Eero Saarinen And The Analysis Of Creativity


One intrepid individual who braved the terrain of creativity was American psychologist J. P. Guilford. In his seminal 1950 essay, “Creativity,” Guilford attempted to define the study of creativity from a psychometric perspective. Critical of research that assumed the creative process to be a linear succession of phases (preparation, incubation, inspiration, and evaluation), he designed a factor-analysis investigation involving criteria such as sensibility to problems, ideational fluency, flexibility, ideational novelty, synthesizing ability, analyzing ability, reorganizing and redefining ability, span of ideational structure, and evaluating ability. His model, which established a basis for evaluating the factors that contribute to a creative personality, became an essential reference for psychological studies of creativity.

In 1959, continuing in Guilford’s line, Donald W. MacKinnon and Wallace B. Hall, psychologists at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research in Berkeley, California, initiated a study designed to determine the characteristic traits of the creative personality. For their subjects they chose architects, because among various creative practices considered for study- creative writing, mathematics, industrial research, physical science, and engineering- architecture combined artistic and scientific creativity through diverse professional skills. And with the help of a panel of five professors, eleven editors from the major American architectural journals, and the group of invited architects themselves, forty architects regarded by the profession as creative, agreed t spend a weekend at the institute completing various creativity tests. Saarinen was a member of the group.

MacKinnon published the results of this study, sponsored in large part by the Carnegie Corporation, in a 1962 essay for American Psychologist entitled “The Nature and Nurture of Creative Talent.” He detailed the assessment method, in which the subjects were organized into groups of ten and studied by various means, including:

…by problem solving experiments; by tests designed to discover what a person does not know or is unable or unwilling to reveal about himself; by tests and questionnaires that permit a person to manifest various aspects of his personality and to express his attitudes, interests, and values; by searching interviews that cover the life history and reveal the present structure of the person; and by specially contrived social situations of a stressful character which call for the subject’s best behavior in a socially defined role.

Describing one specific exercise, the mosaic test, MacKinnon stated that the subjects were “presented with a large selection of one-inch squares of varicolored poster-board and asked to construct, within a thirty-minute period, a pleasing, completely filled-in 8×10-inch mosaic.” From the twenty-two available colors, he noted that some architects made order out of the largest possible number of colors, while others selected the fewest colors possible, and “one used only one color, all white.” Although MacKinnon had scrupulously kept the participants’ identities anonymous in his report, after they had all finished the test in the booths, Saarinen revealed to Philip Johnson, who was another of the forty guinea pigs, how he had solved the problem:

I asked Philip what he did with the tiles, and he said, “Oh, those colors were awful. I threw the colored tiles away and used only the black and white. What did you do, Eero?” –I told Philip I had used only the white, and he was so jealous.

Curiously, MacKinnon and Hall had established a link between the responses in which the greatest number of colors had been selected and the participants with the highest level of creativity. Thus, despite being considered by his peers to be one of the most creative architects, Saarinen received the lowest possible score for creativity on the mosaic test. (In fact, their supposed correspondence between creativity and the variety of color selections was borne out in just 38 percent of the cases).

Excerpted from, Eero Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity, (Princeton Architectural Press/New York: 2003), by Antonio Roman, pgs. 31-36.