A Field for the Savage Mind

by Ginger Nolan

During the years of coursework prior to dissertation research, a PhD student in architecture history hears frequently of a thing called “the Archive,” to which she will someday pilgrimage. The Archive is shrouded in a good deal of mystery, but one assumes that it exists. One assumes, that is, some inherent, organic connection between one’s proposed thesis and the boxes of documents that will be used to expound it, almost as if the project would drift up out of those boxes like a ghost, perfectly intact. Only when it comes time to draft up the list of sources comprising the Archive does it become apparent that although the selection of sources obviously affects the substance of one’s project, these selections cannot be understood as indispensable to the thesis. Other bodies of evidence might equally have been consulted. For my own project, “‘Savage Mind’ / Savage Machine: The Invention of the Media Arts and Sciences, 1870–1985,” I prefer to stress the somewhat circumstantial relationship between the work’s archival sources and the argument that has drawn them together into “the Archive.” In claiming that the invented figure of “the savage mind” was instrumental to theories and methods of technological innovation,1 and by then identifying several nineteenth- and twentieth-century design institutions where this tendency was in evidence, I have pressed together quite disparate historic moments into a single story. The choice of such disparate moments is intended to prove the pervasiveness of an intellectual strategy—namely, the translation of ethnological, anthropological, and psychological theories into processes of technological invention—whose shadowy but dogged persistence throughout the twentieth century seems to have gone largely unnoticed both by its practitioners and by historians. In this case, the Archive’s existence must be invented.

Shortly after finding myself at one particular archive—specifically, at the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin—I was asked to write the first of three field reports for the SSRC describing my “transition into the field.” As I was then subletting a friend’s apartment in Berlin and spending each morning at the Bauhaus’s small, well-organized library, I had not really suffered any difficulties transitioning into this particular field. Unless of course the field comprised something beyond this daily research routine, something that eluded me. Since writing that first report, it has occurred to me that the more difficult—yet undoubtedly productive—transition into the field has in fact consisted in the very challenge of trying to think of my work as comprising a “field,” for this term, like “archive,” inevitably bears methodological implications, ones to which I, as a historian, was not so accustomed.

I suspect that in the early days of social-scientific disciplines, fieldwork was conceived of as analogous to agricultural processes: one first staked out the actual field, and only then, after surveying the soil and climate, would one begin to cultivate theories. But I was constructing an archive out of a theory, in such a way that seemed to resist the idea of a “field” rooted in a particular time and place. Yet if an archive might be understood as opening a view onto remote moments that no longer exist but that can speak indirectly to things that happen in “the field” of today, then there is a certain usefulness in accepting “field” and “archive” as overlapping categories. I therefore propose that in the following snapshots the field serve as the constructed frame through which I examine a historical ground, rather than forming the ground itself.

Snapshot 1: Aluminum Eyeball

"De hol-, stapel en tentbewoners in de Sahara."
Television documentary of Herman Haan's fieldwork.
From the NAi Collection/HAAX/0010.
(Photograph by the author.)

In the 1930s the Dutch modernist architect Herman Haan had a spherical aluminum cage constructed, designed to lift him up in the air, high over the escarpments of Bandiagara, Mali, and from there lower him into the abandoned cliff dwellings of the extinct Tellem, a people that had been wiped out many centuries before by the Dogon. Documentary footage shows Haan trapped in this small celestial orb, snapping photographs, swinging high above the cliffs like an eyeball unmoored from its body. This technological scaffolding through which Haan could glimpse otherwise inaccessible architectures suggests certain ways in which sensing and knowing could be reimagined as remote functions of the body, removed from the constraints of developed infrastructures or other means of human access.

Far from Bandiagara, I watched this footage of Haan on a small television set at the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) in Rotterdam, where Haan’s archives are kept. Also at the NAi are boxes of documents and drawings belonging to Team Ten, the late-modernist international group with which Haan was affiliated, as was the architect Aldo van Eyck, who joined Haan and a team of ethnopsychiatrists on a visit to the Dogon. At a Team Ten meeting in 1960, Haan and Van Eyck put together a multimedia presentation of their fieldwork on the Dogon. Using the findings of Marcel Griaule and of ethnopsychiatrists Paul Parin and Fritz Morgenthaler, the architects argued that “Dogon thought” demonstrated ways of binding together rituals, myths, manufactured objects, and architectures into a coherent unity, and that these underlying structures that wove together different facets of social life could be recuperated by modernist architects who wished to design cities, especially within the Global South, that were informed by a kind of natural semiotic richness. Haan’s aluminum eyeball thus might be seen as a structuring instrument of knowledge intended to uncover the knowledge structures of others. Aware that I am, in some ways, performing a similar operation when I try to understand Haan’s and Van Eyck’s work through my own questions about present-day urban development, infrastructural systems, and poverty, I think of the NAi archives where I watch old films on a TV screen as akin to an aluminum eyeball.

Snapshot 2: Savage Automatons

At the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin, I pored over stacks of documents and photographs related to Johannes Itten and his colleagues at the Bauhaus in the early 1920s. Itten taught one of the most influential courses at the Bauhaus, the mandatory Vorkurs, or “Preliminary Course,” and he began each class with yoga-derived breathing, singing, and movement exercises before tasking students with exercises in drawing, compositional analysis, color analysis, and comparisons of materials. His methods derived from a variety of sources: his training as an elementary-school teacher, his studies under the abstract painter Adolf Hölzel, and his participation in Mazdaznan, a cult that claimed to revive Zoroastrianism. But perhaps the most significant of his sources were the pedagogical methods developed by a nineteenth-century ethnologist of Passamquoddy, Romany, and Voodoo practices, Charles Godfrey Leland, whose ethnological work informed the innovative approach to design implemented during his directorship of the Public Industrial Arts School of Philadelphia. The pedagogical methods he developed there were published in Germany and became influential throughout Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century, apparently leading Itten to adopt many of them.2 By viewing Leland’s ethnological fieldwork and related pedagogical exercises (which were indebted to practices of magic) through the frame of the Bauhaus archives, I aim to uncover historic relations between ethnological conceptions of “savage thought” and new techniques of industrial-arts production.

At the Bauhaus-Archiv I came across two short essays written by Itten: “Rassenlehre und Kunstentwicklung” (“Racial Theory and Development of Art”) and a much later piece, “Schöpferische Automatismus” (“Creative Automatism”). The former constitutes a vaguely Hegelian schematization of the historic development of art, following a northward geographic trajectory from Africa to modern Europe. While seeming to suggest thereby that the arts of other times and places had been superseded by European modernism, Itten’s writings and pedagogical practices endeavor to show how modernist art condensed all the “past” tendencies of global arts into their purified structures or essences. As becomes clearer in Itten’s “Creative Automatism,” the Bauhaus’s insistence on logic, clarification, and systematization in the face of heterogeneous artistic influences required an imaginary recuperation of some alleged primal intelligence that might help give order to things. On the one hand (and Itten was likely following André Breton’s idea of automatic writing), this primal intelligence could be sought within a person’s subconscious reflexes; on the other hand, it was supposedly accessible through archaeologies and ethnologies of “savage” thought. Moreover, “savage” practices of magic were to be reinvented precisely so as to coordinate the workings of a person’s subconscious with his or her faculties of artistic production. Itten pushed his Vorkurs students toward a “savage” automatism. He led them in rituals of fasting and purging, egging them on toward quasi-hallucinatory states, not so much for the sake of attaining spiritual insight as to learn what things could be produced from trancelike operations. Although Itten was not dreaming of machines that would replace artists (as would be true in my later case studies), his pedagogical experiments figured the artist as a sort of creative machine. I would argue that this translation of an imagined “savagery” into practices of modernist design comes into clear focus only by understanding how Itten’s pedagogy was indebted to Leland’s studies of various diasporic peoples (e.g., Native Americans, Roma, and African-Americans). It was useful then to parse the Bauhaus archives through their relation to those of Leland and vice versa, while all along I struggled to understand precisely how these archives spoke of and to something else—to people who lacked an archive.

Snapshot 3: Imaginary Habitation

In archives belonging to Europe’s largest modern art museum, the Centre Pompidou, I came across the plight of a certain Raj Kumar, as described in a short UNESCO Courier article from 1976. Kumar, displaced by severe floods in India, had built his family a new mud and thatch house for $55, while the government was building $800 houses to sell to flood victims. The author argues that, rather than providing “‘decent dwellings’… at prices which [displaced people] cannot afford,” the government should focus instead on “environmental improvement for the shanty-towns.”3 The article advocates for a “self-help” housing movement, one seemingly intended to spread government-regulated systems of private home ownership without requiring governments to subsidize habitation for the poor, and frames the architectural work of the modernist Yona Friedman as a model for such systems. Friedman, a leading theorist in the self-help housing movement and also a participant in Team Ten, attempted to root such slum-modernization efforts in a “science” of mythological thought. He proposed that the intellectual processes responsible for mythmaking could be employed to reimagine an architecture of poverty, and he referred to “the bricoleur” who might cobble together a habitation using the intellectual structures of mythic thought within the organizational (infra-)structures provided by government agencies.4 Indeed, as Friedman’s megastructures provided only a skeletal framework rather than the actual shelter of roofs or walls, it was suggested that the inhabitant might employ the mechanisms of mythmaking to freely imagine roofs and walls—and perhaps then build them with his or her own resources.

Because Friedman considered the poor to be nomads by nature, he emphasized the flexibility and impermanence of these organizing structures for habitation, which were designed as a reconfigurable system. He sometimes worked with children (those little savage minds) in order to arrive at elementary architectural precepts, and in this respect he influenced the burgeoning research methods of the MIT Media Lab, whose founding director, Nicholas Negroponte, sought out Friedman as a mentor for his own design research on the architectural possibilities for organizing urban poverty. Friedman’s work tended increasingly toward computerized systems of planning and was thereby foundational to the Media Lab’s initial project to design an artificially intelligent “architecture machine” that would intervene directly in the slums and eliminate architects from processes of self-help architecture and planning. His work also contributed to the concept of flexible, minimal, or laissez-faire urbanism for the poor, which has lately regained currency among architects and planners as a way to channel the tides of homelessness related to urban migration and displacement. With Friedman, the modernization of poverty was made to appear as if it were emerging naturally from the intellectual operations of an imagined savage. The assumption inherent to this architectural strategy is that the savage—by dint of a “primitive” intellectual agility and flexible imagination—can always manage his or her own poverty within the biopolitical configurations of the metropolis.

The savage mind is an invention of modernity, but I would argue that its existence would have been harder to dream up without the likes of Raj Kumar, whose displacement compelled him to bricoler, to seemingly build something from nothing, a feat that designers could then interpret as revealing the naked structures of human intelligence bereft of acquired habit (because bereft of habitation). In a sense, then, it might be said that the savage mind—with its supposedly universal structures of thought—depends on the more historically contingent conditions of homelessness and displacement out of whose impoverishing circumstances intellectual bricolage would seem to emerge. If there exists a field for the savage mind, it is not geographically or historically rooted, since it corresponds to pervasive circumstances of homelessness. Indeed, the savage mind is really my own construction: my own field through which I view a history of modernist design and architecture.

  1. I am borrowing Claude Lévi-Strauss’s term “la pensée sauvage” (“wild thought” or “the savage mind”), although the discourse in question employed a more diverse vocabulary of “the primitive,” “mythology,” “ritual,” etc.
  2. Akos Moravanszky, “Educated Evolution: Darwinism, Design Education, and American Influence in Central Europe, 1898–1918,” in The Education of the Architect: Historiography, Urbanism, and the Growth of Architectural Knowledge, ed. Martha Pollak (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1997).
  3. Joseph Bain D’Souza, “Out in the Cold,” UNESCO Courier, June 1976; and Yona Friedman Dossier, “Housing à la Carte,” UNESCO Courier, June 1976.
  4. Claude Lévi-Strauss understood the bricoleur as inventing with physical materials in a way similar to how “the savage mind” invented stories and systems of knowledge.


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Ginger Nolan is a PhD candidate in architecture history and theory at Columbia University, where she is also involved in the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. Her dissertation, “‘Savage Mind’ / Savage Machine: The Invention of the Media Arts and Sciences, 1870–1985,” examines the historical construction of “media arts,” proposing that an imagined, originary intelligence has been instrumental to the development of new technological systems for design. She has conducted archival research in Europe and the United States throughout the past year. Her dissertation work has been supported by the SSRC International Dissertation Research Fellowship, the Deutsche Akademischer Austausch Dienst, the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She is currently a Mellon Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow of the Paul F. Lazarsfeld Center for the Social Sciences at Columbia University.