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Top Ten

October 5, 2016

As an architectural undergraduate in the 1960s, I was vaguely aware of a study that had been conducted fewer than ten years previously, a study into the creative mind of the architect. There was a story circulating — I have no recollection where or from whom I might have heard it — that a bunch of architects had been asked to participate in a battery of tests to identify what mental qualities set them apart from mere mortals. The story concerned Eero Saarinen and Philip Johnson.

Johnson had just finished the exercise — creating a pattern from a number of one-inch-square tiles of pure, solid color in a fixed period of time — and had emerged from the testing room, exasperated, as only Johnson could be. In the lounge area, he found Eero Saarinen, who had already completed the exercise. Johnson is reported to have said something like, “Oh, those ghastly, garish colors! I used only the black and the white.” Saarinen, a legendarily modest person, quietly replied, “Yes, I agree. But I used only the white.” dumbfounding the non-plussed Johnson, undercutting what was, even then, a colossal ego. I relished this put-down of the decade’s Peck’s Bad Boy of architecture. I also wondered about the extent of the study, the range of its assessment techniques, and where in hell the findings of the study were kept. Then, just last month,, who know my interests better than I do, offered me a book based on the study itself: The Creative Architect: Inside the great midcentury personality study. I’m glad to have lived so long.

A quick survey confirms the mosaic tile exercise but deflates the Johnson-Saarinen confrontation slightly: the majority of Johnson’s tile were, indeed, black and white. But there were also three red ones, making his solution a near ripoff of Piet Mondrian. Saarinen’s, by the way, were exclusively and elegantly white, a texture as well as a pattern. The bonus (for me) were the solutions of nearly fifty other midcentury Modernists. [Eric Lanum, take note!] As a teaser, I post below the “solution” by I. M. Pei:


The study was conceived by personality psychologist Donald McKinnon and conducted at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at UC-Berkeley. And being able to read about its methods and results offers us insight to one of the most creative generations of American architects and designers.


The architects invited (all men, by the way) form an interesting cross section of talent:  Mies van der Rohe, for example (though I think he begged off), and Frank Lloyd Wright (who would never submit to such nonsense; he was, after all, incomparable); Bruce Goff, Paul Rudolf, and Lou Kahn were also on the initial list. But who was Robert Woods Kennedy? And John Funk? I’ll be googling into the wee hours, adding these dudes to my personal database.

The question in my mind is simply this: what insights might we develop by combining the IPAR metrics with the after-the-fact psychological methods of Sigmund Freud? My list of possible candidates for such a retrospective study would include the suicide Carlo Borromini, the homosexual Michelangelo Buonarroti, the polymath Christopher Wren (preferably before his knighthood), Iktinos and/or Kalikrates (either or both will do), and Senmut, Hatshepsut’s architect/boyfriend. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to know the mind of Nicholas Hawksmoor, a background character until historian Kerry Downs rescued him from near anonymity. Or the equally overshadowed Marion Mahony, independent of and previous to her partnership-marriage to Walter Burley Griffin. If nothing else, such an exercise in hindsight would help me understand my own Top Ten, the constantly shifting cast of characters who are my all-time architectural hemi-demi-semi-gods.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

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