In our pursuit of this idea, we have both sourced and generated research into the effects of spatial arrangement on creativity, the curricular significance of a maker space, inventions at the intersection of nature and design, and the inspiration of a natural collection. Below are our findings.


Jonathan Molloy, a member of the CoRaL team, wrote the following two-part exploration of architecture and creativity during his tenure at, the findings of which were crucial to the development of CoRaL’s workshop space component. The ideas are both general in their understanding of space and specific to those spaces in an academic setting.

Part 1:

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).

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.

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?

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.

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.

Part 2:

August Kekulé discovered the structure of the benzene ring after having a daydream of the Ouroboros, a famous mythological snake depicted as biting its own tail. Francis Crick figured out the complimentary replication system of DNA when he remembered the process of replicating a sculpture by making an impression of it in plaster, and using it as a mold to make copies. Johannes Keppler attributes his laws of planetary motion to an inspiration from religion: the sun, the stars, and the dark space around them represent the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost respectively.

What’s the point? According to Arthur Koestler, “all decisive events in the history of scientific thought can be described in terms of mental cross-fertilization between different disciplines.” Great discoveries arise not from the isolated hermit working without interference, but from tireless work enlightened by unintentional collisions with an unfamiliar subject. For Kekulé, it was ancient mythology, for Crick, sculpture, and for Keppler, religion.

Creativity and innovation, then, thrive where disciplines collide. And this is true not only for science, but for all subjects. We all have something to learn from one another, and what better place to encourage this cross-fertilization than school?

As I noted in part 1 of this series, creativity is a truly social phenomenon: it thrives when people work close together and talk to each other. An architecture of creativity, then, brings people together and forces them to interact. For example, MIT’s Building 20, the location of some of the greatest inventions of its era, did just that. What was unique about Building 20 was that it was not just a science building where only physicists and chemists rubbed shoulders. Linguists, acousticians, computer scientists, etc. worked within feet of each other, sharing hallways, facilities, and even bathrooms. The result? One of the most creative places in recent history.

Building 20 makes a convincing case that when you put people from different disciplines under one roof, unexpected things can happen. So what’s the best roof?

Buildings that house multiple disciplines are not an uncommon phenomenon. At many schools, science or humanities departments will share facilities within their division i.e. physics and math, or history and political science, will share a building. Yet, while these combinations can be logistically and bureaucratically effective, they do not seek to create anything novel in their mixture. Where this model finds its potential, then, is in the uncommon juncture of different disciplines.

What might happen, for example, if art and engineering were to share a building? Music and biology? Political science and environmental science? It’s not hard to imagine that the working proximity of these subjects might lead to novel collaborations between them.

Unfortunately, these rare combinations face bureaucratic obstacles, and hence rarely exist. They only come about when there is no other option, as was the case with Building 20.

Yet the absence of these combinatory facilities does not mean that schools aren’t interested in creative collaboration between the disciplines. They simply go about it differently.

Appropriately enough, MIT is one of those schools. While no one at MIT in the 50’s thought to put an eclectically interdisciplinary group of academics into one space so that they might interact, quite a few people are thinking that way now. That space is called the MIT Media Lab, a research oriented graduate program in media arts and sciences. By promoting what they call an antidisciplinary culture, “the MIT Media Lab goes beyond known boundaries and disciplines, encouraging the most unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly disparate research areas.” Out of the Media Lab have come technologies like wearable computing and tangible interfaces.

The Parsons New School MFA in Transdisciplinary Design, a project-based graduate program aimed at addressing real world problems through design, promotes a similar philosophy of interdisciplinary collaboration. Only three years old, the program has produced projects like MobileMark, a user driven mapping agent for informal settlements.

These programs bypass the logistical complications of joining departments by creating a department of their own. With their own space, each program can facilitate the interaction of the disciplines through its students who come from many academic backgrounds.

While the Media Lab and the Trandisciplinary Design programs act as autonomous and degree-granting institutions separate from their respective schools, Stanford’s acts as an interdisciplinary within the Stanford graduate system. As all students who participate in the must be enrolled in one of the seven graduate programs at Stanford, the design program acts as the meeting place of all disciplines. It is where doctors, engineers, lawyers, and business people come together to collaborate.

Each of these programs attempts to break disciplinary boundaries by bringing students and researchers from all subjects into one space. They share a creative architecture driven by radical collaboration between people from all disciplines.

But why should it be radical? Why is it that programs of this kind exist only at the graduate level? Seldom is there an undergraduate facility dedicated to collaboration between the disciplines. Liberal Arts schools surely advocate an interdisciplinary education, but often that means only taking a wide range of classes, not working collaboratively across boundaries.

Some may argue that collaboration of this kind relies on specialization i.e. the participants must be highly educated (have a graduate degree) to contribute adequately. I disagree. Students begin collaborating the moment they start school. Kindergartners are notoriously the best collaborators among us. And they’re so good because they aren’t afraid of being wrong. It’s actually their lack of education that enables them.

As Barry Svigals puts it in his article on collaboration, “those most statistically successful collaborators – kindergartners – do not focus on failure at all. Their trials and errors are instead a seamless part of discovery (otherwise known as play). This works superbly for a short while until our parents, our educational system, and society at large indoctrinate us with definitions of right and wrong.” Once they are taught the fear of being wrong, they lose their spark for collaboration.

The learning spaces, too, might enable them. If we recall our kindergarten classrooms, they tend to be open and flexible. Students don’t have individual desks, nor are there spatial divisions. They can move furniture around, gather in nooks, or find each other in the middle. The room is meant to allow freedom to interact, with things and with others. Why does this go away as we get older? Although Foucault might have an answer, there’s no reason we can’t learn from those expert collaborators: our five-year old selves.

Can students somehow get this spark back after twenty years of education? No. But they can get it from atmospheres that provide that youthful acceptance of experimentation, without the nagging obstacles of bureaucracy, from spaces that embrace working together.

And that’s the beauty of architecture. It can promote interaction and create the possibility for collaboration without getting administrative approval. Even though academic departments are often insular, both physically within their building and practically in their academics, students are still free to move about a campus after all.

All it requires are people. It needs to be built, of course. But after that, it must simply bring people together – it must be one space – and give them a unified direction – it must give them something on which they can collaborate.

I can imagine two types of these spaces. The first is a space where people of different disciplines do independent work in close proximity to one another, much like an undergraduate Building 20. Basically, put people in one space and let the proximity do the work. The second is a space much like the, where students gather to work together on tasks inspired by the world, not by a discipline. One puts students together, the other one invites them.

These spaces can learn from those that have spent years prioritizing creativity and collaboration, such as the offices from Part II or the classrooms of our kindergartens. They might be completely open spaces that can be manipulated into many different forms according to different needs. They might be partitioned spaces that facilitate visibility between different groups or people. They might be fun spaces that engage and involve. They might be all of these. But, ultimately, they must employ an architecture of creativity that makes people interact and lets them tinker.

At the end of the day, the hope of an interdisciplinary architecture is to give students a platform for creative collaboration.

Creativity thrives where people, disciplines, ideas collide. Their mixture creates novel combinations that we often know as innovation. That combination could be a person and an idea, three people and a problem, two ideas, etc. But it cannot be prescribed. All we know is that when we interact, there is a high chance something good happens.

If we imagine ideas, people, and disciplines as particles, architecture could be the particle accelerator. Maybe that’s what Jonah Lehrer meant when he said, “the most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.” Crick, Kekulé, and Keppler, Building 20 and Google, show us what those sparks can look like.