson would also refuse the client’s changes but he just thinks this whole scenario is absurd. No good architect would let this happen with a client.

Philip Johnson:
“Now, I answer there that I would immediately refuse it because if I was that stupid an architect and had that stupid a client that would let this particular occurrence. And I’ve never heard of it happening to other architects either, have you?”

Avery Trufelman:
Actually, Saarinen has been challenged by a client on a recent commission, and he is threatening to quit.

Eero Saarinen:
“Yeah, just Monday, I have to get to them that I am threatening to quit.”

Philip Johnson:
“You would expect to win by a threat of quitting?”

Eero Saarinen:
“I say that the only power an architect has against the client is our resigning. You can only resign once. The case is hopeless.”

Victor Lundy:
“Would you say that the case is hopeless as intended in the problem?”

Pierluigi Serra:
That’s Victor Lundy, the young gun, piping up.

Victor Lundy:
“I confessed it. I have to admit the possibility of learning something from the client. Maybe there’s something in what the client is leading to that will result in a better thing. If a work of architecture is really, really good, well then, the owner will see it and…”

Philip Johnson:
“Well, you’re young.”

Victor Lundy:
“Well, no, I’m young but I’ve seen some old things.”

Victor Lundy:
“There’s snobbery in some of this.”

Philip Johnson:
“If you give in now, the design can only get worse and worse, and be worse for your reputation. Because once you’re represented by a building you don’t believe in, what is the future of living?”

Roman Mars:
At the end of 35 minutes, the group concluded that Mr. Brown should reject the client’s changes and walk away from the project. This was the conclusion that all of the different architect groups ultimately came to. Having this option is part of the luxury of being a very famous architect, of course.

Victor Lundy:
“I hope in all of this that Mr. Brown was right.”

Philip Johnson:
“Maybe the client was right.”

Avery Trufelman:
After three grueling days of tests, after all the architects went back to their respective practices all over the country, the study still wasn’t quite over. The architects were mailed surveys and questionnaires, and they were asked to rank each other.

Roman Mars:
Some architects refused to rank themselves and their peers. Others jumped right in.

Avery Trufelman:
Philip Johnson rated himself number one.

Pierluigi Serra:
Unsurprisingly, but Saarinen rated Johnson number two after himself, considered number one, but the fact that people put themselves number one also talks about their conception of themselves, clearly.

Avery Trufelman:
And the architect’s conceptions of themselves matched with the findings from a lot of the other studies that IPAR had done over the years. The researchers began to notice certain patterns across creatives of all professions and all genders.

Ravenna Helson:
We kept finding that we got the same characteristics associated with the people who were rated highest, whether they were chemists or artists or in other fields.

Roman Mars:
It turns out, all different kinds of creative people met similar descriptions.

Ravenna Helson:
Has an interesting and arresting personality, is nonconforming and has high aspirations for self.

Avery Trufelman:
Also, creatives preferred complexity and ambiguity over simplicity and order. Creatives had the capacity to make unexpected connections and see patterns in daily life, but creative people didn’t necessarily have to have high IQs.

Ravenna Helson:
Intelligence isn’t as important to creativity as people had thought it was. And so I guess that’s another thing we’ve found.

Roman Mars:
Average intelligence will do. And it’s not as if this is directly related to intelligence, but the school grade point average for the architects was a solid B-minus.

Avery Trufelman:
So IPAR found that creative people tend to be nonconforming, interesting, interested, independent, courageous, and self-centered. They tend to be, they don’t have to be.

Ravenna Helson:
You have certain traits and they come up over and over again, and that’s the creative personality, but it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be exactly the same.

Avery Trufelman:
I feel like I kind of could have guessed all those, right?

Ravenna Helson:
I think it’s a lot easier to say, oh, we should have known that all along after we found it.

Roman Mars:
This idea of the creative personality was remarkable at the time. IPAR’s findings were lauded and spread.

Avery Trufelman:
But over the years, people began to think about personality differently. In the ’70s, an argument was emerging that maybe personality wasn’t something innate within us. Maybe personalities are the results of our environments and social expectations. IPAR and their mission were called into question.

Ravenna Helson:
The 1970s was a terrible period for personality psychologists. Woo! I should tell you about that. We had trouble getting grants, we had trouble getting papers accepted, and we had this horrible empty feeling ourselves.

Avery Trufelman:
IPAR ended in 1992, and became what is now known as IPSR, the Institute of Personality and Social Research, which has expanded to focus a lot more on social and cultural context, beyond analyzing individuals.

Roman Mars:
But just because people aren’t using IPAR’s methods does not mean the study was all for naught. IPAR did prove that creativity wasn’t this mysterious untouchable thing.

Oshin Vartanian:
The studies in IPAR are really sort of iconic in our field.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Oshin Vartanian of the University of Toronto. His area of expertise is creativity and aesthetics research.

Oshin Vartanian:
If you take any kind of course on creativity, either at the undergraduate or graduate level, the IPAR studies are always covered, because they’re considered to be the birthplace of the scientific study of creative personality.

Avery Trufelman:
Today, researchers don’t study creativity as a complete concept like IPAR tried to. Instead of studying it as a whole topic, they tend to break it up into pieces.

Oshin Vartanian:
Well, the chunk that I’m particularly interested in is the neuroscience of creativity, so essentially what happens in the brain when a person comes up with some kind of a creative idea.

Avery Trufelman:
Oshin also studies architects and their creativity, but rather than using say, hypothetical discussion questions, he will put them into an fMRI machine to look at blood flow in the brain.

Oshin Vartanian:
Because now there are novel methods whereby you can actually have people design things in the fMRI scanner, as a person is really kind of coming up with their own design and the parts of the brain that are involved in that.

Roman Mars:
But even though Oshin’s techniques are really high-tech, his research has its roots in these IPAR studies. He thinks that they were really significant.

Oshin Vartanian:
One of the major contributions that they made actually showed that personality’s a viable topic to study if you want to understand creativity.

Roman Mars:
And if nothing else, the lasting legacy of these IPAR studies, may be these recordings of these great architects as they discuss essential creative problems, like where on the body to put a third arm.

Architect:
“Then it would be rather unsymmetrical, and I don’t think it would be as pleasant as if we could… Could we have four arms?”

Architect:
“Yes, to me, four arms is of much more validity, I’m appalled at the idea of talking about forty-five minutes for three arms.”

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Avery Trufelman, with Katie Mingle, Kurt Kohlstedt, Sam Greenspan, Delaney Hall, Sharif Youssef, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks this week to Raymond Neutra, Elizabeth Peele and Robert Levenson of IPSR. Original music this week by Sean Real of the band, Little Teeth. The archival audio recordings are courtesy of IPSR, UC Berkeley, and Monacelli Press, the publisher of Pierluigi’s book, ‘The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study’. The book goes into more depth about the architect’s study and has images of all these interesting surveys and documents, including pictures of the mosaics the architects were asked to make. Victor Lundy, for example, used a whole rainbow of colors. Philip Johnson used only three colors, and Eero Saarinen used only one color. You can see them for yourself at 99pi.org.

  1. Phebe

    I’m a newer listener, and I really enjoyed this episode. A nice little step into the exploration of creativity. The inclusion of personalized musical themes to help distinguish between the 3 architects particularly delighted me. Yay functional musical design!

  2. Alexander

    I the quote from Lundy: “I’m young but I’ve seen some old things.” Something he said spontaneously or from some one else?
    Thank you for the great show.

  3. Zach

    fMRI? All present and future mentions of fMRI studies need the disclaimer. That’s your next story.

  4. TK

    I don’t understand how we can tell that their personality preceded creativity. The basis for them being selected was that they were already well known. So how can we tell that they had their “I’m number 1” attitude at the beginning of their careers? The 36 year old architect in the podcast seems to suggest that perhaps early on in their careers the creatives can have softer personalities, but as creatives become successful, they become very confident in their abilities.

    Or am I missing something?

    Overall, great podcast!

  5. Oriana Gatta

    The IPAR study looked at individuals in a wide range of professions, but what about other kinds of diversity, e.g. gender, race, class, or, as the previous commenter suggested, age? In a homogenous group of white middle-class men,
    the study’s results might also be read a privilege.

  6. The very interesting thing left out of the Ethics Test?
    Saarinen was himself an OSS agent in WW2, and Johnson was a Nazi sympathizer who allegedly never fully recanted.

  7. Scott

    Obviously the third arm should protrude from the lower back, much like a tail. However as this tail has evolved into an actual arm with a hand it gives the architect the ability to pat himself on the back for a job well done.

  8. Hi,

    I am impressed by this podcast, and the statements by the architects, do you know how I could get access to the extended recordings from those archives? It’s pure gold.

    Thanks

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