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Books

The Creative Architect: Inside the great midcentury personality study
Pierluigi Serraino
The Monacelli Press, 2016
Reviewed by James McCown

The late 1950s were a heady time for architects. The economy was booming, and city and suburb alike were building relentlessly. If you were a white male, few professions offered more opportunity and personal satisfaction — there were no retrograde New Urbanists calling for design nostalgia, pesky architectural review boards were few and far between, novelty in architecture was highly valued, and individual creativity reigned supreme.

What was the source and nature of this creativity? That was the question posed by Donald MacKinnon, director of the Institute for Personality Assessment and Research, based at the University of California, Berkeley. Beginning in 1958, MacKinnon and his cohorts undertook an ambitious project: Invite all the great architects of the day to engage in a three-day study of their personalities and deepest beliefs. An engaging and richly illustrated new book by architect Pierluigi Serraino chronicles this nearly forgotten study and sheds new light on the essences of talent and creativity.

The grandees of postwar architecture were invited to participate. Titans like Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe declined, but some major figures, like Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, and Philip Johnson, were intrigued enough to join in. They would spend three days in Berkeley together, filling out voluminous questionnaires, undertaking graphic exercises, and being interviewed about their childhoods and career trajectories.

The book gets off to a slow start with a boring chapter about the genesis of the study. But once Serraino gets into the description of how the architects were chosen, it becomes a delicious bit of reading and a fascinating snapshot of a moment in time. Particularly fun is the correspondence among architects, scientists, and journalists as to who should be invited and why. These missives are rife with pettiness and snobbery, and the images of the actual letters are peppered throughout the book. So, too, are “word association tests,” a favorite psychiatric practice of the day.

Among my favorite parts are the graphic exercises the subjects undertook. For example, they were given cardboard tiles in different colors and asked to create a collage. Johnson channeled Mondrian with a reductive red, white, and black composition. I. M. Pei created a delicate assemblage of primaries and pastels. Saarinen went for minimalism with an all-white arrangement.

In the personal interview portion, the architects are put on the therapist’s couch and asked about their childhoods and educational histories. What impact did your parents have? Were you a good or poor student in high school and college? Particularly revelatory is Johnson’s session. Openly gay later in his life, the architect said only that he was “preoccupied with sexual matters.” In a homophobic era, this is as far as he was willing to go.

Serraino, a highly competent writer, not only chronicles the study but also offers trenchant observations throughout. He takes an irreverent approach to these famous architects, with insights into their personalities, motivations, and world- views. I would have liked more discussion about religion and spirituality.

“To thine own self be true, for it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man,” wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet.

In Serraino’s telling, great architects are really true to themselves, burning with an inner sense of destiny and the rightness of their cause. But he avoids Ayn Randian clichés about the omnipotent designer, preferring to situate architectural creativity within a midcentury context. He does so convincingly.

James McCown is a writer and marketing consultant who lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

The Experience of Architecture
Henry Plummer
Thames & Hudson, 2016
Reviewed by Diane Georgopulos FAIA

If you are familiar with the architecture program at MIT from the 1960s, then you may have been previously introduced to much contained in Experience of Architecture. If not, this book provides a wonderful explanation of that school’s design theory. Henry Plummer’s depth of knowledge and unique associations, drawn from painting, poetry, and philosophy, infuse the text with a personal language designed to expand the way we think about conventional architectural features. (He acknowledges the many MIT and other influencers in his career who shaped his teaching, research, and writing.) His approach — “both/and” rather than the “either/or” — asserts that buildings should offer choice and action rather than be the fabricated spectacle of modern buildings that are designed for passive observation and automatization of systems.

Plummer illustrates his theory with visual exhibits of photographs and drawings that architects never tire of seeing. These include the selected works of Carlos Scarpa, Herman Hertzberger, Frank Lloyd Wright, Japanese temple and landscape design, and the vernacular construction of Mediterranean hill towns and villages.

His idea is that “action” requires effort on the part of a person using buildings or systems. In writing about doors and windows, for example, he invents the term “Mechanics of Transformation,” which unfurls for us the idea that doors and windows are systems that can be manipulated to accommodate our own comfort. And lest you think that this is easily or seamlessly practiced, Plummer confounds us with examples where doors don’t open as you expect, causing frustration and perplexity. In another example, “action” is described by the retelling of Plummer’s experience of a terrifying climb up the red oak stair built by sculptor and furniture maker Wharton Esherick. It required the agility of a billy goat to navigate the irregular steps and alternative routes to ascend. His point is that such challenges and choices make us more alive to ourselves. Like Esherick’s stair, the value Plummer places on these experiences tower over an architecture that is designed for the spectator. The overly entertaining and theatrical setting of Modern architecture is meager fare when compared to the authentic struggle of living creatively in oneself.

Wonderful sidebars into poetry and music use analogies to explain unfamiliar ideas, such as “recursive” architecture. Quoting William Blake’s “to see the world in a grain of sand,” Plummer riffs on the term as the “larger form which breaks down to increasingly smaller repetitions of the same basic form, or alternately the larger form is built through the aggregation of smaller forms.” Such concepts provide entree to understanding the additive nature to creating active forms and how one might actually design such an environment.

Plummer’s ideas are deeply felt and thoughtfully explored. He celebrates the joy that is gained through energy expended exploring the built environment and wants us to experience it, too. He proposes optional, ambiguous, and indeterminant spaces as opportunities for personal action, to elaborate and enhance these spaces. He believes that the challenge of overcoming obstacles to have these experiences reactivates a vital source of our own self-reliance, confidence, and humanity.

Reading this book was like visiting a dear friend with whom I had lost contact but remember adoring — even as I remain puzzled by some of the ideas, mysterious formulations of language, and practical inconsistencies. Yet I am gratified and grateful that Plummer has translated some of the more esoteric tenets of this theory into a more accessible format.

Diane Georgopulos FAIA graduated from MIT’s graduate program in architecture and recently retired after a 30-year career in affordable-housing development at MassHousing.

How to Thrive in the Next Economy
John Thackara
Thames & Hudson, London, 2015
Reviewed by Hubert Murray FAIA

We are fast running out of natural resources. That’s the argument design entrepreneur and journalist John Thackara puts forth by setting the scene with data illustrating the exponential increase in per-capita energy consumption and the falling rate of return in oil extraction. His premise is that energy, natural resources, and the products of the extractive industries are essential to the world economy and, most critically, to its necessary expansion. More pointedly, he cites the failure of economic indicators to take into account the environmental and social costs of development.

The dire situation thus summarized, Thackara then clarifies that his stance is not of the “doomer porn” variety by illustrating his good faith with global projects that aim to counter the trend toward environmental pauperism. He takes the reader through a menu of case studies in eight spheres of social and economic activity that show promise for a sustainable future. Guided by the notion of stewardship, chapters are devoted to soil, water, building, food, clothing, transportation, healthcare, and “commoning” — the sharing of resources. Each chapter is a rich and inspiring source of well-referenced material, case studies of live projects — community based, some autonomous, some government supported. His purpose is to demonstrate that if these initiatives were taken as models, we could collectively reach the goal of maintaining the human population on this planet in a state of resource replenishment. It is in this exploration that the book’s subtitle, Designing Tomorrow’s World Today, finds its meaning.

Examples are abundant. The ecological management of Zimbabwe grasslands has resulted in increased agricultural production and the preservation of wildlife; “bio-regionalism” as a planning concept conjoining urban and rural “social ecological systems” has been adopted in Sweden; and sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) are being implemented in Tucson, Arizona, and France’s “eco-quartiers.” Mexico City, Seoul, and London are opening up their paved-over rivers to perform their original ecological functions. In Andhra Pradesh, India, 20,000 farmers manage a network of microwatersheds to ensure an equitable and sustainable distribution of groundwater. In California, Fresno’s Food Commons, the Sustainable Cotton Project, and Fibershed have pioneered holistic systems thinking and social collaboration.

In the section on transportation, Thackara is critical of high-speed train systems as voracious space and energy hogs and social dividers but is full of praise for battery-assisted bikes, especially those used for urban deliveries. Municipally assisted pilot programs are active in numerous European cities as well as China, Rwanda, Tanzania, and India.

When it comes to healthcare, Thackara reports that Menzis, a large Dutch insurance company, has adopted Cuba’s strategy of focusing upstream on the 95 percent of cases outside the hospitals; patient-centered home medicine served by care-provider cooperatives have enjoyed economic and clinical success in Canada, Italy, and the Netherlands.

What are the guiding principles? As designers and policymakers, it is essential we think in systemic terms, upstream and downstream. Design is as much about organizing people and institutions from the bottom up as it is about technical innovation. Diverse and distributed economic networks are more resilient than centralized global ones.

Thackara has set ambitious goals, and it may seem that these micro-scale initiatives are not sufficient to their accomplishment. As the US federal government falters in the mission of slowing climate change and reducing resource depletion, states and municipalities are taking up the challenge. This is where the community-based strategies documented in Thackara’s book can fill the gaps and accomplish consciousness-raising in the process. As utopian as some of these ideas may seem, we can agree with French philosopher Edgar Morin that “all the great transformations have been unthinkable until they actually come to pass.”

Hubert Murray FAIA is an architect and planner in Cambridge, Massachusetts.