Editors note: This blogpost about creativity is written by danish architect and co-founder Mikkel Frost from Cebra Architects.
by Mikkel Frost
Over the last decade, the word creative has totally lost its value. Since the term has been both misused and overused it has become a virtually meaningless cliché. Creative is something everybody wants to be – or it’s something people outside of the arts want to be around. Creative is one of the most commonly-used words in job applications as applicants know that every employer wants creative people. If all job applications were true, most people on the planet would be creative. Creative has become so cool that it is actually not cool at all. When you hear people or companies say that they are creative you can be sure that they are not – they just want to be.
1st prize competition - Experimentarium in Hellerup in Denmark - Cebra Architects
Some clients believe that talented architects are creative around the clock. They think that their creativity is like a river of ideas and brilliant thoughts in which they can fill their bucket at will. To a certain extent this is true. Truly creative people get good ideas, but only rarely at gun point. Most of the time you don´t just get an idea – you build it. It does happen that lightening strikes and that the artist is filled with inexplicable divine inspiration, but let´s be honest: most of the time it’s all about hard work. In this sense creative people are just hard working people who won´t settle for the ordinary.
From time to time, we actually meet clients who´ll spend 15 minutes describing their commission before ending their presentation by asking, “So, what´s your take on this – what should it look like?”. In these situations, it would be great if we could verbally supply a finished blueprint, and we´d definitely make a lot more money that way. But this is not how it works. Most commissions are complex and even the most skilled architect has to analyze and digest the parameters and challenges it presents before a creative design can be achieved. This fact is closely related to the notorious problem of billing. When a client is presented with a simple plan – maybe even a single piece of paper – he´ll often wonder why he has to pay so much for it. The thing is that he doesn´t see all the work it took to get there. He doesn´t know that the bin is overflowing with discarded plans and proposals that led to the one solution in front of him. He doesn´t expect creativity to be hard work.
An education House for science in Bjerringbro, Denmark - Cebra Architects
Creativity is linked to innovation, which is another word that has been known to turn many people’s stomachs. There is an idea that creativity leads to innovation and innovation is obviously about inventing new things – new never-been-seen-before things. We´ve managed to stay in touch with our local architectural school and have had the pleasure of both teaching and attending critiques from time to time. During these sessions, it is clear that the students expect themselves to be creative and innovative – and so they should. However, and this is where it gets interesting, some students – especially freshmen – feel that they have to invent everything from scratch. That studying the works of great architects is like cheating. Imagine a writer who refused to read novels or a composer who refused to listen to music so no one could accuse him of not being original! Paul McCartney is supposed to have said that “everybody steals, but the good ones only steal from the best” and this is the essence of most creativity.
1st prize competition 'Isbjerget'/residence - in Aarhus in Denmark - Cebra Architects
Most of the time creating something is about putting the right parts together. Just like doing a collage or welding metal scraps together like Robert Jacobsen. Almost any work of art – poetry, music or architecture – is a collection of memories combined and used in a new way. Even the Sydney Opera House, which is probably one of the most striking architectural inventions ever, gained its inspiration from somewhere else. Utzon never hid the fact that he stole, or if you prefer borrowed, the Mayan concept of plateaus he saw in the Mexican jungle and turned them into his own architecture. In short, no invention is made from nothing and creativity is strongly linked to knowledge and experience.
1st. prize competition - Design Kindergarden in Kolding in Denmark - Cebra Architects
Most people would agree that the greatest artists are born with special talents. On the other hand, if we forget about the genius of rare people like Mozart or Picasso, creativity is something that can be learned or at least developed. This doesn´t mean that everybody can become a great architect, but most people can become a good one. Creativity is not only a gift – it is also a mindset and to some extent a working method.
As already mentioned, most innovation is the result of hard, unceasing work. In our office, we never settle for the first idea we get. In the end, we might return to that first intuitive pitch but not before we’ve been through numerous different schemes, and we will keep questioning the durability of a concept right up to the deadline. Some refer to this method as a kind of architectural Darwinism. We bring ideas to life but only the fittest will survive – or mutate to do so. Architects who become easily pleased with their ideas – and this is a common trap that even the best can fall into – often miss out on realizing the full potential of their work. A creative person will keep trying to improve the thing he is doing. The composer Gershwin said, “I don’t need more time, I need a deadline!” Without a time frame, we´ll go on improving our work forever.
Often outsiders ask us why we always have to pull all-nighters at the end of a deadline, “Couldn’t you just start earlier?”. In their minds architecture is like cutting firewood. The thing is – and this can be learned – that a creative process is about continual reworking and mass murdering your darlings. Most creativity can be compared with Hogwarts: partly magic but mostly practice.
Planning/competition - Gellerup - Cebra Architects
CEBRA has designed quite a few schools for both children and young adults. Through this, we´ve met numerous teachers, students and their parents, and we often hear them talk about the creative subjects. By this, people mean everything related to subjects such as music and painting. There is a deep-rooted presumption that creativity is basically just fooling around with bongo drums and paints. However, we must realize that much of what surrounds us is the result of creativity. And this is also true of the negative aspects of modern life, such as the highly destructive atom bomb. When thought of in this way, we can see that creativity is not just related to certain disciplines.
Whenever human capability expands, it is usually a result of creativity. This was the case when Ford revolutionized production methods so cars could be produced quickly and therefore more cheaply. It was the case when John Pemberton invented Coca Cola and it was the case when the Wright brothers finally realized Leonardo da Vinci’s principles of aviation. There is really no difference between a Picasso and an iPhone. They are both proof of human creativity. The reason that creativity can be applied in every field is because it is basically a working method. It is a process during which designers, poets or scientists keep questioning their work and results and revising habits and traditions. This is the very core of architectural development: we try every day to do new and better things. Not because architecture itself is creative, but because creative architects keep trying.
Editors note: See more of Cebras work at www.cebra.info.
You will also find this blogpost in Cebras latest publication, which can be seen here: