On Building

An Untutored Process
(Part 2 in a Series)

This article appeared in the July 2007 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of
Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

Advertisements tap into the unconscious mind, so the ad world has long fascinated San Francisco architect Donald MacDonald. While working on a master’s in architecture at Columbia University, he investigated “hidden persuaders” — colors and forms that impel people to buy. After studying Jung and Freud, he wrote a thesis on subliminal feelings. Such pursuits may seem irrelevant for architects, but MacDonald intended for them to cross-fertilize his architecture. He can’t understand why his colleagues don’t draw on the abundant psychological knowledge in advertising: “You would think architecture would dig into those zones, but it never did.”

A MacDonald-designed condominium building
at 1083 Clay Street on Nob Hill in San Francisco.

Given that MacDonald, 72, designed the new Bay Bridge span, several innovative San Francisco infill housing projects and buildings at Stanford, UC Davis and other institutions, his less pragmatic side may seem surprising. He has taught courses on intuition at UC Berkeley, California College of the Arts and the University of Oklahoma. According to MacDonald, students and professors don’t know how to access or even discuss this fertile resource. In “Creating with Intuition,” his 1989 article for Oblong (a UC Berkeley journal), he wrote that when architects bury creative impulses under stultifying layers of Cartesianism, “the results are predictable: sterile design and … a gnawing lack of self-fulfillment.”

By intuition, he sometimes means acting on a hunch without having knowledge to support that feeling. MacDonald says intuition has helped him make some highly beneficial, quick decisions in life. “There’s a certain feeling, and I just act on it. When things come together, you really know it’s going to hit. And it hits, and you’re right on target.” He believes life experience enables people to make accurate snap judgments and “take a gamble that really isn’t a gamble. To other people, you’re really taking a chance. But because you’ve got this background, it’s not such a big deal.”

When he speaks of artistic intuition, he means “moving into an unknown space in your mind” and letting yourself be guided by whatever feels good as you create. In such a state, he draws fluid, “personalized” and “emotional” lines that “I could never reproduce, because of the way I did it.” At such times, “I’ve got a direct connection to my head, and it’s coming right down my arm and into the pencil.” Mesmerized while his head-arm-pencil creates something, he doesn’t ask what it means. Rather, he enjoys an “untutored process.”

Six detached townhouses designed by MacDonald and built on
Oak Street in the Western Addition section of San Francisco.

In MacDonald’s view, the “twilight zone” (the period just before sleep and the hour or so after awakening) is the ideal time to harvest unconscious ideas. He believes his mind tries to solve problems as he sleeps, so he gathers information about a subject, then lets his brain work through it while he rests. To capture ideas bubbling up in the morning, he doodles in a sketchbook (one that provides ample inspiration whenever he reviews it). Unconcerned with the worth or meaning of an idea, MacDonald says, “I just accept it and put it down.” This habit has helped him win two national design competitions, including a structural system that he dreamed about and whipped out that day. Most people figure they can remember early-morning inspirations and record them later. But, says MacDonald, “They forget the damn thing. You gotta get it down.”

Attributing his mental freeness to a rural childhood in Alberta, Canada, MacDonald says he was constantly inventing, reaching, searching and problem solving in the woods: “I did a lot of things that were untutored.” He figures that in a gritty urban environment with noise, traffic, dirt and crime, people always filter out their surroundings. He never needed to do that.

His joyful explorations continued when he studied at the University of Oklahoma under Herb Greene, who followed Bruce Goff’s methodology. “Goff really developed intuition,” says MacDonald. “He never really criticized. He encouraged your own way of thinking.” At Oklahoma, MacDonald learned to solve problems intuitively and independently. “I was a weed growing! Five years of that!” he says. “If I’d gone to an eastern school like Harvard or Yale as an undergraduate, it would have knocked a lot of that out of me.”

At Columbia, he received a whopping dose of “historicism” and “rationalization” but says he remained impervious because “I was already so developed in my own way of thinking.” Similarly, in ultra-urban San Francisco, he has maintained a childhood mindset for 40 years. MacDonald says, “I never changed my thinking patterns.”

Go to Part 1 of this series.
Go to Part 3 of this series.
Go to Part 4 of this series.
Go to Part 5 of this series.
Go to Part 6 of this series.