How to be a genius

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Einstein maintained that “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. He should know: he got off to a slow start and was known as ‘dopey’ at school. It was only much later, when he was 40, that he came to prominence when others caught up with his theories.

Terms associated with the concept were roundly disparaged for much of history. In the Bible knowledge is associated with sorrow, and the Taoists also say it leads to loss of happiness. Curiosity was discouraged and equated with danger: Erasmus said it should be restricted to the élite and should not be allowed to ‘contaminate’ women. The philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, called it, “the lust of the mind.” For Luther, reason was, “the devil’s whore.”

The Koran warns of the risks of innovation. Imagination is condemned as evil in the Bible: it implies disobedience. This was reinforced by Shakespeare, “He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous,” his Caesar says.

Creativity, thought by many to be the salvation of the twenty-first century, came into common usage as a term less than 150 years ago as French slang: the Impressionists explained themselves as ‘creative’ to the masses when they could not understand the paintings that they were seeing. This was in the 1870s; before then there was but one creator, the Creator, God.

People who are too clever by half often have to pay a heavy price for the courage of their convictions, whether it was Galileo during the Inquisition, or Steve Jobs who was fired by Apple at the age of 30, only to return and rescue his company from near bankruptcy two years later.

But what makes a genius in the first place? Howard Gardner, of Harvard Graduate School of Education, studied the lives of seven geniuses all born between 1856 and 1894: Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, T S Eliot, Gandhi and Martha Graham. Certain factors contributed to their eventual success, from their home life, to seeking out their peers, mastering their discipline and challenging accepted norms. Once they had made a breakthrough they tended to make others, every ten years or so, defining new ground for themselves and for others in their area of expertise. They amounted to some 21 factors, though not all found in all of them. But what they did all have in common, said Gardner, was they were, “exemplary creators.”

What he demonstrated, ultimately, was that geniuses are made, not born. So the US inventor, Thomas Edison, was right: “Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.”  So much for the California sperm bank that offered mothers the opportunity to be impregnated by a Nobel Prize winner; since when was any winner the son or daughter of another? Genius has little, if anything, to do with genes. Even the size of the brain does not count: Einstein’s weighed less than the average.

Let’s apply some of these findings to the world of architecture. The pantheon of gifted architects from the Renaissance onwards contains scores of names, some of whom were undoubtedly ‘exemplary creators’, others not.

Leonardo, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Raphael and Wren were not, at first, architects. They were painters, poets, musicians, sculptors, astronomers and mathematicians and came to architecture later. Palladio was an artisan, a stone-carver. Le Corbusier considered himself, first, a painter. Paxton was first a gardener. Thomas Jefferson, the single most important architect in America before Frank Lloyd Wright, had a demanding day job: he drafted his country’s Declaration of Independence and was US President. He was in his 50s when he designed is first buildings, using an edition of Palladio’s ‘Four Books’ as his Bible.

Palladio was enormously influential and popular, but was he a genius? Probably not. Why? Having taken the temple fronts of antiquity and applied them to domestic villas, he continued to do so ad infinitum. He was, as the neo-classicist architect Francis Terry (son of Quinlan) described him, “a one-trick pony.” Or take Mies van der Rohe. He said that one didn’t invent a new architecture every Monday morning and he didn’t; instead he perfected his rational approach and proportional system, so that clearly the Seagram building in New York had the same DNA as the Barcelona Pavilion of 30 years earlier.

One of his later works, the New National Gallery in Berlin, started out as an office block for Cuba which was mothballed. So much for the Modernist mantra of ‘form follows function’!

Wright, on the other hand, kept making breakthroughs: from his Prairie houses to the Larkin Building and Falling Water (designed – and named – in just a few hours, when his client announced he was on the way to see it) to the Guggenheim in New York, his Mile High Skyscraper (designed when the architect was 89) and his Living City project of two years later.

Le Corbusier was an even more ‘exemplary creator’. From an early Jura vernacular style and a flirtation with classicism, to his White villas of the 1920s culminating in the Villa Savoye. Later he went on to Regionalism then Unité d’Habitation and the Ronchamp pilgrimage chapel (which for Pevsner was the first self-consciously ‘irrational’ building, but to Jencks, the first Postmodern one), his Philips Pavilion in Brussels to the Maison de l’Homme in Zurich, the pre-cursor (according to Jencks, again) of the High-Tech architecture of Norman Foster and Richard Rogers.

What of some of today’s top names? Difficult to be decisive about, say, Foster and Rogers, who produce consistently excellent buildings in response to varied client briefs; the same may be said for Hopkins, Grimshaw, Piano and many, many more. Gehry and Hadid probably fit the same bill. Koolhaas, however, is probably the one to watch, the one most likely to produce a Ronchamp on a good day.

Thomas Heatherwick is a designer rather than architect, but he employs lots of them, and has already been described by Sir Terence Conran as the ‘Leonardo of our age’. He is way out in front in the genius stakes, it seems to me. And if we take those who trained as architects but applied their skills outside the profession, I would nominate the Turkish recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, Orhan Pamuk; and the American designer and polymath who came up with the ground-breaking Access series of travel guides, and later founded and originally chaired the TED conferences (it stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design).

Everyone has a brain with 10-billion cells, and every cell is capable of making 5,000 connections. So Einstein was probably right when he said, “Everybody is a genius.” But in most of us this brain-power is latent and barely exercised, and connectivity elusive. Just imagine a world in which it was otherwise.

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