1] How we learn

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It can be thought that all knowledge and skills that one has acquired has been achieved by learning; and that learning is achieved through study, teaching and experience [1]. In was in 1984, when theorist David A Kolb published a learning style model described as ‘experiential learning’. His findings for this model of how one learns through experience, was devised by examining previous theories and studies carried out by psychologists John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget [2]. As philosopher and reformer, Confucius stated, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand” [3]. What Kolb devised was a theory that explained how humans learn by doing. Experiential learning can be thought to apply to architects in both their training and in practice, as both architecture students and architects never cease in their acquisition of knowledge.

There are four phases of experiential learning (illustrated in Fig.1) [2]:

1 ] Concrete experience,
2 ] Observations and reflections,
3 ] Formation of abstract concepts and generalisations,
4 ] Testing implications of concepts.

Being appointed an architectural exercise, for example a design task, one may attempt the task by initially experimenting with active involvement, trying out initial ideas formed from their existing knowledge from past experiences. After developing these initial ideas, these are then reflected upon and evaluated, and from this, the formation of new ideas occur which are then tested and implemented back into the initial work. This learning cycle almost endlessly repeats leading to the development and refinement of a design with an understanding of how one arrived at that position. It is a learning process that acts as the toolkit for architecture students, and one that is reinforced through time.

Figure 1. process of experiential learning

Why one may struggle to explain what ‘creativity’ is, yet alone express what is required to be creative, is partially because it is very much broadly used and therefore too capricious to be easily defined. Creativity commonly has the connotation of ‘originality’, and often one associates being original with the notions of being ‘odd’ or ‘different’; but creativity can be regarded as intelligent design [4], and contrary to common assumption, one does not have to be original to be creative. 

There have been numerous definitions of creativity philosophised by psychologists, writers, designers amongst others. In ‘The Creative Process’ [5], Ghiselin Brewster, proposed that creativity is “the process of change of development, of evolution, in the organisation of subjective life.” Whilst Louis Fliegler, of the School of Education at Syracuse University, defined a creative individual as being one who “manipulates external symbols or objects to produce an unusual event uncommon to himself or his environment” [6].

Everyone is influenced by things that they have seen and experienced, these are the ‘external symbols or objects’ that Fliegler describes. This exposure to the existing world creates a natural bias, commonly a subconscious one. An architect’s work is almost always informed by past experiences and what they have been exposed to. This influence of existing precedents upon an architect and their design can be referred to as ‘inspiration’. If an architect identifies a concept or notion within an existing work and from that develops their own concept, no matter how long the development process is – even to the point where in the end the two ideas have no apparent relation, the architect’s concept cannot be truly original. A work may be unique as in the literal definition, but originality is defined as not deriving from or depending on any other thing of the kind. Therefore originality within architecture must come from the architect within [4]. English author and politician Herbert Paul once said: “What is originality? It is merely undetected plagiarism”[7]. There is an uncertainty of whether this abstract notion of originality truly exists as the term originality can be interpreted in many ways.


2] Copying or just inspiration?

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If we assume that one wholly designs from exposure to what already exists, referred to as ‘inspiration’, it is understood that ideas of true originality cannot prevail. Designer Steve Jobs, and founder of Apple Inc., recited Picasso’s infamous quote: “good artists copy, great artists steal” and revealed that Jobs himself “was shameless about stealing great ideas”, alluding to his belief that fundamentally one should try to expose themselves to the best innovative and creative things that already exist, and then bring those things into what one is doing [8].

However, there is a line – one that is subjectively blurred – between ‘taking inspiration’ and copying or plagiarising; one that architects, students of architecture, and designers in general, are wary not to cross. ‘Plagiarism’ is a breech of intellectual morality and is usually regarded as a serious moral offence. Though there are subtleties between plagiarism and legalities of copyright, plagiarism is considered as the action or practice of taking someone else’s work or idea and passing it off as one’s own. Derived from latin ‘plagiarius’ meaning ‘kidnapper’ [9], it is an issue that is present in all creative fields and professions. However, identifying when plagiarism has occurred is not always clear, and more often can never be proven because of its subjective, abstract nature and its inherent intrinsic complexities. There are laws offering intellectual protection, and automatically applies to all original ‘artistic works’, including architecture [10]. Legislation in Britain not only protects architectural visuals, such as plans, sections, renders, etc., but also defined under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act in 1988, it clarified that a “work of architecture being a building or a model for a building” constitutes as an artistic work [10]. In principle, a simple rectangular office block is offered the same copyright protection as that of the Palace of Westminster, however, it would be difficult to justify the design of the office block as being original. Despite laws and legislation in the attempt to maintain morality in design, its enforcement is somewhat difficult. Additionally, it only protects original works in a touchable medium, and dos not protect intangibilities such as ideas and concepts [11].

Figure 2. Picasso: Caught bread-handed!


The term pastiche is used to describe a creative work, usually an artistic one, which incorporates several different styles, or is made up of parts drawn from a variety of sources [12]. Unlike ‘parody’, which is often associated with mockery, ‘pastiche’ has a celebratory but dichotomous undertone of fakery and laziness in architecture by the taking and conglomeration of admired architectural stylistic features, ideas and motifs. Designs that display attributes of being pastiche, are therefore thought as untruthful and far from original, as they deliberately take concepts or visual styles from historical precedents.

“The problem with pastiche is that it is dishonest, [it] stifles creativity and ergo a kind of urban paralysis ensues.” [13]. However, architect Robert Adams said that “we got the strange idea that for art to be modern it has to be unlike anything done before. This is, of course, ridiculous. All art is based on ideas, influences and bits from other artists. In architecture, this applies to modernist as well as traditional design” [14]. There is a subtle difference of taking inspiration from precedents, and fabricating a work in a mishmash of styles – something which especially contemporary housing in Britain has fallen victim of, exhibiting distasteful mixtures of Tudor to Georgian revival architecture.


Style is a “distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed” [1]. Designing in a style, one is creating something or coming up with ideas that are coherent with a particular characteristic or period, place, or movement. Similar to styles of other artistic vocations, styles within architecture follow particular rules and concepts, exhibiting specific characteristics, both aesthetical and in intangible notions. These rules and notions, take the form of an architectural movement, typically admired by architects of the time, soon becoming embedded and accepted as the norm for then contemporary architecture.

Because styles follow particular rules, designing in a style reduces scope for creative innovation – as typically the rationale for a style is regarded as the best design of its time. Neither still should we assume that immoral imitation has occurred, because the products of styles inherently have strong similarities. There are parallels between other creative fields with regards to the creative process and the issues of originality. The music industry, both contemporary and historical, can be used as an example. Musical genres are analogous of architectural styles, similarly following a set of accepted rules. This almost algorithmic approach to musical composition inherently means that there are, to some degree, similarities between works.

(L) Figure 3. & (R) Figure 4.

The Arts Tower, home to the Sheffield School of Architecture since its construction in 1965, and designed by Gollins Melvin Ward. The myth and conjecture that the Arts Tower is a half-height imitation of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York – albeit without the air conditioning and bronzed façade – provides an example of the difficulty in deciding whether it is indeed a replica or merely the buildings’ similarities are a consequence of sharing the same style, that is the International Style.

International Style addressed the demand for a large number of commercial and civic buildings in a rapidly industrialising world by taking advantage of new construction methods and materials, and disapproving existing architecture that exhibited a mix of decorative elements from different periods that had no relevance to the buildings’ functions [15]. Through the leading figures of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and J.J.P. Oud, a consistent visual style emerged. This approach of ‘form follows function’ [16] displayed through unornamented rectilinear planes, occasionally juxtaposed with curved elements, commonly featured strong horizontal lines. Utilitarian materials, such as concrete, glass and steel were very often used and where the skeletal steel frame often became an integral part of the design characteristic [17]. It therefore can be argued that it is intrinsic that buildings including the Arts Tower and Seagram Building have visual similarity, since this similarity follows naturally from their alike functions. The development of an architectural style, the International Style included, can be seen as a creative process – bringing together new ideas, and approaching architecture from a different perspective. However, when an architect designs in a specific style – which can be argued to be all of the time – they are simply following rules – however broad they may be. This is a dilemma that architects, and architecture students even more so, face; if one is exposed and taught with influence to a style, it stifles creativity, and obliterates chance of originality.


3] How to be creative?

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Creativity itself cannot be simply explained, even Freud’s psychoanalysis struggled to clarify the mysteries of creativity [18]. Not ‘feeling’ creative can be horribly frustrating to an architect or any other creative professional, often resulting in one questioning themselves in an attempt to remedy their conservative thoughts and be more creative. John Cleese, prolific comedic writer and actor, spoke about his observations on creativity, contrived from his own experience and consolidated by the findings of psychologist, Donald W. MacKinnen.

Figure 5. John Cleese

Cleese formulated the explanation that creativity is not a talent, but creativity is achieved through a specific way of operating. Cleese and MacKinnen identified that to permit and facilitate natural creativity, one must be in a particular mood or state. This mood can be closely associated with a playful nature “[allowing one’s] natural creativity to function.” MacKinnen described this state as the ability to become playful in ideas, almost childlike, where the most in depth exploration and discovery without any immediate practical purpose, is made. Cleese referred to “play for its own sake” as being key for creativity.


Open & Closed Mode

People’s functioning in the creative work environment can be described in terms of two simple modes: open and closed. The closed mode is the state that most people, including designers, – student and professional – are in by default, and is where creativity cannot be possible. In the closed mode, one is often conscious of time and therefore more serious in their approach and actions; useful for getting the task done – but unfortunately it is not creative. The open mode by contrast, is relaxed, less purposeful, more enjoyable tending towards humour. Playfulness is a characteristic that induces curiosity, expanding possibilities, bringing one’s intrinsic creativity to surface. Entering the open mode is a skill in itself and something that many find difficult to achieve. It relates back to the notion of fearing to be ‘wrong’ and the pressures of time and confidence that we face through the academic system and professional world. Time appears to be the biggest enemy, with a deadline in sight, steering one towards pragmatic thinking – it often feels that there is no time for playfulness which is what creativity relies upon.

Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga wrote: “Play is distinct from ‘ordinary’ life both as to locality and duration… its secludedness, its limitedness. It is ‘played out’ within certain limits of time and place… Play begins, and then at a certain moment it is ‘over’. It plays itself to an end”  [19].Cleese identifies and prescribes five conditions to facilitate operating in the open mode [20], which can be referred to as ‘tactical creativity’.

The effectiveness and efficiency of creativity is reliant upon being able to switch between the open and closed modes at appropriate points throughout the design process. Being in the open mode is needed when pondering a problem, however, when the solution has been found, it is important that one switches back into the closed mode to implement it, decisively and without the distractions of doubts about its success and correctiveness.

Creativity is a skill, though a skill that one may find more difficult to become proficient at than an other to develop. As deduced, creativity is not a talent itself but rather, what makes an individual  creatively talented is down to their natural aptitudes for motivation, persistence and determination. Referring to Cleese’s prescription to be creative, it raises the question as to whether, if one were to practice, they would become more creative?

John Cleese’s five conditions for operating in the ‘open mode’.

experience: practice

Expertise and skill is a topic that has been frequently explored by psychologists. ‘Skill in chess’ by psychologists Herbert Simon and William Chase, published in the New Scientist in 1973, drew the conclusion: “There are no instant experts in chess – certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person has reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade’s intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions…” [22]. Psychologists, such as John Hayes, further investigated creativity in terms of ‘preparation’ and experience. ‘Preparation’ refers to the “effort of the creative person, often carried out over long periods of time, to acquire knowledge and skills relevant to the creative act” [23]; this is could be referred to as ‘practice’. Hayes made analysis upon the creative occupations of music and art. Hayes examined 64 composers referred to in Harold Schonberg’s ‘The Lives of the Great Composers’ (1970) from which he determined when composers, such as Mozart, first became seriously interested in music [23]. Hayes next identified the notable works by these composers – defined as having five recordings of the work available. He then calculated for each composer, how many years after their decision to pursue music seriously, did it take before their work became ‘notable’ – indicating achievement and success in their field. Out of a total of more than 500 works, only three were composed before the year ten of the composer’s career; those three were composed in years eight and nine [23]. Hayes found that with regards to productivity and recognition there was a pattern of an initial ten year period of quietness. Hayes conducted the same research method for 131 painters, and found similarly that there was an initial period of silence of approximately six years [23].


It takes time to become proficient in, and expert at, a particular creative vocation; but is it ‘practice’ that is responsible for this? If anyone devoted the same amount of time to music as Mozart, should they expect to achieve the same level of creativity and success? Is the success of, for example, Renzo Piano, or any other acclaimed architect, as a result of practice? Writer, Malcolm Gladwell, formulated from the research of psychologists, including those already mentioned, and predominantly from the research of Anders Ericsson, that practising any skill for 10,000 hours would make one an expert [24]. He claimed that “talent is learned and earned through extended and intense practice of a skill” [25]. The 10,000-hour rule -equivalent to an hour and a half per day, for twenty years – was devised by Gladwell from a paper by Anders in 1993 which similarly focussed on the success of musicians, specifically violinists, with regards to the time they spent practising. Though Gladwell’s golden figure of 10,000-hours, seeming perfectly rounded, it was formed from as an average from Ericsson’s research. Ericsson had found that by the age of twenty the best musicians from the Berlin Academy of Music, had accumulated a mean total of 10,000 hours of practice each, whereas the merely ‘good’ students had totalled 8,000, and the less able a little more than 4,000 hours [26]. The 10,000-hour rule that Gladwell conceived was intended to apply to anyone, and for any skill. So it seems, that practice does lead towards perfection, but the quality of practice and enjoyment is paramount in its effectiveness. It could be considered that the most talented, in a state of being a self fulfilling prophecy, practise more, try harder at the thing they are good at, because they find it enjoyable.

The chapter Experience: the enemy of creativity [page 27] examines one’s possible depletion of natural creativity as one ages, yet one through time and practice can advance their ‘tactical creativity’, coupling it with the improvement in aptitude, made through the build up of knowledge and understanding over time.

For a student of Architecture, it is almost inarguable that over time one gains knowledge of the subject. One may become visibly more skilled, producing wobbly-line sketches in the cliché-architect style, or renders so beautiful that they could by hung in an art gallery; however, does one’s creativity and process of design develop and advance in the same way? One must understand what is required to be highly proficient at a particular skill, in most cases it unlikely that one can be good at a skill and not knowing or having an understanding of, what it is that makes them good. Perhaps why many struggle to be creative in the realm of architecture is because they neither fully understand what creativity is, nor the techniques for tactical creativity.

Experience: the enemy of creativity

“Experience is the opposite of being creative… It’s wrong to be right.” as written by Paul Arden. As previously discussed, what designers conjure as solutions to a brief or problem, is based upon one’s knowledge and experience. Firstly, knowledge is accepted, safe, as when used, it is contradictory what originality is.

Secondly, experience is gained from acknowledging the solutions to old problems. Present situations and problems are most probably different from the old ones. However, it is common – and easier – to adapt past design solutions to satisfy the new problems. By basing decisions on knowledge and experience, one can prove that they are right and their solution is valid. However, definite proof usually means that the solution lacks both originality and creativity.

By sticking with what one knows, they are inhibiting their scope for new ideas. We are broadly very much afraid to be wrong and resort to ‘playing it safe’. This is a fault that many have acquired over time and one that may become more difficult to overcome the older we get. There is a certain creativity that children have and adults lack. As identified earlier, creativity is reliant upon playfulness. It is the lack of knowing what is possible and how ideas work in reality (knowledge) that makes children such successful creators and designers. Typically, children see everything as feasible, they are praised and encouraged by parents and teachers for the imaginative – and very much original – hypothetical ideas or physical creations, that they have produced however impractical. Adults, by contrast are versed in knowing what cannot be achieved and what is not able to be done [27]. Therefore it can be concluded that for designers, architects, and architecture students, one should at times prevent their rational thoughts, understanding, and knowledge of what can be achieved dominating themselves. Clearly every creative invention and solution has to exist in a world of constraints; however, disregarding what one knows as possible, conceiving what may seem unrealistic or even impossible, and then working back to accommodate or overcome the restrictions gives better chance of a successful and creative notions than if one starts with all obstacles and limits in clear view.


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This fascination with creativity is what intrinsically drives our design in architecture. It is a characteristic that many designers, architects, and architecture students, such as a myself, had previously accepted this intangible quality as inexplicable. Demonstrated in this special study is that creativity is a skill more than a talent. Though much of our creative ability is reliant on our talent, gained through experience, practice and exposure to what already exists, as evidenced in Kolb’s ‘experiential learning’ process. However, the exploration of being able to understand the creative process has provided the requirements to facilitate creativity in a tactical form, increasing and advancing one’s creative capabilities. John Cleese’s exploration of the creative process theorised that we can control and increase our creativity ability through ways of operating – the open and closed modes – since creativity is by majority a skill. As students of architecture, we have been brought up in and been part of an educational system of correctness, inducing the fear to be wrong. This premise is one that has stifled plenty of us in our creativity, which has been a consistent theme throughout my exploration, mentioned and implied by Cleese, Arden, Robinson, and Sloane. Playfulness and creativity [33] are coupled with one another, and it is playfulness which is most important to one’s creative success by instigating curiosity. Creativity is the manipulation “external symbols or objects to produce an unusual event uncommon to himself” – original to oneself, but not necessarily exclusively original to be creative.

Creativity isn’t explicitly taught at any educational level, but perhaps it cannot be; this special study aimed to provide an understanding and exploration of what creativity is, and from this, how one can alter and reform their own perspective towards the creative process – making important note that “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”




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