Kyna Leski Interview: The Storm of Creativity

By Rachel Back | Oct 28, 2015

Creativity is something that everyone uses, consciously or otherwise. We are all inherently creative, using self made languages to solve problems, understand concepts and to navigate our way through difficult tasks. It is a human quality that is impossible to shake, but how can we use this gift more efficiently? Kyna Leski, a professor at RISD and a principle of 3SIX0 Architecture has devoted her life to understanding this power, and helping others use it better. I had the pleasure of sitting down with her to ask her some questions about design principles, architecture, and most importantly, her new book, The Storm of Creativity.

Rachel Back (M.Arch, 2017):   The making of design principles is grounded in the premise that a work of architecture is science of the unique and unrepeatable, and that design principles is developed of the content, conditions and forces of the projects situation.

Kyna Leski:   Science is usually the repeatable, and architecture as an art, is in a way the inverse of that: The unique and unrepeatable.

RB:   That being said, can architecture then dictate the content and conditions of its surroundings, instead of the surroundings dictating the conditions of the architecture?

KL:   Everything has an affect, especially with ‘great works of architecture’. If you think of the Villa Malaparte, in Capri, which has a spectacular site, an amazing site, I can imagine that before it was built, people could even protest that a house would go there because the site was so beautiful. But now that it’s there, you don’t want it to go away, and I think that is related to this idea that a work of art creates its own necessity. Once it is created you need it. Think of the Pantheon, the impact that it has is so great that it is needed and a place can be dependent on it; a city can depend upon it; a society can be dependent on it. I think that is what the film, My Architect that was done on Louis Kahn, by his son, is about. They go to visit his buildings in Bangladesh and the people there say “He created ‘Form’ for us, he gave us Form.’ Which is the real sense of the word Form, that it is not just shape, it forms.

RB:   I remember starting design principles last year, and having a really hard time in the beginning understanding what the class was trying to do, and I remember having an epiphany moment where I just kind of understood what was happening. If you look back on your career, or as a student, do you have a memory of that epiphany moment?

Kyna Leski:   I had a lot of faith in my first teacher, who was Anthony Candito. We had a great problem, which was a year long, it wasn’t just one semester. It started by taking two wooden posts, 8 inches by 8 inches by 12 feet long, span them and brace them. So at first the language made it sound like a structural problem, and then in actually solving it, it became a construction problem; and then there were different shapes you could make and it seemed sculptural. Then you finally realized that you are making a gate, and at that moment you realize ‘Oh wow, there is a here and there is a there and an in between the here and there.’ To me it was a eureka moment of “that’s architecture.”

And then there were probably a lot of failures that, which, at the time, didn’t seem like epiphanies, but later when I moved through them, I realized they were. I think that this came after these failures, when I was John Hejduk’s student. The best way I can put it is was, exactly the thing I wanted to do, the thing that gave me joy, was what I should be doing. That was after going through this difficult period of trying to do what I thought I was supposed to be doing. And then having John Hejduk showed me what I have to do, which was what I wanted to do, which was who I am.

RB:   Throughout the book you are mapping the creative process and using the analogy of tracing the path of water through a storm. The beginning stage of a rainstorm is either accumulation or transpiration. I look at this stage as two different beginnings. Transpiration is where the water comes off of the trees, to me that would be where you are starting a project in isolation and only using the site as inspiration. And the other one, accumulation, is if you are working with other people and feeding off their talents and energy, or using prior knowledge of the project. Do you think one of these beginnings is more valuable than the other?

KL:   That is not how I see the storm. If you look into a word enough, it becomes bigger than the colloquial. So storm, for me, can be anything from an electrical storm to rain storm, its more of a phenomenon than weather alone, although weather is the one I am using in the book, and water. For me there are many aspects of storm and it is very much about the fact that a storm seems to come out of nothing, but doesn’t. It becomes an entity only when it becomes. Before the storm, there is no storm, but there is the stuff of a storm. There are particles and moisture and heat and the rotation of the earth. The eddy or disturbance is really important, where something gets undone. I don’t think there is a creative process without undoing something. And so the negative pressure that is created when something is disturbed or undone, is a kind of eddy that starts and gathers and builds from its environment, which might be other people like you mentioned, or it might literally be the environment, or it might be what you ate and what you saw in a movie or what book you read or your training, or the situation of a project. Your gathering from that, and it is built up, and there is a whole transformation that takes place in terms of energy. With a storm it is the collision of water of molecules that collide and escape the ocean. A hurricane is born west off the coast of Africa, the water has to be 80 degrees so that the molecules are moving around enough, that they collide enough and they escape the ocean building the moisture in the air. So that kind of collision and disturbance is the origin. There is no thing to point to other than it came out of that environment. There is nothing that is storm, other than its made of that stuff, and I think that is parallel to the creative process. There is no entity until it has been created out of the situation.

RB:   If students were to have a dual major, is there another field that you think pairs great with architecture. Is there a perfect pairing?

KL:   I don’t know if there is a perfect pairing, but I always heard when I was a student that film was the closest to architecture. To me it makes sense if you look at story boards, especially if you look at very structured film makers. If you look at Eisenstein, where you see this structuring that is very similar. But the other thing that is very relevant is how you can’t see the whole piece of architecture from a single point of view, you accumulate many points of view and then that becomes what it is, and that is true certainly with a film. You absorb it over time, in many points of view, and then that is also the film, its not a static thing. Also, I think of the kind of tolerances in furniture design, material reasoning in ceramics, attention to detail of jewelry would be valuable; as textiles is so related. Kenneth Frampton talks about the word “textile,” and how it is related to “text” and “tile” and “tectonics” and “syntax.” I would be at a loss to find a department that is not relevant.

RB:   You use the discovery of continental drift as an explanation of the creative process in the book. I know a lot of people who aren’t in what they think is a creative field, that feel like they don’t know how to engage in the creative process, or its foreign to them. Which is ridiculous, because as a child everyone is creative, so everyone is inherently creative. So I thought it might be helpful if you could go into a little of an explanation on that.

KL:   This I was taught by Stephen Jay Gould, who was the evolutionary biologist who taught at Harvard. I am getting these lessons about creativity from a scientist, so there you go. He talked about Wegener who was a meteorologist who travelled and observed. He found rock in Africa that matched rock in New England. He went to a geology convention saying, these continents were all attached once, because he had collected all the evidence, but he didn’t understand the mechanism, so they laughed at him. He was a good observer, he had all the evidence, he had a good theory, but he didn’t have the mechanism. This idea of creativity that you know is infectious, or one storm can create another storm, that there is no line between one part of weather and another. Many years later, Lesson Two. The English came up with this machine that dug up rocks under the ocean. I don’t know why, but they just started digging up rocks from the ocean floor. And they started finding that the rocks had magnetism when they were molten. The igneous rock that spewed out of the oceanic ridge locks in the magnetism. And they started noticing that the further away you get for the ridge, the magnetism flipped. So the new rock is closer to the ridge and old rock is farther away. And they saw that the magnetism flipped further away, and they realized that the north pole wasn’t the north pole 6.5 million years ago. At the same time the Japanese were trying to work on tectonic issues because of all the earth quakes they had suffered. So they put together all this finding from the British and the evidence from Wegener to come up with the explanation of plate tectonics and all the plate activity. There are many lessons from this example. The lesson of the British is a really good lesson: you don’t have to know where something is going, you just have to do something, that is fruitful. And they made a great discovery. It is harder to say, “I am going to go work on world peace” and then work on world peace in its entirety, directly. The contagious nature of these more specific discoveries and the fact that all three were needed to put together plate tectonics. That was the lesson.

RB:   Is there anything you discovered while writing the book that you had never though of the creative process or that changed what you previously had thought?

KL:   Yes, totally. I started writing this a long time ago, but I wasn’t writing a book, I was just writing little excerpts of things. I am actually not a very verbal person, and was a very shy person, I had never spoke in public until I was 28 years old. So when I started teaching I was quiet, I just had little condensed, dense messages that I sort of accumulated over years of teaching. So when it came to writing the book I had to organize them. The main thing that came from writing the book was the storm; it substituted for an outline. The storm to me is a geometric model. that is operating over time and it is my way of diagraming creativity. The book is really my putting words to that.

RB:   You love honestly, do you think a piece of art or architecture can portray honestly or sincerity, without anyone knowing what its intentions were, and do you have an example?

KL:   Sverre Fehn, a Norwegian architect comes to mind, and I am friends with several of his students. What I like about his work, (and this is coming at it knowing something about the process of design, because we are in this business, so we can’t be naïve), is what I believe happened in the process of his work: that he was working and something came up, and where the rest of us would have said ‘oh no, I can’t do that’ because it is weird or different, or it is wrong, he accepted what appeared, truly. I think his work is filled with these oddities, that happen to all of us in our process, but we are afraid of them or think they are not cool and he lets them happen, and I really admire that about his work.

RB:   You have invested your life in navigating through the creative process, if there was a timeline and there was an end, where in that process or journey are you now? Or are you at a point where you have finished the path and are going back and fine tuning things?

KL:   Oh, I don’t think I am finished at all. I feel like I have something coherent to build upon. What I meant by that is my father was an architect and a painter, and a good one at both. Really really gifted from a school in London, that James Stirling went to. And he was my first teacher. I was watching his works happen in the world, and seeing people respond to them, seeing what happened to intentions. As a very young child, my father would set up still lifes and I would paint them when I was like 3 or something, so I have been an observer and participant for my whole life and then teaching makes you have to go beyond being a sort of participant. I mean you are an observer again as a teacher, but you have to make it a little more coherent, but in bits, that are related to what is happening in the class. Making an arc to the whole thing came out of doing the book. And that actually is exciting, because it gives you some structure to gather more. I feel like I am more equipped now to know more.



For more insights into the creative process, get a copy of The Storm of Creativity, by Kyna Leski.




Spring 2017 Events

  • February 23, 6:30 PM Brett Schneider, Guy Nordenson and Associates & RISD Architecture
  • March 2, 6:30 PM at RISD Auditorium Petra Blaisse, Inside Outside, Hosted with INTAR, Textiles, RISD Museum
  • February 27, 6:30 PM Jeanette Kuo, Karamuk*Kuo
  • March 13, 6:30 PM Allan Wexler, Allan Wexler Studio, Hosted with ID
  • March 16, 6:30 PM Jarrett Walker, Jarrett Walker + Associates
  • April 3, 6:30 PM Kunle Adeyemi, NLÉ, Yoder Lecture
  • April 24, 6:30 PM Nader & Katie Faulkner, NADAAA, Shoemaker Lecture
  • May 11, 6:30 PM Shumi Bose, Central Saint Martins & Architectural Association

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