‘Anthropology and Architecture: A Misplaced Conversation’

Occlusions of the Operational Sequence: a coincidental conversation between Robert Matthew and André Leroi-Gourhan in six diagrams is an article I wrote for the Architectural Theory Review in response to its guest editor, Adam Jasper’s provocation, “where is the conversation between anthropology and architecture?” It was published a couple of months ago and you can download a pdf of it here: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/swdQZcc34c4K8iTkneR9/full

I posted an early version of the abstract in this blog a few posts ago – here is the final version:

In the 1960s, with western narratives of technical progress at their height, Robert Matthew, then president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan independently advocated totalising, systematic, technical models of human progress. Each model a reflection of the aims and methods of their own discipline: for the anthropologist, the evolution of Homo sapiens from Homo faber and the dissolving of human/technological boundaries; for the architect, a “collective welfare-socialism” and the systematisation of its built manifestations. Each of these models made manifest, I argue, through profoundly influential diagrams. Leroi-Gourhan’s chaîne opératoire describes the manufacture of prehistoric stone tools whilst the RIBA’s Plan of Work describes the design and construction of buildings. Through the embodied objects and processes of these diagrams this paper sees “chaîne” and “Plan” engaging in a kind of reciprocating exchange: a diagrammed conversation revealing, for each discipline, processes occluded or overlooked in the other.

Begun before I finished my PhD in March last year it has spawned many unused bits of itself; dead-end or slightly off-topic passages, or pieces for which I could never quite get the language right. I always dump these snippets into a Word file in case I need them again. I was idly looking back at some of the passages I’d cut out and found these. They’re interesting to me because together they represent a kind of fragmentary un-formed shadow article, an article like, but not actually the article I eventually wrote:

1. Chronologue v. Chronotope
“For Leroi-Gourhan, technical facts (operations or tools) can be classified in two different orders: a chronological order or a logical order.”[1]

If we concede, as I have argued, that design and reconstruction are acts of propositional making performed in the present,[2] then this makes available the possibility of a chronotopic[3] Plan of Work, more like the recursive ideal of the chaîne opératoire.



2. ‘There may never have been a humanity’
Herman Philipse saw the darker side to the kind of technological epiphany advocated in Leroi-Gourhan’s La Geste et la Parole; he saw an echo of a relatively recently defeated National Socialism which, “consisted in the confrontation of technology and modern man,” a confrontation which, “could carry man to destruction, and we should reflect on the metaphysical stance of technology in order to prepare its disappearance.”[4] As Bernard Stiegler put it, “‘there may perhaps never have been a humanity,’ ‘perhaps we are already no longer humans’: such will indeed be the possibilities that Gesture and Speech will keep us from ignoring.”[5]

3. Cybernetics
It is instructive to note that amongst the books recommended for background reading to those who might make use of the Handbook,[6] is Gordon Pask’s formative work on cybernetics, An Approach to Cybernetics[7] – a term now all but lost to architects in conventional practice. The committee responsible for the Handbook wrote of its relevance, “while much of the work in this field is quite remote from conventional problems of design in architectural and allied areas, some aspects of [cybernetics] are immediately relevant to current development in control mechanisms and self-evolving and self-reproducing systems both in terms of ideas and in terms of physical reality.”[8]

4. The 4 A’s
The hegemony of those institutions which would keep these disciplines separate, can be seen in the work, for example, of contemporary archaeologists and anthropologists concerned with the teasing out, forging or re-establishing of relationships between archaeology, architecture, art and anthropology, the absolute separation of which for them has been felt to be problematic. Tim Ingold, for example, through his, The 4 A’s: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture  seminars[9] at the University of Aberdeen, analysed how art and anthropology may share goals and methodologies, and likewise for architecture and archaeology; how they may share homologous aims. In light of all this one can see the RIBA Plan of Work and the chaîne opératoire engaging in a kind of abbreviated diagrammed conversation, revealing occluded disciplinary aims or offering alternative ways of apprehending otherwise conventional processes. These ‘revelations’ are precipitated only through their interdisciplinary use or analysis.

5. ‘The Asymmetrical Condition’
Catherine Ingraham draws a somewhat more, if not exactly optimistic, then certainly ambiguous conclusion, “at the fantastical moment of evolution when the body extrudes its musculature, its nervous system, its psychological modes, its hard and soft systems into language, tools, technologies and material inventions, all aspects of the human world might be pronounced as simultaneously alive and dead.”[10]

6. ‘it is the tool, that invents the human, not the human who invents the technical’

Technology and Terminology of Knapped Stone

Technology and Terminology of Knapped Stone (1995 in orig. French edition) 15

 There was, over time, a constant manipulation, and re-creation, of the chaîne opératoire from detailed tool employed to analyse the life-cycles of the products of specific technologies to, at times, grossly simplified yet elegantly conceptual versions like this by Jacques Pelegrin, returning almost to Leroi-Gourhan’s earliest formulations of an over-arching model of evolutionary shift. This oscillation between broad idea and specific application is entirely missing from the development of the Plan of Work. The only aspects of the Plan which are ever dealt with in detail by architects are those which concern design.

But what if the Plan of Work and other systematisations of construction processes like it are looked at through the lenses of Leroi-Gourhan’s schemas of exteriorisation, through their cyclical analyses of gesture, for example? Stiegler understands this shift from dumb systematisation to reciprocating embedded schema as a necessary “rupture.” “This rupture, as he maintains, happens suddenly, in the form of a process of exteriorization which, from the point of view of paleontology, means that the appearance of the human is the appearance of the technical. Leroi-Gourhan specifies this as the appearance of language. The movement inherent in this process of exteriorization is paradoxical: Leroi-Gourhan in fact says that it is the tool, that is, tekhnê, that invents the human, not the human who invents the technical.”[11]

Shuttling between the “conceptual” and the “operative” as Pelegrin does, it becomes clear that the feedback is not simply between parts of a construction process (whether building or lithic) but between the human and the technical. Until, as Leroi-Gourhan claimed, they become indivisible.

7. ‘the line that is not a line’
To take one ubiquitous element of the graphics of diagrams (albeit used sparingly in the diagrams illustrated here) the dotted line is exemplary as a diagrammatic medium. Ingold describes it as “the line that is not a line – a succession of instants in which nothing moves or grows.”[12]

This ‘diagram of diagrams’ attempts to work “diagrammatically” in the sense meant by K. Michael Hays. Hays explains that to work diagrammatically is not the same as “simply working with diagrams,” instead it “implies a particular orientation, one which displays at once both a social and a disciplinary project.”[13] In his close reading of Gilles Deleuze’s Foucault,[14] Hays emphasises this point, “Deleuze’s reading of that diagram [is] a cartography of an entire social and historical field,”[15] precisely Leroi-Gourhan’s intention for the chaîne opératoire.

8. ‘analogous instruments’
The “mantic” or divinatory process of design, is here seen as the ritualised use of “analogous instruments” such as drawings. These drawings-as-instruments, for Frascari, seem to probe time and space searching for an opportunity to manifest themselves as buildings;

An architectural projection is graphically divined through rules when the opportunity for construction arises. The translation of edifices into drawings and of drawing into edifices is the foundation of the mantic paradigm in architecture.[16]

Here, the architect’s secret knowledge manifested in drawing and drawings enables them to see the invisible (draw a plan by observing only the outside of a building), see backwards in time (draw a ruined building as if it were complete) and to see the future (design a building).[17] Alongside drawings, I would argue, the R.I.B.A Plan of Work is another such mantic, divinatory, “analogous instrument.”

9. The architect purports to practice in future-facing mode
As for the Plan of Work, Leroi-Gourhan might have enjoyed the elision between processes of technique and the implication of human interface, the embedding of the human in the technical process. But its denial of temporal fluidity would have seemed, to him, counter-productively turgid. I have argued above that the architect purports to practice in future-facing mode–to design artefacts to be made in the future, whereas the archaeologist purports to practice in past-facing mode–to reconstruct artefacts (or cultures) that were made, or which existed, in the past; an echo of Stiegler’s forward and backward facing–Promethean and Epimethean–temporal registers. I have also suggested that, like Frascari’s “mantic” or divinatory process, both the architect and the archaeologist in fact practice acts of propositional making, performed in the present through the indexical relationship between designer and artefact.

10. An abbreviated, diagrammed conversation
In light of these correspondences, one can see the RIBA Plan of Work and the chaîne opératoire engaging in a kind of abbreviated, diagrammed conversation, revealing occluded disciplinary aims, or offering to each other alternative ways of apprehending otherwise conventional processes. These ‘revelations’ are precipitated only through their interdisciplinary use or analysis. By allowing them to talk to each other.


These discarded excerpts and here in particular the implication of rapid too-ing and fro-ing reveal for me an understanding of practice and theory as complementary ‘lenses’ or perhaps ‘relays’ through which to understand and participate in architecture, Jane Rendell says,

[Deleuze] comprehends a ‘new relation between theory and practice’. Rather than understanding practice as an application of theory or as the inspiration for theory, Deleuze suggests that these ‘new relationships appear more fragmentary and partial’, and discusses their relationship in terms of what he calls ‘relays’: ‘Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another.’[18]



[1] Françoise Audouze, “Leroi-Gourhan, a Philosopher of Technique and Evolution,” Journal of Archaeological Research 10, no. 4 (2002): 284.

[2] Alessandro Zambelli, “Scandalous Artifacts: Practice between Archaeology and Architecture,” Architecture and Culture 1, no. 1-2 (2013).

[3] A term coined by Mikhail Bakhtin, “discrete temporal instances tied to place and event express[ing] the inseparability of space and time […] spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history”. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. M. Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). 84

[4] Herman Philipse, Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being: A Critical Interpretation (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998), 275.

[5] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998), 132.

[6] R. A. Green and W. A. Watson, eds., Handbook of Architectural Practice and Management: 1st Instalment, 1st ed. (London: RIBA, 1963).

[7] Gordon Pask, An Approach to Cybernetics (London: Hutchinson, 1961).

[8] J. A. Powell, ed. Handbook of Architectural Practice and Management: 3rd Instalment, 1st ed. (London: RIBA, 1965), 3.210.

[9] The name given by Tim Ingold variously to a course, seminars and workshops in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen from 2003 until the publishing in 2013 of:  Ingold, Making : Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture.

I attended one of these seminars in March 2008.

[10] Catherine Ingraham, Architecture, Animal, Human: The Asymmetrical Condition (London: Routledge, 2006), 235.

[11] Stiegler, 141.

[12] Tim Ingold, Lines: A Brief History (London: Routledge, 2007), 3.

[13] Robert E. Somol, “Dummy Text, or the Diagrammatic Basis of Contemporary Architecture,” in Diagram Diaries, ed. Peter Eisenman (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999), 23.

[14] Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (London: Continuum, 2006), 30.

[15] Christoph Lueder, “Diagram Ecologies − Diagrams as Science and Game Board,” in Diagrammatic Representation and Inference: 7th International Conference, Diagrams, ed. Philip Cox, Beryl Plimmer, and Peter Rodgers (Canterbury: Springer, 2012), 215.

[16] Marco Frascari and William Braham, “On the Mantic Paradigm in Architecture: The Projective Evocation of Future Edifices,” Proceedings of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Annual Meeting  (1994): 215.

[17] Ibid., 263.

[18] Jane Rendell, Art and Architecture: A Place Between (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006), 9-10.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s