Can Architecture Make Us More Creative?

What do MIT’s Building 20, the Ancient Greek Agora, 18th Century British teahouses, and early 20th century Parisian cafés have in common?

They were some of the most creative spaces in the world.

People who gathered there would interact. People, such as Socrates or Chomsky or Edison, exchanged ideas, argued about morals, and discussed technologies. They participated in an informal discourse driven by passionate involvement.

And these places, although for different reasons, fostered interaction by bringing people together and giving them a place to talk. As Jonah Lehrer put it, “the most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.”

The question, then, is how can contemporary architecture foster the same kind of creativity?

To learn more about architecture and its role in creativity and learning, keep reading after the break.

In 1942, in the midst of WWII, MIT’s Radiation Lab required expansion. Under direction of the military, the lab was developing radar technologies for fighter jets that helped to identify enemy bombers, a task for which the school hired hundreds of scientists. To accommodate the increased and immediate need, the school constructed Building 20, a 250,000 square foot, timber frame structure. Designed as a temporary solution in a single afternoon, and built in six months, the building prioritized space needs over design. It did not even pass fire code (it was given exemption as a temporary structure).

Courtesy of - 1920's Parisian Cafe

Despite its physical shortcomings, which included leaks, poor ventilation, and heating and cooling problems, the building quickly became a center of groundbreaking military research. After the war, when the building was set for demolition, MIT found itself once again pressed for space. So, instead of demolishing it, they used it as space for overflow. In moved an eclectic group of departments and groups, including the Research Laboratory of Electronics, the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, the Linguistics Department, the R.O.T.C., the particle accelerator (is this a group?), and many other equally diverse groups.

The result was an eccentric amalgam of people who knew little to nothing about each other, suddenly thrust together within the walls of what seemed like an awful building. “And yet, by the time it was finally demolished, in 1998, Building 20 had become a legend of innovation, widely regarded as one of the most creative spaces in the world” (Jonah Leherer). Over its forty years, the building had amassed an almost unbelievable track record of breakthroughs. It saw, for example, the first video game, the first advances in physics behind microwaves, major developments in high-speed photography, the creation of the Bose Corporation, modern computer hacking, etc.

Why? The large and confusing building forced all different types of scientists and thinkers to interact. It did so by simply putting them close together, with no real means of hermitage. People often got lost and had to ask for directions. Others got hungry and had no choice but to patronize the single vending machine. Everyone had to use the long hallways. At the end of the day, you couldn’t help but run into people.

Each of these informal, yet powerful symptoms of Building 20 not only forced its inhabitants to speak, it did so in an environment that fostered discourse. “In a vertical layout with small floors, there is less research variety on each floor. Chance meetings in an elevator tend to terminate in the lobby, whereas chance meetings in a corridor tended to lead to technical discussions,” explains Henry Zimmerman, an electrical engineer whose office was in the building for years.

Building 20’s success is also a result of its temporariness. Because it was only meant to last a few years, and no one had much of an interest in its longevity, researchers felt free to manipulate it to fit their needs. This was as simple as knocking down walls without asking and as odd as bolting things to the roof. One scientist working on the first atomic clock, to make room for a three-story tall cylinder, cut holes through two floors of his lab.

This flexibility kept the building alive and moving with the sway of its inhabitants. It was not restrictive, and in fact promoted original creation. In the words of Richard Rogers, it was an “architecture rather like some music and poetry which can actually be changed by the users, an architecture of improvisation.” It was not static and independent. It was interactive.

The example of Building 20 bears both good and bad news for architecture. Bad: architects had nothing to do with its success. Good: the building did. So, it is from this accidentally profound space that architects looking to design for creativity must learn.

Lesson one: make people interact.  

Raphael. The School of Athens. 1511.

Historically, the most creative places in the world, which I might define as those places that have produced the most number of significant original ideas, depend on discourse. Take the examples mentioned above: the Ancient Greek Agora; the 18th century teahouses where the Enlightenment developed; or early 20th century Paris cafés where modernism was born and grew up.

The sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls these spaces the “third place,” environments separate from home or work where people gather and, more importantly, collide. As Stephen Johnson puts it, “The collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in shared physical space…that’s where the true sparks fly.” These places were truly creative because they fostered generative interactions between people.

Those interactions lead to what Jane Jacobs, the famous urban theorist, called “knowledge spillovers” – those instances when ideas cross-fertilize. People are very good at repurposing or recycling ideas, they just need to hear them.

Why can’t architecture act as their hearing aids?

18th Century Tea House in England

The point of this “third place,” then, is twofold: first, architects should consider it as a programmatic possibility – a place solely for discourse; and second, architects should acknowledge the significance of interaction and collision in the everyday. That is, spaces should promote this type of discourse comprehensively, as a logic for the architecture itself.

Two recent studies on research practice make quite a good case for this point. Isaac Kohane, a Harvard Medical School Researcher, conducted a study on research done in groups to determine the influence of the researchers’ proximity and the quality of their research:

“He analyzed more than thirty-five thousand peer-reviewed papers, mapping the precise location of co-authors. Then he assessed the quality of the research by counting the number of subsequent citations…Once the data was amassed, the correlation became clear: when coauthors were closer together, their papers tended to be of significantly higher quality. The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within ten metres of each other; the least cited papers tended to emerge from collaborators who were a kilometre or more apart. ‘If you want people to work together effectively, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,’ Kohane says. ‘Even in the era of big science, when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it’s still so important to create intimate spaces.’” (Jonah Lehrer)

It’s good to be close.

Kevin Dunbar, a psychologist at McGill University, studied the generation of ideas within the laboratory by essentially following the scientists around with a video camera:

“Dunbar’s study showed that those isolated eureka moments were rarities. Instead, most important ideas emerged during regular lab meetings, where a dozen or so researchers would gather and informally present and discuss their latest work. If you looked at the map of idea formation that Dunbar created, the ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table… The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop. The lab meeting creates an environment where new combinations can occur, where information can spill over from one project to another.” (Johnson 61)

It’s good to talk.

Lesson two: let people tinker & don’t over-plan

Herman Hertzberger once wrote, “Architecture should offer an incentive to its users to influence it wherever possible, not merely to reinforce its identity, but more especially to enhance and affirm the identity of its users.” A building does not lose its character by involving its users. In Building 20, in fact, it was the interaction of user and building that defined the architecture itself. Users had the liberty to adapt a given space to fit their needs, which fostered a generative relationship with the building. They improved the building and the building improved them.

This idea brings with it an acknowledgement that the architect might not be able to predict everything – that there is no comprehensive solution. Often, buildings that are designed under this conception are the most susceptible to ruin. Since they are conceived as completed and static, change can do nothing but harm. But it is ridiculous to assume that nothing will change. Time, itself, will be sure of that. For this reason, Jane Jacobs believed that the “unpredictable nature of innovation meant that it couldn’t be prescribed in advance.”

How, then, can architecture respond both to the immediate needs of users, and to the future changes it will inevitably undergo? Many would argue that modularity is the answer. By standardizing parts, and making them easily moveable, modular systems simplify physical change. On a large-scale, it is easy to both add space, and take it away, just by buying or selling building components. On a small scale, systems of moveable partitions can allow easy space rearrangement.

Courtesy of - 1920's Parisian Cafe

But the solution is meaningless if the problem is not identified. The architecture must be robust, and welcome its users to take part in the process of making space.

Architecture is an active participant in the interactions of people within it. Interaction, particularly of the informal type, is paramount to discourse and creativity. Architecture, then, has great potential in the way of fostering a culture of creativity.

In two coming articles, I will explore how architects, planners, and professionals are practically exploring this potential first, in work environments, and second, in education environments. 



"Where Good Ideas Come From " - Steven Johnson

"Groupthink" - Jonah Lehrer

About this author
Cite: Jonathan C. Molloy. "Can Architecture Make Us More Creative?" 03 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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