Current Institutional Affiliation
Visiting Assistant Professor, Undergraduate Architecture, Pratt Institute

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2011
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Architecture History and Theory, Columbia University
How the ‘Savage Mind’ Became the Artificial Mind: Or, Some Strange Ways That Architecture and Design Made Use of the Social Sciences,1880-1980

This dissertation critically examines how twentieth-century architects and systems-designers in Europe and the U.S. attempted to translate theories of the ‘savage mind’ into a modern science of creativity. While it is well-known that European avant-gardes often used artefacts from small-scale societies as models to imitate, there is scant scholarship accounting for how the actual thought processes of so-called primitives were studied as models for developing avant-garde design methodologies. Concerned with creating relationships that supposedly linked designed things to larger contexts of signification, many designers turned to anthropological studies of small-scale societies and to psychological studies of child development, assuming that such cases offered pared-down, ‘authentic’ versions of how humans construct systems of signification that permeate all aspects of social life. I am selecting three events/institutions that each demonstrate how a particular theory of design drew from the disciplines of anthropology and psychology: The Public Industrial Arts School of Philadelphia (1880) and its influence on the Bauhaus; the French ethnographic mission, “Dakar-Djibouti”(1931), published by the Surrealists and thereby leading the architect, Aldo Van Eyck, to conduct field work among the Dogon (1960); and finally, the development of the M.I.T. Media Lab (1980) from its beginnings as the Architecture Machine Group (1969). I will use these cases to trace changes in designers’ interpretations of ‘the primitive’. Whereas at the turn-of-the-century, designers translated primitivist theories into techniques of cultivating creativity and dexterity, by the late twentieth century, theories of primitivism were used towards inventing machines that could think and design. This thesis thus interrogates the historic connection between how early avant-garde applications of the burgeoning social sciences affected the eventual development of technologies of artificial intelligence.