“Creativity is intelligence having fun”—Alfred Einstein
We’ve all heard of “runner’s high” and some of us may even have experienced it. Twenty years ago, I used to run at the “Y” and achieved that sort of semi-euphoric state more than once. It was as astounding as it was rare. But I wonder how many of us have had a similar experience with design. If you know what I mean, then a Hungarian psychologist has written a book that will help you understand “designer’s high” and perhaps help you reach it more often.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi isn’t a name that rolls lightly off the tongue. Then, again, perhaps it does if you’re Hungarian.
My last encounter with Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow was at least twenty years ago; I need to read it again. About the same time I also ran across Diane Ackerman’s Deep Play, which may be a slightly more accessible text about the creative process. Today my memory has melded them. I recommend both.
The message I carried away concerns optimizing creativity. Children have it in spades; it’s our educational system that beats it out of them and then asks us in “higher ed” to remind out students that they once had the ability to approach problems they’d never seen before with enthusiasm and alacrity. Those of you with young children know exactly what I mean: tell the kids it’s time for lunch or church or school or bed and they seem hearing impaired. Little, short of actual physical contact, distracts them from whatever task dominates the moment: crayolas©, blocks, tinker toys©. They are so focused that the line between work and play has ceased to exist. Csikszentmihalyi’s diagram suggests that high levels of both skill and challenge can put us in the zone he calls “flow”. I have been there a handful of times, perhaps fewer than a dozen. But I want to go again as often as my remaining years will permit. Maybe I’ll run into you there!
Let me tell you about two of my “flow” experiences before I begin to dissolve into senility. One of them was in the summer of 1968 while I was working in the architectural office of Fred Shellabarger, someone I claim as a mentor. Fred and Gladys had taken a cruise around the Mediterranean, with ports of call from Marseilles to Istanbul as I recall; we got postcards at the office. That summer I had become infatuated with the work of H. H. Richardson, especially his “Shingle Style” houses from the last years of his all-to-brief life—Richardson died in 1886 at the age of forty-eight. HHR may not have invented the Shingle Style but he certainly carried it to some of its greatest heights. Vincent Scully’s book on the subject can’t have entered my small library because it wasn’t published until 1974, so it might have been Jim Fitch’s book on American architecture that introduced me to it.
The library at OU was very good, exceptionally good for an undergraduate program. We had hard copy editions of many early periodicals, which enabled me to sit cross-legged in the stacks, block the aisles and wallow in dozens, if not hundreds, of examples. One night (while Fred and Gladys were still in Europe) I had a dream: I was living in a Shingle Style house and, like all dreams, I took for granted the family who shared the house and the rest of the dream with me. I woke early that morning—probably about six—with the image of that house so fresh that I threw on some clothes (pretty much the way I do even today, fashion plate that I am not) and ran to the office, strapped down a sheet of tracing paper and drew for the next hour or so, until others came in for the day’s work. But by that time, say ninety minutes tops, I had an eighth-scale ground floor plan and sixteenth-scale for the second. Oddly, the elevations of that house remained in my head until the Agincourt Project about six years ago, when I decided to complete the design and give it to one of the characters in the evolving story: James and Martha Tennant and their brood of four children, including young Anson, the would-be architect.
I still have that original drawing from 1968, as you can see.
Case study #2 happened some time in the mid-1980s, when Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor was published. This was probably my first encounter with Ackroyd, the first of many happy reads, but this was special because its subject was an architect and one of my favorites at that: Nicholas Hawksmoor. The plot is devious, with alternate chapters set in the 18th century and the 20th. [Few authors write period dialogue as well as Ackroyd. Pick up one of his titles some time.] The 18th century character is Nicholas Dyer, an architect who resembles the actual Nicholas Hawksmoor in many ways. Dyer designs five London churches, each of which is the site of two ritual murders, one in the 18th century and another in the 20th. The 20th century crimes are investigated by Scotland Yard detective Nicholas Hawksmoor. Convoluted? That’s a large part of what grabbed my attention.
All of the actual London churches created by Hawksmoor are described in Ackroyd’s text but, here’s the catch, there is also an additional church not designed by Hawksmoor, or anyone else for that matter. Yet, Ackroyd’s description of it—leading us through the streets of post-fire London, block by block, turn by turn—is so vivid that I commandeered an unused desk in the Quonset [remember that treasure?], taped some tracing paper down and draughted the unkown Hawksmoor church in a couple of days. These antiques are also somewhere in my office, awaiting completion. Some day…and it had better be soon.
Keep an eye out here for the church of Little St Hugh.