design thinking, creativity and its sources – fearlessness

“there is hope in honest error, none in the icy perfection of the mere stylist”

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

If there was a motto of my undergrad school, the College of Architecture at the University of Kentucky, for the time I was there at least, the above quote would have been it.  Like many schools of architecture at big, state universities, maintaining a really good program over many years is extremely difficult and rare.  Most ride along, doing decent work, a valuable asset to their institution, for decades.  And then something happens – a critical mass of  new, energized instructors, a new dean that can bring in, by force of will and calling in all their favors, strong teachers and working pros, at least for as long as these favors can outweigh the stasis of the institution, the poor pay, the frankly difficult fit of educating architects in a purely academic setting.  I was very lucky to have arrived and lived through such a period at Kentucky, merely good timing and luck on my part.

The famous schools of architecture – Cornell, Yale, Harvard, etc. have consistently produced good work and good students.  But, in my experience, rarely do they spark greatness.  There is frankly a lot at stake at these schools – students are too smart to take too many risks, instructor’s positions are so competitive that they rarely challenge conventions, the school’s reputation hangs like distant, forest-fire smoke all over the place.  RISD and Cooper Union have figured out how to extend these creative periods for longer spans.   But,at the lesser-known state schools, a brief, white-hot creative environ can emerge, lifting all the students and instructors alike.  This happens at places like Kentucky, Montana State, Arizona State, VPI; all respectable schools, mostly drifting along,  but strongly marked by these periods of amazing productivity and indeed, greatness, however fleeting.

When I was at Kentucky, the Italian architect and educator, Leonardo Ricci, taught studios and seminars along with his colleague and wife Maria Dallerba Ricci.  Leonardo seemed old as the hills and was our resident sage.  Having taught at schools around the US and Europe, he would say of Kentucky:

“You students at Kentucky, you know nothing, no history.  But, you have big balls!”

At the time I had no idea what that really meant.  Only after having practiced in Boston and grad school at Yale, did that really take on significant meaning for me.  Tucked away in little Lexington, Kentucky most of us had never seen that much of the world.  We were not surrounded by amazing buildings, neither the rich, thick history of Rome or Venice, nor the thrilling Modernism of New York or LA.  That ignorance, along with a stridently experimental atmosphere engendered by the faculty and a staggering work expectation, made for a great architectural education at an unlikely place.

A fellow architect and I were speaking the other evening and wondering aloud about what makes for a creative environment.  Management seminars, science foundations and engineering departments are all clammering to implement ‘design thinking’ as part of their DNA.  The creative environment that sparks into life at these smaller, lesser-known schools of architecture is the goal of these heavily-funded, highly-sponsored, but stolid institutions.  In my experience, creating this environment is not a patentable process or a set of strategies.  It does depend on some strong, amazing individuals, given free-reign to teach and inspire in their own way.  But it also depends a bit on a kind of naivete’, an unselfconscious, passionate curiosity that has only one essential ingredient – fearlessness.  Anything you make, anything you attempt, any honestly approached work, passionately sought and doggedly pursued, is given the space and time to play itself out.

Why can’t some institutions ever produce this environment?  I have no idea.  It is not something you can thrown on like a set of clothes and be happy about the new “look”.  To be in that place is thrilling and bit scary, it is bold, and daring, and delicate. And rare.

Maria Dallerba and Leonard Ricci at their Palace of Justice, Savona, Italy

see also the work and thoughts of Alex Bogusky, former director of CP+B, certainly no stranger to creativity.

And, Architect Magazine’s recent article on design thinking and architects.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

June 7th was the birthday of Scottish architect and painter Charles Rennie Mackintosh, born in 1868 in Glasgow.  Like Louis Sullivan, his  is one of those great stories of a great talent at the right place, at the right time, with a bit of a tragic ending.  Working largely in booming Glasgow, Mackintosh was able to execute a number of amazing buildings, creating a robust style of architecture that combined early Modernist ideas with traditional Scottish baronial architecture.

Scotland Street School, 1903-06

All of his buildings are firmly rooted to the earth, using masonry in fairly traditional architectonics, but inventing a kind of plasticity with decorative elements that marked a radical departure from traditional forms.  Of note is that many of his decorative designs and furnishings were the work of his supremely talented wife, Margaret Macdonald.

Hill House, 1903-06

And maybe as influential as his buildings are his drawings and watercolors.

Daily Record Building

Mackintosh and his wife Margaret met while students at evening classes in the Glasgow School of Art.  Margaret’s sister Frances, and Mackintosh’s fellow intern Herbert MacNair, also attended and later wed, and the two couples become known as The Four, the most influential members of the Glasgow School movement.  Not enough can be said about that kind of intense collaboration and its necessity in the forging and support of talent and ideas.  Individual geniuses do exist, but rarely can you delve back into their history and not discover influential and inspirational  colleagues, parents, and family.

The Glasgow School of Art is probably his best and most well-known work, a staggering feat of complete interior design and architecture.  Won in a competition with twelve other local firms, and radical for its time, it is still clearly part of the landscape of Scottish architecture and the traditions of masonry and sculptural building.  Mackintosh’s difficult and obsessive nature increasing lead to problems and this building, his best, marks the start of his decline.

Glasgow School of Art, 1897-99 and 1907-09

After failing to find commissions, Mackintosh and Margaret eventually moved to France and although beautiful, his paintings are his only work of this final period of his life.

Happy Birthday, Charles Rennie Mackintosh – a somewhat sad life with magnificent achievements, lasting architecture that continues to inspire in its ability to project into the future while reflecting its past.

(gotta get that tie!)

images from Charles Rennie Mackintosh by Charlotte & Peter Fiell and Charles Rennie Mackintosh edited by Wendy Kaplan