What is Creativity?

Excerpt - Chapter 9

Classroom dialogue between and Architect and a Philosopher

ARCH: Since this book is aimed at design students, let’s begin this chapter with a common and personal struggle many students have:

How do I begin? Do I start a design from my own imagination or from the: “given” or “found” facts in a situation? Do I start with the problem as given or do I form an expression based on the construction materials and or the physical attributes of a site? How do I find inspiration in historical precedents? What does it mean to be creative? Where is the beginning? What does it mean to be original? Such questions are overwhelming at the beginning of any project.

PHILO: Of course dear Arch, but it is important to keep in mind that these are universal questions, and therefore philosophical in nature.

Teaching Creativity

ARCH: The proposition that we, as design teachers, begin with is to teach creativity. This seems to me somewhat arrogant and self-serving. How can creativity be taught? And if one can in fact teach creativity, what exactly is it?

PHILO: You got me! Creativity has always seemed like an allusive concept with many definitions.

ARCH: Well the term creativity is both powerful and necessary if we are to understand the nature of design. In the past I found the term creativity loaded with dated baggage from the 1960s (my own formative decade). There is a paradox in reviewing that time because, on one hand, it was a period of high creative energy and experimentation in all design fields (and in culture as a whole). On the other hand, the idea of creativity was linked with ways to achieve alternate consciousness with the help of biochemistry. And you know what I mean! I have grown uneasy with that method, yet one cannot fail to mention the role of drugs, legal and illegal, in the history of religion, science, and the arts.

We still see those same currents in today’s mainstream culture (and its reactive subculture). Just consider the power of the pharmaceutical industry today!

PHILO: Well, that seems to fit the image of the 1960’s with reference to creativity in my experience, although it was before my time. Of course, I have only read about mind-altering substances. But surely not everyone was altering their mind to be creative?

ARCH: What might be a more sophisticated of criticism of the sixties is the notion that creativity was regarded as a moment of “rapture”), and as a release of creative energy (sometimes compared to release of spiritual or sexual energy). However, I find that metaphor incomplete in the sense that there are other kinds of creativity borne through slow, patient, calm, and rigorous search for answers. Creativity happens through a process of critical thinking, as well as problem solving and at the level of expressing a personal view of reality.

So, what is the problem with attempting to teach how to be creative?

ARCH: That is the intriguing part of my own uneasiness with the word “creativity” - a word I live by and always hope for as a general quality of my life. Can it be taught? Is it really an ephemeral result of a private effort by singular creative genius? Or, as the current dominant model proposes, all design is a team effort with creative juices from many influencing the design of a project?

PHILO: This is a good question. Can a team be creative? We see this in science as normal activity. Most discoveries in science are signed by a long list of co-contributors. On the other hand works of art, books, films, pieces of music, a dress, a chair and buildings are always attributed to typically only one author. ARCH: Well, we will return to this topic soon in the dialogue and review the suggested reading from “The Grammars of Creation”.[1] I found this source very helpful about the subject at hand.

PHILO: As far as receiving credit in the field of science, this has to do with the rules of the research game. In art the protective shield is around the individual artist’s process and that was the promise of an historical period called: “Romanticism” which begun in Germany. Its influence spread to France and England as well. This movement coincided with the industrial revolution and the rise of the notion of an individual. With the concept of an individual becoming valued the notion of a special creative individual with the ability to move history forward also developed. All of these historical ideas have been debated, but can be examined again today from a fresh perspective, given the latest crisis of capitalism. we are living through.

ARCH: Although we are still within the topic of “creativity” we are straying a bit from the main issues of our book: the method and possibility of individual creative process. The issue of “team creativity” must wait for now – until we

finished defining the creative process itself. Can you describe more the collaborative “rules of the game” in science

PHILO: Well, in science discoveries are a “build up” or progression from one scientist’s work to another’s. Using each other’s work is essential to moving science forward. In art, the work (we are told) is a lonely pursuit for subjective insight.[2] However, these are not necessarily at odds with each other, nevertheless they are a different modes of looking into the unknown. Both methods are valid in their own terms, and can lead to “creativity” – that is the discovery of something new, not before known.

PHILO: O.K., these may be distinct methodological and strategic approaches. But the idea of the lonely creative genius making cultural a break through is still suspicious for the philosopher.

ARCH: I am not in a hurry to convince you for now. We might return to this notion later. In the meantime, there is a reading about psychological cognitive research carried out in the sixties. It investigated the creativity of famous architects : Le Corbousier, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc. Much of the study is still unpublished but sometimes referred to in literature as it was done at the beginning of identifying spatial abilities distinctly from verbal abilities. Designers and architects with high spatial abilities were viewed as exhibiting slight schizoid and anti-social tendencies, while of course, being very creative.

PHILO: Ha! I couldn’t agree more. A single creative genius always seems alone.

ARCH: Well let’s go on. As we suggested at the start of this dialogue, asking the question “What is Creativity?” leads very important and large questions.

PHILO: OK. Can you list some of the other more important issues that flow from the question of creativity?

Creativity as the Prerogative of God Alone

PHILO: Creativity is a mysterious notion, praised by many, as central to human life and survival. However, this definition is rejected by others as an affront to God’s singular right to be creative.

ARCH: Yes, of course. The first question that comes to mind is a religious one. Such a question cannot be settled here and is not really in our realm of concerns. But as critical thinkers, we can at least mention it as a question out there in the current cultural debate.

PHILO: Arch, you know, it is fact that some religious groups do argue that true creativity is the prerogative of God (and not of humans).

ARCH: Yes and therefore, these groups rule against the teaching of creativity and art in schools at any course level. Of course, this point of view is counter to anything we are attempting to do in this book or in the teaching design. However felt the need to mention it, as it is a poignant point in current times. Creativity, however defined must be part of all education.

Creation from Nothing

ARCH: The issue of creativity brings to mind another serious and old question that has preoccupied theologians for a long time. In the book I mentioned above, “The Grammars of Creation” by George Steiner, the author points to the paradox of creation ex-nihilo (creation from nothing) which was a major issue for early Hebrew and Greek thinkers, as well as the early Christian theologians.

PHILO: Yes, this question is perfect fodder for critical thinking. It harkens back to your favorite period, the sixties, when John Lennon put the creatio ex nihilo position rather succinctly when he said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

ARCH: Wow! You do know the sixties after all. Can we now tackle another huge topic? We must not exhaust it here, but a teacher and their students can expand on it in class if they find it stimulating.

Invention and Creation

ARCH: George Steiner points to another interesting question that follows is the distinction between the notion of “invention” and “creation”. In our common understanding of these words we would say that scientists “invent,” and artists, designers, or architects “create.”[3]

PHILO: Yes. Scientists invent based on prior knowledge and research within a collaborative community for professional support. Artists on the other hand, are individual rebels searching for singular and original discoveries (which is the standing common mythology on artistic creativity.)

ARCH: Yes and the very one I live my life around! There are other voices, but the central question is always about originality. It revolves around originality, even when it is denied. As you see in the following quotations, again from George Steiner:

“The Latin “invenire’ would appear to presuppose that which is to be “found,” to be “come upon.” As is to invoke the question underlying this study, the universe has already “there,” …Picasso use to say, “I do not search, I only find” just as Marcel Duchamp, the key figure of aesthetic of modernism ...objet trouvé…..”[i]

ARCH: Can we expand on this controversial topic? Can we speak of a major artist as a “creator,” not as an “inventor”?

“Yet inventiveness may figure eminently among its virtues. However, that of the iconoclastic, prohibitions on “creation” can be cardinal. I have already cited the taboos on the “making of images” in Judaism and Islam. To create images is to “invent,” it is to “fictionalize” in the cause of virtual reality. scenes, real presence beyond human perception….”[ii]

PHILO: That may be too much for our students. I can barely grasp it myself. I follow [iii]my gut feeling that this important here, and we want our students at whatever level to at least think about it. Steiner’s thoughts on creativity are insightful. They are at their best when he writes, “Invention is often thoroughly humorous. It surprises, Whereas creation in the sense of the Greek term which generates all philosophy, thaumazein , amazes, astonishes us as does thunder or the blazes of the northern lights.” (end note needed)
PHILO: These thoughts on creativity have sources in Genesis, the Timaeus, Aristotelian physics of causation, and Neo Platonists I would have a lot to comment on here.

ARCH: I would love too, but, before we wade to deeply into these philosophical waters, let’s ask that the students to first undertake the required reading from Edward deBonno. Then return to excerpts from “Grammers of Creation” by George Steiner, as further suggested readings.

PHILO: I couldn’t agree more. The Steiner reading, while important, is not meant for undergraduate students of design. I agree with you that it is relevant but it may be a bit too esoteric. That does not mean we should not ask them to read it! Supplemented with class discussions it is a very helpful guide to thinking about creativity.

ARCH: Back to the beginning image of this chapter. I think the famous work by the American artist Man Ray, a member of the modernist Dada art movement, is a good image to generate a concrete discussion on “What is Creativity?”

For me creativity in the arts, design, and architecture involves metaphoric operations, the kind of “poetic logic” that Giambattista Vico defined a long time ago. Later, in the 1960’s, Edward de Bono called poetic logic “lateral thinking”. Lateral thinking is the ability to freely associate between discrete things and ideas to other things and ideas because they have something in common. What something is, is a complex set of possible relationships, sometimes purely visual, sometimes formal (geometry), and sometimes composed of cultural associations. In this case, the picture shows us the similarity of the shape of a women’s body to that of an instrument (the violin). This takes us back to Chapter 6, What Is Meaning?

ARCH: Of course it does. But I don’t want to be distracted here from the topic at hand, “What is Creativity”!?

PHILO: I have always preferred the notion of “lateral thinking”, as defined by de Bono, over the more widely used term metaphoric thinking. Metaphoric thinking is normally used in linguistics, literary criticism and philosophy.

ARCH: So did I. So lets rediscover de Bono’s ideas. He does, after all, title his book: “Lateral Thinking. Creativity Step by Step” . With your agreement, I chose from his book as a required reading so that students can understand de Bono’s discussion on “Innovation”, “Suspended Judgment” and “Design”.

PHILO: How appropriate and refreshing.

ARCH: Why refreshing?

PHILO: Because de Bono is practical and directive. He also freely uses innovation and creativity interchangeably. I would dare to say that his use of the words “suspended judgement” seem to be a perfect description of the role of a critical thinker in the design process. We touched on this in the first chapter.

ARCH: Hold on there! I happen to agree. But that does not mean that the preceding discussion on creativity, even if it was a bit philosophical, was not of practical value to our students.

PHILO: I said no such thing. In fact I would like to return to it later.

ARCH: But in the meantime the advice that deBonno gives his readers (in the two pages introduction to the “Design” Chapter) parallels the terms of critical thinking as we have established in this text book. It is actually provocative that he titles them (1). Innovation, and (2) Suspended Judgment. They literally coincide with the thinking procedures we suggest under critical thinking.

ARCH: Yes, I found them quite meaningful as steps towards creative critical thinking. Could you restate them here for our students?

PHILO: Well. For one, he advises that we, those involved in any design process, undertake the following: (1) generate alternative ways of looking at things and

(2) challenge assumptions.

ARCH: Well, we have said that in the chapter on Critical Thinking, didn’t we?

I should also mention that both of these procedures de Bono describes are ”Backward thinking, something that is there and working it over.” We, in the design field, usually call this the site conditions and the given program, budget and available construction material and technology.

PHILO: We sure did. De Bono goes farther to point out that: “These are for the purposes of description or analysis of a situation “ [iv]

ARCH: Yes, I know that. On the other hand all design, as I said, is future oriented. I was happy to see that deBonno also stresses this aspect by pointing out that: “Forward thinking involves moving forward. Forward thinking involves building something new rather than analyzing something old. Innovation and creation involve forward thinking” [v]

PHILO: Yes, of course, Arch. But, we should also immediately follow with de Bono’s next cautionary note in which he writes that : “The distinction between backward and forward thinking is entirely arbitrary. There is no distinction because one may have to look backwards in a new way in order to move forward’ A creative description may be just as generative as a creative idea.” [vi]

ARCH: Now that is something I hear over and over again these days where I teach. Of course it is true, but it emphasizes process over end product. Students are all too happy to just describe and analyze existing conditions (sometimes referred to as site “forces”) and never commit themselves to making choices about a concrete solution. It is all process over end product. I find that avoidance of the task at hand, in the name of process to be crutch for indecision.

PHILO: Arch, you seem so impatient. Hold off leaping forward before you have given time to critical thinking. De Bono is very clear on the topic. He writes “Before going on to consider innovation it is necessary to consider an aspect of thinking that applies much more to forward thinking than to backwards thinking. That is the matter of evaluation and suspended judgment.” (de Bono)

PHILO: More power to suspended judgment. That is what we need more for critical thinking.

ARCH: Let’s see how the Critical Thinking Exercise will stretch the student’s imagination. After all creativity and imagination have not been yet covered in full, except in a very tangential way if at all.

Critical Reading Passages

Chapters titled , Innovation, Suspended judgement, and Design

in “Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step” by Edward de Bono

Harper &Row 1970

About the Author

Edward de Bono: “Lateral Thinking. Creativity Step by Step”

Edward de Bono was born in Malta. He holds advanced degrees in medicine, Psychology and physiology He was a Rodhes Scholar at Christ Church, Oxford. He holds a Ph,D. from Cambridge. Dr. de Bono is the founder and director of the The Cognitive Research Trust in Cambridge. And the Center for the Study of Thinking. He has written twenty five books and produced two TV series for BBC on teaching thinking.,

Critical Thinking Exercise

Develop a short (half an hour) design project. Assign the problem several individual students and to small teams students. The students are asked to keep notes. At the end of the design period the students are asked to critically compare their experiences and evaluate in whatever terms the relative degree of “creativity” as evidenced by the product of their design effort.

Critical Visualization Exercise

Moving from text to image

Read the apartment description in the short text “The Funnel and Stamate”.

Think about it for a few minutes, question the text and than illustrate your vision

0f that apartment. Use any means of visualizing how the apartment might have looked.

Carefully read the text below and make a one or more drawings on 11”x17” paper illustrating the text. You can choose any medium or drawing technique (free hand, hard line, or plans or section to scale, or perspective, collage computer renderings. etc.).

The Funnel and Stamate

“A well-ventilated apartment consisting of three rooms, glass-enclosed terrace, and a doorbell.

Out front, a sumptuous living room its back wall taken up by a solid oak book-case perennially wrapped in soaking bed-sheets…A legless table right in the middle, based on probability calculus and supporting a vase containing eternal concentrate of the “thing in itself,” a clove of garlic, the statuette a priest (from Ardeal) holding a book of syntax,…and twenty cents for tips,…the rest being without interest whatsoever. This room, it should be noted, which is ever engulfed in darkness, has no doors and no windows; it does not communicate with the outside world except through a tube, which sometimes gives off smoke, and down which, nights, one can have a glimpse of Ptolemy’s seven hemispheres, and daytime, two human beings in the process of descending from the ape by the side of a finite string of dry okra right next to the infinite, and useless, Auto-Kosmos.

The second room is in Turkish style; is decorated in the grand manner, furnished with the most fantastic items of eastern luxury…Countless precious carpets, hundreds of old arms, the stains of heroic blood still on them, lining the colonnades; the walls, according to the oriental custom, are painted red every morning as they are measured, occasionally, with a pair of compasses for fear of random shrinkage.

From this area, and by the means of a trap door on the floor, one reaches an underground vault, and on the right, after traveling on a little handle-driven cart first, one enters a cool canal, one branch of which ends no one knows where, the other leading precisely in the opposite direction to a low enclosure with a dirt floor and a stake direction to a low enclosure with a dirt floor and a stake in its center to which the entire Stamate family is tethered.”

About the Author:

The Funnel and Stamate is from “Urmuz - Weird Pages” translated from Romanian. Urmuz is the pseudonym of Demetru Demetrescu- Buzau, the son of Dimitrie Ionescu Buzau, a physician and a scholar. Urmuz was born on March 17, 1883 in Curtea de Arges, and spent one year (1888) in Paris with his family. He finished high school in Bucharest, enrolled in Medical school but graduated in Law, saw action in World War I, suffered from recurrent malarial fever, and served as judge in various provincial towns of Romania and as Clerk of the Romanian Supreme Court. Tudor Arghezi, who thought up the Urmuz pseudonym, published “The Funnel and Stamate” in 1922.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Chapter I, in “Grammars of Creation” by George Steiner,

Yale University Press 2002

[1] By George Steiner

[2] See “Perception of Change” by Bergson , required reading in Chapter on Time

[3] The Grammars of Creation by George Steiner

[i] The Grammars of Creation by George Steiner

[ii] The Grammars of Creation by George Steiner