In the 1950s, a group of scientists set out to study creativity. Their subjects? Great midcentury architects, from Kahn to Saarinen.


In the 1950s, the world became fascinated by creativity. World War II was over, and scientists wanted to understand subtler things about human psychology, our relationships, and our left brains. Leading them was a group at UC Berkeley called the Institute of Personality and Social Research, or IPAR, which was devoted to scientifically studying highly successful creative people, from writers to explorers.

But IPAR’s most fascinating study dealt with architects, which the institute's scientists were particularly intrigued by. In an intensive study in 1958, IPAR recruited names like Richard Neutra, Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, and Philip Johnson to understand how architects thought, acted, and created. Over 22 hours of testing, the scientists studied the personalities, neuroses, and inner conflicts of architects who are, even today, among the most famous on earth. IPAR also asked these designers to do something controversial: rank themselves, and each other, on a scale. What resulted was an incredibly intimate, at times uncomfortable, portrait of a group of now-legendary architects.

The results were almost lost forever. The boxes were forgotten at Berkeley for decades and on the verge of being trashed. A series of chance encounters (and sheer curiosity) led the architect and historian Pierluigi Serraino to track them down over the past decade. This month, Serraino published a new book about the study and its findings, The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Midcentury Personality Study from the Monacelli Press, that resurfaces those results. Here are a few insights.

The Real Value Of Nonconformity

The grueling testing took place over several weekends inside a former frat house at UC Berkeley. There were two-hour personal history interviews about deeply personal topics like parental conflicts and sleep schedules. There were design challenges. Perception experiments. Even during the social cocktail hours of the weekend, IPAR’s scientists surveilled their tipsy subjects.


Talent Can Stay Dormant Forever

Through these intense moments of discussion and hours of interviews, a picture of a group of individuals emerges—each with their own particular drive that can be traced back to their personalities.

"All these characters had some kind of neurosis that they were fighting," Serraino says. Johnson "showed many classic features of the manic: self-centered, irritable, jumpy, flight of ideas, arrogance, and more," the IPAR interviewer wrote. Richard Neutra had "an overwhelming intellectual energy fueled by an anxiety whose origins might never be known." Saarinen was dyslexic and had a famous father who paid little attention to him. As a result, he "has strong concerns about his own greatness," the researchers noted. He "seemed to pay an inordinate amount of attention to how others perceived him."

In short, every one of the architects in the study was flawed.


An Outdated Model?

Of course, IPAR's work was done more than half a century ago. It has its flaws, and it's worth wondering whether the type of architecture its participants were practicing is still relevant to today's designers. The scientists were well aware of the self-centrism that drove their subjects, for example, concluding that they had less interest in group work than another notoriously independent group they had studied—the volunteers who man the Ellsworth Station Outpost in Antarctica. They had an "unequivocal distaste for group participation," Serraino writes. Architecture was, in essence, personal.