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Architecture Myths #25: The Creative Spark

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Architects’ CVs are much like anyone else’s in having a list of institutions attended and, if it’ll impress, under whose tutelage. There’ll also be a list of places worked and this will show a familiarity with office practice and the nature of the job. This shouldn’t be underestimated because procedures and cultures don’t vary that much across practices. A high regard for experience of this type is shared by the well-known practices prone to hyping their uniqueness. Their staff are mostly interchangeable, destined to rotating between practices until they wise up and wonder why they bother working for other people when they could be doing the same thing themselves and getting all the credit.

Between the lines of the architecture CV, the implication is that having studied under or worked for a particular architect has paid off in terms of education and experience. Despite a century of Bauhaus-style education denying the relevance of the master-apprentice relationship that had previously existed for production, the architectural CV is continuing testimony to the belief that the magic of architectural creativity for design can indeed rub off by virtue of proximity alone. [c.f. Design and Conquer]

Roxanne Kuter Williamson’s 1991 book American Architects and The Mechanics of Fame probes this mechanism. It’s not just about being in the right place but being in the right place at the right tine. Her focus is not how business sense or marketing acumen are perpetrated by commercially successfully practices but how architectural creativity itself is transferred from master to apprentice. For the author, the number of times an architect’s name is mentioned in history books is the index of fame. This raises many questions, some of which we might not even have thought to ask in 1991.

Does architectural fame even correlate with architectural creativity? And what is architectural creativity anyway? Do we even think of architectural creativity in the same way anymore?

I think not. In 1991 it might have still been fair to say that architectural fame was “the sort of reputation that arises out of truly innovative designs, the kind of work deemed important enough to be included in history textbooks.” and that “Writers and photographers who produce the texts for architectural students are the arbiters of fame, the “fame makers” if you will.” [p13] The second part is probably still true today but we can’t say history books have much of a place in architectural education anymore, any more than we can say that writers of history books are the arbiters of fame. I will leave the question of “Who or what is then?” for later.

These are two of seven pages of Table 1 of “The Index of Fame” that groups architects and their resultant levels of fame according to numbers of citations in the history books listed across the top of the page. The author’s concern is American architects but her thesis is a global one.

Next comes a list of all architects the author has identified and extracted, with a letter indicating their group (such as “Architects born before 1875 and in practice after 1776”) followed by a number indicating their group ranking. This is the raw data.

I’m pleased to see Edward T Potter and Irving Gill made the list, although this is the first and last we’ll see of them. [c.f. Architectural Misfit #20: Edward T Potter, Architectural Misfit #2: Irving Gill] By and large, Misfit Architects are those overlooked by the writers of history books and, if the author’s premises are believed, this is because their designs were insufficiently innovative to be deemed important by the writers of history books. This is an appropriate time to remember that history books record only what their writers feel important their readers need to know about at any given time. We should also remember that the writers of history books have history books to fill with something that’s not going to be too contentious. What we end up with is a mainstream history that’s a selectively edited sample and a construct of the present. Chapter 16: The Historians as Fame Makers reflects upon this, If innovation is going to be put forward as a valid criteria for determining architectural worth, then I would expect it to be used with qualifiers such as technical, social and economic, and not just let us assume aesthetic innovation as the default concern of history and, following on from that, fame. Absence of such qualifiers makes me think innovation is being used as a synonym for that familiar and suspiciously slippery word creativity or, worse, novelty. The final chapter, Chapter Seventeen: Afterword on the Fame-making System admits that fame is built on appearance, but I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anyone.

The book contains this impressive graphic linking the better-known American architects in a kind of graphical CV. Other diagrams and chapters give more detail on specific lines and lineages. Again, the word lineages implies that something has been passed on but, at this stage, the diagrams are no more than just graphical representations of who spent time where.

Such a book wouldn’t get written today as the only conclusions that matter in today’s academia are those that can be statistically proven. I imagine Williamson’s data could be analysed and a strong correlation shown to exist between subsequent architectural fame and prior contact with an architect on the cusp of their first major success. I’m good with that.

However, even if such a correlation was statistically proven it would still not offer any insight into the nature of the mechanism responsible for that correlation. As the year was 1991, Williamson assumes a direct causal relationship between architectural creativity and resultant fame. We don’t necessarily believe this anymore. Shockingly, we can even now conceive of fame detached from content. Williamson assumes creativity is something that can be transmitted from master to apprentice in some highly “contagious” period when the master is on the cusp of their first major success (or having a reoccurrence). This could be a problem with phrasing, or it could be that we simply don’t have the words to explain it.

This doesn’t mean it’s inexplicable. It just means we’ve always accepted it as truth and never thought it’s something requiring an explanation. The book contains several references to “creative sparks” transmitted between master and apprentice but no evidence is produced to show such creative sparks exist, let alone that their transfer is the mechanism in question. The book concludes that they do and it is, but this is true only for those who believe in creative sparks. Giving something a name doesn’t mean it must exist – the “what else could it be?” explanation is not an explanation. However, calling it a creative spark assumes too much about the nature of the cause, the nature of the effect, and the nature of the mechanism between them. All the same, I believe Williamson’s hunch is correct and that something definitely did happen between master and apprentice and during those specific periods she identified, and I agree with the outline of her conclusions at the end of chapter one, despite having reservations about her choice of the word genius.

Speaking of words, until now the words master and apprentice have been used but only to name the parties involved. Even Williamson admits that any knowledge transmitted was not necessarily consciously taught nor consciously learned. The apprentice did not even have to work on the building that was to become the master’s first success. This gave rise to the notion of “the creative spark” or, at the very least, some “some sort of buzz in the office atmosphere”.


The book contains many other words and phrases that contain this notion of a creative spark. Some might have been used simply to avoid repetition but they all amount to the same thing. There is “a sudden surge of inventiveness and strong design” [p7], “dramatically creative turn” [p.7], “new surge of design strength” [p8], “first demonstrating vigorous control” [p10] “… design power, an ability that requires courage and an unshakeable belief in one’s own talent” [p10]. Other similar words and phrases occur in the detailed discussions of individual architects and lines that form the major portion of the book.

Part II of the book is titled Conventional Wisdom about Architects’ Predispositions for Fame, and contains chapters such as Connections: Family, Friends, Schools and Self-promotion and Publicity. None of this changes the basic premise but any or all of these “secondary factors” may operate as well. It was the chapter on Self-promotion and Publicity that made me wonder. Everyone knows that Frank Lloyd Wright worked for Louis Sullivan and Williamson reminds us that it was that the time when Adler & Sullivan’s Auditorium Building was winning critical acclaim. It was also the time when Louis Sullivan was tirelessly self-promoting.

Opportunities for self-promotion were limited in Sullivan’s day. Here’s a list. These traditional forms of self-promotion still exist but are minor compared to more recent methods of content provision direct to the consumers of architectural imagery, without the mediating buffer of middlemen.

Williamson also notes that apprentices who are to later become famous never stick around for longer than three to five years. This is telling. Why would someone bother working for another if they have already witnessed the mechanism of fame in action and know exactly what levers to pull? This next image is not new anymore, but it does illustrate the tendency of apprentices to dump their mentors once they’ve sussed it out.

It’s not just the apprentices.


In the penultimate chapter, Williamson provides a survey of historians as fame-makers but a modern student of architecture will probably not recognise anyone. It’s not that historians are irrelevant but that they were never really part of the story. I suspect that what Sullivan taught Wright and, for that matter, what Behrens taught Gropius etc. was how easy and how effective self-promotion really was. It’s easy to see how Williamson’s hypothesis can be extrapolated to the present day. If famous architects all have the bravery or the bravado to discard their bosses and do their own self-promoting, then all that has changed is that historians are no longer part of the mechanism for that. This explains our current oversupply of famous architects. And deficit of historians (and critics), as they’re no longer part of the process.

In Chapter Seventeen: Afterword one the Fame-making System, Williamson writes

“If a high-school student were to ask how to manipulate a career in order to become a name in future histories, right or wrong, the following steps would seem recommended.” [p249]

  • First, get an undergraduate degree in liberal arts at a school where your classmates are likely to become future clients. Be a joiner; make friends with those who look to be successful someday. Take courses in journalism and feature article writing.
  • Second, upon graduation from architecture school, fully believe that there is much yet to learn and that your designs and taste will change. Search the most recent professional journals for an architect or firm that is just receiving its first major publicity (or one experiencing a fresh burst of attention after a long dormant period).
  • Third, do not stay very long in that office. Expect that for a while your work may evolve from the style of your employer, but in time will change into something uniquely your own.
  • Fourth, promote yourself actively in exhibitions, articles and theoretical tracts.
  • Fifth, use whatever family connections you can and/or marry wealth.

Williamson herself is not happy with these conclusions and asks

“Is the system that created our boldest architects fixed? Are the mechanics of fame so rigid that they will continue to preselect nearly all of those architects who will be the leaders of the profession? Does it exclude many with potential?”

These are all good questions and, almost three decades after this book was published, I think we know what the answers are. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BUILDINGS? When we’ve finished pondering the sources and the mechanisms of architectural fame, it might be good to switch our attention to the limitations of architectural fame and its social cost. Innovation in science and medicine always implies a benefit for humanity but not so innovation in architecture. The function of architectural fame seems to be to diminish our capacity for imagining a socially useful architecture. This of course is a function of our economic system that will reward those who further its agenda. Unfamous architects everywhere are designing the useful and unpretty buildings that will never be anyone’s vehicle for fame. I have renewed respect for these people.
[c.f. Architecture Misfits #34: The Sole Practitioner]

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Thanks to Hugh for suggesting this book to me.