Occlusions of the operational sequence: a coincidental conversation between Robert Matthew and André Leroi-Gourhan in six diagrams

Alessandro Zambelli

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


In the early to mid-1960s with western narratives of technical progress at their height, Scottish architect Robert Matthew, then president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (R.I.B.A.), and French anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan independently developed, or presided over the development in Matthew’s case, of totalising, systematic, technical models of human progress. Each model was a reflection of the aims and methods of their own discipline: for the anthropologist this was to be found in the evolution of Homo faber into Homo sapiens and the dissolving of human/technological boundaries and, for the architect, the necessary drive for “collective welfare-socialism,” and the systematisation of its built manifestations.
Each of these models were made manifest, I argue, through simple yet profoundly influential diagrams, or suites of evolving diagrams. For anthropology and, in particular, archaeology Leroi-Gourhan’s chaîne opératoire which, at its simplest, describes the manufacture of pre-historic stone tools and, for architecture, the R.I.B.A.’s Plan of Work which describes the design and construction of buildings. Through these diagrams and their embodied objects (lithic artefacts and buildings) and processes (human and technological) this paper sees the ‘chaîne’ and the ‘Plan’ engaging in a kind of abbreviated, reciprocating, exchange. Occluded and misplaced, this diagrammed conversation, seeded at the beginning of what Buckminster Fuller called the “design science decade,” reveals, for each discipline, processes–artefactual design, physical engagement and disuse–suppressed or overlooked in the other.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationArchitecture and Anthropology
EditorsAdam Jasper
Place of PublicationLondon
ISBN (Print)1138475955, 978-1138475953
Publication statusPublished - 13 Nov 2018


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