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Savage Minds

(A Note on Brutalist Bricolage)

HAL FOSTER
It would seem that mythological worlds have been
built up, only to be shattered again, and that new
worlds were built from the fragments.
—Franz Boas as quoted by Claude
Lévi-Strauss in La Pensée sauvage, 1962
The architects Alison and Peter Smithson and the artists Eduardo Paolozzi
and Nigel Henderson developed the notion of New Brutalism in the early 1950s
in the context of the Independent Group (IG), which was forged in the crucible of
the austerity of postwar Britain, an austerity intensified by the bounty of
American consumerism on the horizon. In a retrospect from the late 1980s, the
Smithsons defined this “as found” aesthetic as “a confronting recognition of what
the postwar world actually was like”:
In a society that had nothing. You reached for what there was, previously unthought of things. . . . We were concerned with the seeing of materials for what they were: the woodness of wood, the sandinesss of sand.
With this came a distaste of the simulated.1
Implicitly, the Smithsons cast Brutalism as a realism against the simulacral aspect of
an emergent culture of advertising and marketing, of the becoming-image of things.
Yet we know that the IG was also fascinated by this culture, and, with its echo of the
objet trouvé, the “as found” advanced its own version of image-making too. However, in
this case, the Smithsons claimed, “the image was discovered within the process of
making the work,” whether this be a building, a picture, or an object.2
In his influential definition of Brutalism from 1955, Reyner Banham also
stressed, along with “clear exhibition of structure” (a modernist value the
Smithsons sought to reclaim), “valuation of material ‘as found’” and “memorabil1.
Alison and Peter Smithson, “The ‘As Found’ and the ‘Found,’” in As Found: The Discovery of
the Ordinary, ed. Claude Lichtenstein and Thomas Schregenberger (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers,
2001), p. 40.
2.
Ibid., p. 44.
OCTOBER 136, Spring 2011, pp. 182–191. © 2011 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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ity as an image.”3 Although Banham did not acknowledge it here, a tension existed
between these two aims, and it ran through most activities of the IG. We need
think only of Parallel of Life and Art, curated by the Smithsons, Paolozzi, and
Henderson at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in the fall of 1953, a controversial array of 122 diverse photographs (aerial views, microscopic specimens,
X-rays, art works, everyday events, archival images . . . ) that insisted, equally and
oppositely, on the physical actuality and the imagistic virtuality of the prints. Or
consider the much-remarked contrast between the two IG exhibits in This Is
Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery in the summer of 1956: where the Brutalist
group of the Smithsons, Paolozzi, and Henderson constructed Patio & Pavilion, a
bare wood shed roofed with corrugated plastic and scattered with symbolic relics
(as if “excavated after an atomic holocaust,” Banham commented), the proto-Pop
group of Richard Hamilton, John McHale, and John Voelcker contrived a frantic
funhouse on the theme of the new sensorium effected by mass-media culture.4
This tension between material and image was a generative one, however, for it
led Brutalist artists, in search of forms “discovered within the process of making,” to a
renewed practice of collage, a tackboard aesthetic of juxtaposition, as advanced not
only in most exhibitions produced by IG members, but also in the work of Paolozzi,
Henderson, and others.5 Collage is “my only method,” remarked Paolozzi (who
extended it to the word manipulations of his poetry), and the same is true of
Henderson, at least in his image-screens and photograms.6 Paolozzi and Henderson
were familiar with Dadaist and Surrealist collage from their stays in Paris, where
(largely through Wyn Henderson, mother of Nigel, who ran the Peggy Guggenheim
Gallery in London) they came into contact with key figures in both movements.
Indeed, in Collages and Objects, a show curated by Lawrence Alloway at the ICA in fall
1954, the two young British artists exhibited alongside Picasso, Schwitters, and Ernst.
If Dadaist collage tends to a transgressive montage of high and low reproductions located in the world, Surrealist collage tends to a disruptive montage of found
images that, transformed into fantasmatic scenes, are referred to the unconscious. In
3.
Reyner Banham, “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Review 118 (December 1955), pp. 355–61;
reproduced in this volume.
4.
Banham, “This Is Tomorrow Exhibit,” Architectural Review 120 (September 1956), pp. 186–88;
reproduced in this volume. These exhibits were but two of twelve included in This Is Tomorrow, most of
which were done by non-IG members. The material-image tension, which Banham did register in his
review of Parallel, was also active within the Smithsons; in the same year as the Brutalist Patio &
Pavilion, they presented the proto-Pop House of the Future. On this convergence, see Beatriz Colomina,
“Friends of the Future: A Conversation with Peter Smithson,” October 94 (Fall 2000), pp. 17–34.
Another tension would soon emerge in the thinking of Banham, that between Brutalist imageability as
“memorability” and Pop imageability as “expendability.”
5.
As Toni del Renzio commented in retrospect, “We all had tackboards in our homes or our
workspaces where we constantly pinned things up, removed things, and they were always in odd juxtapositions. . . . Artists had always done that but we believed it was a technique”; quoted in David Robbins,
ed., The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,
1990), p. 37.
6.
Eduardo Paolozzi, “Interview between Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton” (1964), in
Eduardo Paolozzi: Writings and Interviews, ed. Robin Spencer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 125.

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effect, Surrealist collage is patterned on the enigma of the psychosexual event, or, as
Ernst put it in his classic paraphrase of Lautréamont, “the coupling of two realities,
irreconcilable in appearance, upon a place which apparently does not suit them.”7
“For me the found fragment, the objet trouvé, works like a talisman,” Henderson
commented in the idiom of the Surrealist marvelous; it “intercept[s] your passage and
wink[s] ‘its’ message specifically at & for you. . . .”8 “That French approach, the need,
the passion, to consider and handle things at the same time,” Paolozzi added with the
Surrealist encounter in mind, is “very necessary for me. . . . [T]he concern with different materials, disparate ideas . . . becomes almost a description of the creative act—to
juggle with these things.”9
At the same time, Brutalist collage transvalued Dadaist and Surrealist versions:
rather than privilege either the social or the subjective, it explored the intermingling
of the two, whether this confusion was prompted by the traumatic effects of the war
years or the seductive promises of consumer culture. “It’s no longer necessary for us
individually to dream,” J. G. Ballard once remarked to Paolozzi; “the fiction is all out
there.”10 In this light, we might relate Brutalist collage not only to avant-garde precedents in art but also to contemporaneous models in adjacent fields concerned with
the interconnection of the social and the subjective. The one I propose is familiar
enough: the Lévi-Straussian account of the myth as a process of bricolage. The
bricoleur, Lévi-Strauss writes in a well-known definition of 1962, “makes do with
‘whatever is at hand,’ which is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always
finite and is also heterogeneous”; in contradistinction to “the engineer [who] questions the universe,” the bricoleur treats “a collection of oddments left over from
human endeavors.”11 This posture resonates with the Smithsons reaching for “what
there was, previously unthought of things,” and with Paolozzi juggling with “different
materials, disparate ideas.”12 Although the bricoleur is sensitive to the materiality
7.
Max Ernst, Beyond Painting (1936; New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1948), p. 13. Also see my
Compulsive Beauty (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993).
8.
Nigel Henderson, undated letter to Chris Mullen, quoted in Victoria Walsh, Nigel Henderson:
Parallel of Life and Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2001), p. 123. Henderson also looks back here
(as did the Surrealists) to Baudelaire on “correspondences.”
9.
Paolozzi, “Memoirs” (1994), in Eduardo Paolozzi: Writings and Interviews, pp. 70–71.
10.
J. G. Ballard in “Speculative Illustrations: Eduardo Paolozzi in Conversation with J. G.
Ballard and Frank Whitford” (1971), in Eduardo Paolozzi: Writings and Interviews, p. 199.
11.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1962; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), pp.
17, 19. This account has had its critics, most famously Jacques Derrida in “Structure, Sign, and Play in
the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966), in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1978). Among other points, Derrida sees the engineer as “a myth produced by the bricoleur” (p. 285), a deconstruction that might bear on the modernist figure of the
engineer. The Lévi-Strauss who concerns me here coincides roughly with the Brutalists; both were
influenced by Surrealism on the one hand and information models on the other hand; and they
shared an interest in art brut (Lévi-Strauss writes of “the mytho-poetical nature of ‘bricolage’ on the
plane of so-called ‘raw’ or ‘naive’ art” [p. 17]).
12.
Paolozzi often writes of his process in terms suggestive of bricolage. For example, a “pedagogical exercise” of 1957 calls for “the breakdown of known images . . . into partly symbolical or entirely
symbolical elements.” See Eduardo Paolozzi: Writings and Interviews, p. 79.

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of his odds and ends, he treats them as “intermediaries between images and
concepts,” which is to say, as signs in which “the signified turns into the signifying and vice versa,” even as “operators” that “represent a set of actual and
possible relations.”13 Counterintuitive though it is to connect Brutalism, with
its stress on substances as found, to structuralism, with its preoccupation with
language as system, Brutalist materials are often treated in this manner too.
Consider again the example of Parallel of Life and Art. Its play with meaning was not a matter of Dadaist negat ion (which Paolozzi and the other s
abjured): rather than too little sense, the panoply of photographs offered too
much, a text of imagistic “parallels,” of unexpected pseudomorphisms and
unlikely analogies (e.g., a mud flat seen from above is like the structure of a
molecule is like a Pollock drip painting). In short, it exhibited an excess of the
signifier not unlike that which Lévi-Strauss imagined, in his 1950 essay on
Marcel Mauss, to have occurred at the birth of language.14 As its curators wrote,
Parallel was intended to form “a poetic-lyrical order where images create a
series of cross-relationships”; and as though with the axial structure of language in mind, Henderson added, “We looked at the material to reveal its own
principles of selection.”15
Of course, the primary subject of Parallel was the expanded field of vision permitted by new image technologies; in this respect, it took its cue from the “New
Vision” of Moholy-Nagy (the X-ray image on the catalogue cover was borrowed from
Vision in Motion [1947]). Yet another key reference here was the musée imaginaire of
Malraux; Henderson noted how the curators exchanged “images from [their] own
private ‘imaginary museums,’” and Banham also alluded to this notion in his review.
“In our cases, however,” Henderson continued, “the contents of these museums
extended beyond the normal terms of art to include photographs produced for technical purposes (e.g., of cell structures, geological formations), or for their news-value,
their importance as permanent records of transient events, and so forth.”16 Greatly
13.
Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, pp. 21, 18. On the “multi-evocative” sign in Brutalism, see
Alex Kitnick, “The Brutalism of Art and Life” in this volume.
14.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, trans. Felicity Baker (London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987), pp. 59–64. “A fundamental situation perseveres which arises out of
the human condition: namely, that man has from the start had as at his disposition a signifier-totality
which he is at a loss to know how to allocate to a signified. . . . There is always a non-equivalence or ‘inadequation’ between the two, a non-fit or overspill which divine understanding alone can soak up” (p.
62). This is the thesis of the “floating signifier,” of which the word “mana” is one example for LéviStrauss. “The image” is a mana term for the IG, as Banham once suggested: “‘Image’ seems to be a word
that describes anything or nothing.”
15.
Nigel Henderson, et al., “Parallel of Life and Art,” reprinted in this issue; Henderson, in a presentation to the Architectural Association, quoted in Walsh, Nigel Henderson, p. 103. Henderson also wrote
of his search “for a punchy visual matrix that triggered off a number of associational ideas” (ibid.). For his
part, Paolozzi assembled his notes and poems in a “combinatie” of “free assoisassational [sic] random collected pre-selected” words (Eduardo Paolozzi: Writings and Interviews, p. 137).
16.
Henderson, “Lecture Notes,” Nigel Henderson Collection, Tate G, TGA 9211.5.1.5; also see
Kitnick, “The Brutalism of Art and Life.” The IG discussed Malraux’s The Voices of Silence on May 4,
1954, in a session led by Henderson and Alloway.

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extended as the Malrauxian museum was, it was still a museum of art, its heterogeneous works affined by an elastic sense of styles, and it subsumed all
creations under a humanist conception of a unitary mankind. Parallel forswore
the control of both art and style and threatened the transcendental signified of
man. To adapt Derrida on Lévi-Strauss, it suggested a different condition, one
in which, “in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse,”
and in principle its bracketing of transcendental signifieds—not only of art and
style but also of subject and author—did extend “the domain and play of signification indefinitely.”17
Although Lévi-Strauss and Derrida modeled this field of substitutions on language, it can be a matter of images too, as it was in Parallel and some other
exhibitions related to the IG. For example, at least two shows curated by Hamilton,
Growth and Form (1951) and Man, Machine & Motion (1955), were presented as
grids of image-texts without words, as if in a proto-structuralist transformation of
this quintessential device of modernist display. It was this structure that distinguished these exhibitions from ICA shows such as 40,000 Years of Modern Art
(1948), which only extended the historical scheme of the conventional survey,
17.

Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 280.

Richard Hamilton. Man, Machine & Motion,
installation view, Hatton Gallery. 1955.

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Eduardo Paolozzi. Metafisikal
Translations. 1962.
© Paolozzi Foundation.

and so did not challenge the transcendental signifieds of art and man—indeed
it exalted them all the more. Paolozzi often reached for linguistic analogies for
his own work (in lecture notes from 1958 alone he mentions “directory of
masks,” “alphabet of elements,” “grammar of forms,” “encyclopedia,” and “dictionary”), yet, like Henderson, he favored one trope in particular, that of “the
atlas,” which effectively mediates between words and images.18 Today we might
substitute “archive,” and Brutalist bricolage can be understood as an act of collage performed on select materials from personal archives.
Lévi-Strauss turned to language in order to model cultural productions, such
18.
Paolozzi, Eduardo Paolozzi: Writings and Interviews, p. 83. Nevertheless, he is ever insistent on
materiality; e.g., “mud language written with object trouvé [sic] and broken toys.” For a survey of the
atlas in prewar and postwar avant-garde practice, see Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Gerhard Richter’s
Atlas: The Anomic Archive,” October 88 (Spring 1999), pp. 117–45.

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as myth, which are collective and objective, yet not entirely conscious. This was
also the nature of the world of Parallel proposed by its curators:
The exhibition will present material belonging intimately to the background of everyone today. Much of it has been so completely taken for
granted as to have sunk beneath the threshold of conscious perception. . . . The exhibition will provide a key—a kind of Rosetta stone—by
which the discoveries of the sciences and the arts can be seen as
aspects of the same whole.19
Might we consider Parallel, then, as a mythopoeic enterprise in a Lévi-Straussian
sense, one that suggests, as one reviewer put it, “a set of basic patterns for the
universe”?20 This hypothesis could be extended to other Brutalist projects as
well. “Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society,” the Smithsons
declared famously in April 1957, “and drag a rough poetry out of the confused
and powerful forces which are at work.”21 What is myth for Lévi-Strauss if not a
working over of confused forces, an attempt to resolve real contradictions in a
symbolic register?
Again, formed in the interregnum between old and new orders, the IG was driven by contradictions—not only the conflict between an old notion of a hierarchical
“great tradition” of art and literature à la F. R. Leavis and a new notion of culture as a
“pop-art continuum” à la Alloway and others, but also the divide between the worlds
of art and science, the “two culture” thesis posed by C. P. Snow in 1959, which the
Parallel curators seemed to anticipate when they pitched the show, optimistically, as a
demonstration that “the discoveries of the sciences and the arts can be seen as
aspects of the same whole.”22 Above all, the IG faced the contradiction between a
socioeconomic order based on industrial production (to which much modernist art
and architecture had responded) and one based on mass consumption (which much
postwar art and architecture scrambled to address).
This is the primary reason that the mythopoeic aspect of Brutalism was
Janus-faced. Some of its projects looked to the immediate past; thus, for example,
the survivalist updating of the primitive hut in Patio & Pavilion represented “the
19.
Undated, unedited notes in the Alison and Peter Smithson Archive, London; reprinted in As
Found: The Discovery of the Ordinary, p. 39.
20.
Tom Hopkinson, Manchester Guardian, September 22, 1953, quoted in Walsh, Nigel
Henderson, p. 89.
21.
Alison and Peter Smithson, “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Design (April 1957), p. 113;
reprinted in this volume. “Up to now,” they continue, “Brutalism has been discussed stylistically,
whereas its essence is ethical.” I want to read “ethical” in part as mythopoeic. Certainly their interest
in “habitat” suggests an extended—anthropological-—frame for architecture. (Is there an echo of
Yeats, of his “rough beast,” in “rough poetry” here? If so, this is a different mythopoeic call for a different historical moment.)
22.
In his 1971 conversation with Paolozzi, Ballard suggests that the role of the contemporary
artist is to connect the two cultures. He also likens Paolozzi to “a scientist on safari” (Eduardo Paolozzi:
Writings and Interviews, p. 205).

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fundamental necessities of the human habitat in a series of symbols” for a period
devastated by world war and threatened by nuclear annihilation.23 Meanwhile,
the funhouse display of Hamilton and company looked ahead to the imminent
future, which is where most IG members also looked as the IG dissolved: it was
equally a “necessity” to propose symbols—myths—for this order too. “Today we
are being edged out of our traditional role by the new phenomenon of the popular arts—advertising,” the Smithsons declared already in November 1956. “We
must somehow get the measure of this intervention if we are to match its powerful and exciting impulses with our own.”24 “Popular culture [has] abstracted
from Fine Art its role of mythmaker,” Hamilton agreed in a text from 1961. “If
the artist is not to lose much of his ancient purpose he may have to plunder the
popular arts to recover the imagery which is his rightful inheritance.”25 For his
part, Paolozzi dotted his notebooks of the early to middle 1960s with such cues
as “historical images re-interpreted to modern requirements” and “iconological
analysis keeping pace with our century.”26
For Lévi-Strauss, “the savage mind” is mythographic as well as mythopoeic.
The IG was also both, a “cargo cult” of canny native-informants, making myths
by unmaking myths, proposing icons through analyzing icons.27 For its incipient
practice of cultural studies, the IG had local precedents in Mass-Observation, a
sociology of everyday British life produced by Humphrey Jennings and others
through various documentary means. There was also the example of such idiosyncratic texts as Mechanization Takes Command (1948), in which Siegfried
Giedion attempted an “anonymous history” of “the slow shaping of daily life”
through “humble things” like locks and keys.28 More immediately, contemporaries had begun to address consumer culture in mythographic terms, as did
Marshall McLuhan in Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), and
Roland Barthes in Mythologies, the short texts of which were written between
1954 and 1956. The IG knew the McLuhan but not the Barthes, yet his ideologycritique of consumer-culture myth as an “appropriation” of signs that calls out
23.
Statement for Patio & Pavilion in the This Is Tomorrow catalogue: “The first necessity is for a
piece of the world, the patio. The second necessity is for an enclosed space, the pavilion. These two
spaces are furnished with symbols for all human needs.”
24.
Alison and Peter Smithson, “But Today We Collect Ads,” Ark 18 (November 1956), p. 52.
25.
Richard Hamilton, Collected Words 1953–1982 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982), p. 42.
Hamilton adds: “Epic has become synonymous with a certain kind of film and the heroic archetype is
now buried deep in movie lore.”
26.
Paolozzi, Eduardo Paolozzi: Writings and Interviews, pp. 110, 137; these notes are dated ca. 1964.
27.
In retrospect, Donald Holmes commented on the IG: “There was a bit of cargo culture at
the ICA, both with respect to emergent disciplines and of things North American” (see The Independent
Group, p. 33). A semi-ethnographic approach is evident enough in the ways that Henderson documented Bethnal Green (where his wife, anthropologist Judith Stephens, worked), that Paolozzi drew on
museums of anthropology and science, and so on.
28.
Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948),
pp. 2, 3. “For the historian,” Giedion writes, “there are no banal things.” Another IG favorite,
Mechanization Takes Command inspired Hamilton to do a series of etchings of reapers.

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for counter appropriation (“if myth robs language . . . why not rob myth?”) is not
unlike the approach of some of these artists, even if their posture was often less
skeptical than seduced.29
Yet Lévi-Strauss remains the most suggestive analogue, not only for his resonant reading of myth as both “science of the concrete” and “memory bank,”
but also for his account of a “savage mind” that seeks parallels where they are
least to be expected, parallels that might also be turned into connections:
The real question is not whether the touch of a woodpecker’s beak
does in fact cure toothache. It is rather whether there is a point of view
from which a woodpecker’s beak and a man’s tooth can be seen as
“going together” . . . and whether some initial order can be introduced
in the universe by means of these groupings.30
The Brutalists were also motivated by a search for correspondences in the world,
which they undertook less as subjects overwhelmed by the expanded repertoire of
images around them than as mythographers curious as to how these images might
“go together”—and what groupings might begin to order the postwar universe.

29.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), p. 135.
30.
Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, p. 9. “Magical thought . . . can be distinguished from science not
so much by any ignorance or contempt of determinism but by a more imperious and uncompromising
demand for it” (p. 11).

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