The Long-Lost Study That Tried To Quantify Creative Personalities

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.


Many of the tests dealt with independence and conformity–or what we might call peer pressure–the results of which ended up being very important in the scientists’ conclusions. One, seen above, was called the Conformity Test. A group of architects were seated in cubicles and asked to estimate distances. They could see their peers’ answers before they submitted their own. (In fact, those answers were totally made up for the test.) The idea was to see whether an architect would change his answer after he saw the answers of his peers. Likewise, the scientists were keenly interested in the personality types of the architects, carrying out Myers-Briggs tests to quantify their personalities and delving into their motivations from their very earliest days.

What they discovered was that many of the architects combined an intense independence with a sensitivity and intuitiveness–resulting in a clear and steady, but uncompromising, vision for a particular building. “There are all sorts of forces designed to compromise the integrity of the building, and the architect is the only one who holds the principle of the building together,” Serraino tells me. IPAR’s research paints a picture of the successful creative as, “fundamentally, someone who is able to survive, in a healthy way, the chaos that comes from an idea in formation to a point of arrival.”

One group discussion–accompanied by the “background noises of ice clinking in martinis and vigorous pencil writing”–was about ethics. The architects were asked how they would respond to a client who wanted to change one major element of their design. Saarinen was unequivocal: “He has to be willing to drop the job, otherwise he has no future.” In an interview, George Nelson demonstrated his own fiercely independent view on his strengths and weaknesses, declaring, “I have no technical skills . . . and I don’t give a damn.”

Richard Neutra’s doodles, created based on a series of abstract lines presented by the researchers.

In another test, the architects were asked to create a mosaic out of colored tiles. While many of the subjects created rational or expressive compositions with their tiles, Saarinen turned in a mosaic that was completely made from white tiles, saying it had “no meaning other than the pleasure of the texture itself.” Johnson had a pedantic response, using just black, white, and red to create his mosaic, compared to architects like Kahn, who created a subtle, rich composition of earth tones and deep reds.

“Creative individuals have a very important pattern in common,” Serraino concludes in the book. “They consistently safeguard their self-determination in order to stay their course and pursue what interests them no matter what, in a fierce escape from conformism of thought and behavior.”

A mosaic created by Philip Johnson during the study

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. “To me the beautiful story about this is that you can achieve a high level of integration in the face of your inner adversity and your imperfections,” Serraino says. “These are by no means perfect people.” Rather, they’re flawed people whose personal circumstances served as a match to light the kindling of talent. “That’s definitely something that stayed with me,” he adds, continuing:

There’s the tendency to think that if you have talent, you’ll automatically express it. But there are a lot of people who have great talent whose talent is dormant. So there has to be something that triggers the enactment of that talent. Sometimes it’s a sibling rivalry, or the loss of a parent. Sometimes you felt that you were the ugly duckling, and you want to take revenge.

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.


In today’s environment, it’s hard to know whether these personality types would still be as successful as they were during the postwar era. Today, the most successful architects in the world might respond very differently, emphasizing group dynamics and discussion over the rarefied drive of a single genius. It would be fascinating to recreate some of the tests with contemporary designers.

In lieu of that, though, The Creative Architect is a window into another world; one where we can see how the anxieties, personality defects, and fraught childhood dramas can coexist–and even bolster–the creative successes of very flawed humans. Which, even 60 years later, is heartening. Check it out here.

All Images: courtesy Monacelli Press


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.