In his new book The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study, Pierluigi Serraino writes about a forgotten psychology study of well-known creative people that U.C. Berkeley’s Institute for Personality Assessment and Research conducted in the late 1950s. In addition to writers and scientists, participants included Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and dozens of other major architects of the day.

The Architect’s Newspaper: How did you find out about the studies that became the basis of this book?

Pierluigi Serraino: From different sources. A large part of it was a result of spending time with Don Olsen when I was working on NorCalMod: Icons of Northern California Modernism and then on my monograph on him. Also, Jack Hillmer told me Charles Warren Callister was in the creativity study. The daughter of Fred Langhorst told me about her dad coming home from participating in the study and telling them about this absurd problem the study posed, how to put a third arm to use. Raymond Neutra told me that he had seen the study’s files about his father and that he knew where they were.

Where was the material stored?

U.C. Berkeley has a large storage facility in Richmond, California. The archives are in a little room filled with file cabinets.

When I ran into Neutra, he told me that he had met Wallace Hall. Hall was the right-hand man to Donald MacKinnon, the director of the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, a research institute at U.C. Berkeley, better known as IPAR. I called Hall. He was very old and in declining health. He said that they had wanted to do a book.

Hall was the gatekeeper of everything IPAR. He wouldn’t give access to anybody. So when he died, no one had a vested interest any longer.

Why do you think the well-known architects of the day participated in the study?

It was largely due to the political clout of William Wurster, whom MacKinnon asked to reach out to the architects. Wurster was an important architect himself, and he was dean of the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley.

Who funded the study?

The Carnegie Corporation. IPAR applied for a large grant in November of 1955. The people who were at the top of the funding agencies for these kinds of studies were in the Office of Strategic Services [OSS, a precursor to the CIA] and worked at the same OSS station together during the war, performing assessment studies of troops. They assessed candidates for very delicate missions.

Why did the Carnegie Corporation want to do this study?

It was the result of the Cold War. The researchers changed gears completely. There was a shift from studying human effectiveness to studying creativity in general. There was a desire to identify the folks who were going to be the most creative people, so that the U.S. could have a competitive advantage against the Russians. It was deeply nationalistic, if you think about it.

Why was the study not published?

That is the biggest mystery of all. Territoriality and politics about authorship of the study, perhaps. I think they strung this thing along too long and they lost the momentum.

Also, in the 1970s, there was a shift in the conception of personalities: Maybe it’s not just about the person, maybe it’s also the environment. Psychologists started thinking they were giving too much credit to the individual.


Eero Saarinen’s mosaics test. (Courtesy Institute of Personality and Social Research, University of California, Berkeley)

Eero Saarinen’s mosaics test. (Courtesy Institute of Personality and Social Research, University of California, Berkeley)

Describe the Mosaic Construction Test.

The architects were given tiles and told to create an eight-by-ten-inch mosaic. They also had a form that they had to fill out, answering questions about the intentions behind what they were doing.

The mosaics reveal that the creative person explores colors and fields in a non-formulaic approach. Some very creative architects did some rather dull mosaics, so it’s an imperfect procedure. For example, John Funk, who did the Heckendorf house in Modesto, did a very uninteresting mosaic. Victor Lundy’s was really superb, just very lyrical. He was a fantastic architect. Louis Kahn used some rather gloomy colors—there’s some darkness in it. I have to say, Neutra’s wasn’t interesting.

There is the famous story, reported by Charles Eames in 1963, about why Eero Saarinen used only white tiles. Apparently, Saarinen said, “I use only white, because I’m interested in texture.”

Richard Neutra’s mosaics test. (Courtesy Institute of Personality and Social Research, University of California, Berkeley)

Richard Neutra’s mosaics test. (Courtesy Institute of Personality and Social Research, University of California, Berkeley)

Did the researchers come to a conclusion about creativity as a result of this study?

Yes, but the conclusions were broad. One of them was that the creative person is not teamwork material. And in corporate society, this doesn’t sit well. What are we going to do with that? Are we going to have a bunch of people who do whatever they want?

Courage may be the great differentiator. You can have the intelligence, the talent, the intuition. But you have to have the courage to act on your instincts. You have to create conditions to do the work that you deem necessary, based on your aspirations, your vision. The condition of creativity is that you have to sustain the vision that you have for very long time, because you have a very long period where people resist you.

So who is the creative person?

Everybody has a capacity to be creative. This is a capacity that we always have at birth and we lose. We lose the authenticity of who we are. In a way, the message of this book has to do with life choices. What do we want to do with our lives? The creative person is someone who picks one field and explores it to its full extent.

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