The Mind of an Architect


by Avery Trufelman

There is an old story of a person arriving at the pearly gates of Heaven and asking St. Peter for an introduction to the greatest general who ever lived. St. Peter points someone out and says, “There he is, the greatest general in the world.” The new arrival is shocked. “No way!” he exclaims, “That’s not the greatest general … that guy isn’t even a general. I knew him on earth and he was just a cobbler!” St. Peter responds: “I know. But if he had been a general, he would have been the greatest of them all.”

materials from Institute of Personality and Social Research, UC Berkeley

This fable is cute, but also raises a deeper question about how (or if) humans can discover our greatest creative potential. Someone might be a brilliant novelist if they could find the time to write. In the right societal context and presented with good opportunities, a given person might change the course of modern dance, or unlock mysteries of particle physics, or become a great general.

Today, there are thousands of self-help books, websites, counselors and consultants all promising to help people find their creative essence. These resources claim to offer insights about successful, effective and creative people and about how we can apply them in our own lives. Still, back in the middle of the 20th Century this idea that someone could even study or learn about something as elusive as creativity was as far-fetched as the pearly gates tale.

At the time, creativity was seen as nebulous and unconscious, perhaps not accessible at all to scientific inquiry. Then, in the early 1950s, the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR) at the University of California, Berkeley began developing new and different ways to analyze personalities. The scientists at IPAR attempted what many thought was impossible: to study creativity in a methodical and scientific way, working to determine what specific personality traits make certain people creative.

book coverIPAR invited creative people of all kinds to come to Berkeley and be studied, from authors of fantasy novels to research scientists and female mathematicians. They attracted literary stars including Truman Capote and William Carlos Williams. One of their biggest and most successful studies, however, involved an array of famous architects.

Researchers saw architects as people working at a crossroads of creative disciplines, a combination of analytic and artistic creativity. As professionals, architects had to be savvy as engineers and businessmen; as aesthetes, they also acted as designers and artists.

architecture array

Over the course of four weekends in 1958 and 1959, IPAR brought together 40 of the most well-known and important architects of the period. IPAR observed these architects, gave them tests and asked them all kinds of questions, including some relatively ridiculous ones:

“For the next 45 minutes we would like you to discuss this notion: if man had developed a third arm, where might this arm be best attached?”

That is an actual question from the study—and a question that IPAR posed to world-renowned designers from around the country including Richard Neutra, I.M. Pei and Louis Kahn (click below to view the complete the set of mosaics these three created during the study).

Though it has never before been aired in public, there is extensive (and rather amazing) audio documentation of these tests. In response to the question above, one taped architect responded: “I would suggest that the most effective place if it came right out of the top of your head,” to which another firmly retorted: “I disagree with that.” A third architect volunteered: “I think it ought to come right between his shoulder blades, so he can scratch his bottom or his head at will!”

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