According to a study by the University of Minnesota messy people are more creative and more intelligent and more creative than tidy ones. As I like to think of myself as reasonably intelligent and quite creative I was slightly put out as I cannot bear an untidy desk or an untidy kitchen or studio. Where I work (and even where I sleep) I need order. I have watched my husband put a chopping board on top of the Sunday papers and start preparing dinner. Now whilst I am delighted that he helps I want to scream at the disorder. Instead I remove the newspapers whilst his back is turned.
I can understand the theory behind messy spaces and creativity. I just can’t put it into practice, it pains me too much. So it was with some trepidation and some excitement that I started to read Tim Harford’s book “Messy”. Subtitled “How to be creative and resilient in a tidy minded world”, I wondered what I could learn about how to bring messiness into my life.
Beginning with Keith Jarrett’s famous concert in Cologne which almost never happened because the piano was frankly rubbish but became an iconic and best-selling jazz album, he takes us through a wide range of stories about people, music, books and even buildings that became something amazing because in one way or another they were messy.
My favourite example was Building 20 at MIT. Built during the Second World War as a temporary structure and only given planning permission on the grounds it was knocked down as soon as the war was over it went on to survive 55 years and became a magical incubator of ideas, research and innovation. Why? Because it was in theory a dreadful design.
Huge long corridors with more corridors coming off at right angles, the corridors were named by letter and the rooms by number, unlike most American buildings and all of the rest of the MIT buildings where the ground floor is 1, the first floor 2 etc. building 20 began with 0 for Ground and 1 for the floor above etc.The main corridor was corridor C and those that came off it were A, B, D, E and F. So a room on the first floor on corridor B could be 20B-133. Even the permanent residents were always getting lost.
Second, it was a dumping ground for projects that had nowhere else to go. Amar Bose was struggling to finish his dissertation and decided to buy a hi-fi. He was appalled by the quality and noticed that he was next to the acoustics lab. The dissertation was abandoned and he practically moved in to play in the lab. Three years later he produced a contraption with 22 speakers inside. Thus was the Bose Corporation born. There was a homeless botanist who squatted where he could find space, apparently he turned down a job at the Field Museum in Chicago to remain in Building 20, MIT later tried to evict him but lost the case! Noam Chomsky the anti-establishment linguist was next to the Reserve Officer Training Corps and the ice research lab. Solar car researchers (who used the corridors as roads) were next to the anthropologists. There was even a piano repair shop with the proud sign “computer free zone”.
The geography of the building and the chaotic allocation of rooms forced people who would never normally have crossed paths to become friends. People were always getting lost and found new labs and projects. The long corridors gave people time to talk as they looked for the room they wanted. Ideas and projects grew out of chance meetings and lost souls.
Finally, nobody worried about the building. It was supposed to have lasted only a few years after all. The infrastructure was run along exposed walls. If you wanted a phone line, an electric socket you just hacked straight in. If you wanted to run a wire from one room to another you didn’t have to put in a request and wait six months. You got out your drill and made a hole. The team building the atomic clock removed a whole floor in order to make room for it!
This is the messy I can understand. It is why places like Hubud in Bali work so well. I have a friend who spent 3 months building her online personal styling business there. She speaks glowingly of the mish-mash of people and skills in a small place which encourages and supports cross-fertilisation not possible in a trendy co-working space in Shoreditch where everyone goes home at the end of the day.
I have an idea for a small start-up. It is nothing like anything I have ever done or even thought about before. The idea came to me during a conversation with a dentist, and it has nothing to do with dentistry or teeth, but her need lit up a little bulb in my head. She has no idea of the seed she planted.
Messy is not, for me at least, being untidy it is about getting out of boxes, it is about building your own Building 20.
Love Gillie x