Henry Babbage on Reduction
“The word museum, which I use to designate this house…”
The Invention of Morel (1940)
Adolfo Bioy Casares
A home functions beyond shelter and dwelling. The inhabited house becomes a home; it is the place where the child traces its formative associations and experiences, its ‘first universe’ embodied in the memory of the material characteristics of the building’s spaces. The home stands as an eternal symbol of the past and its importance to social reproduction is such that as Mark Cousins has suggested, “whatever claims upon the adult the city placed, they would not erase the association of love with the home.”1 The home reveals memories not always only ours, but also memories shared and localised there, remembered through others who were there too, or in projections; some brilliant, others only faint after-images.
In the film Providence (1977) directed by Alain Resnais (and written by David Mercer) a series of shifting and uncanny spaces are stratified throughout the narration of a writer imagining scenes for his latest novel. The writer creates the world of the story over the course of a sleepless night, manifested from his bedroom in a large empty manor. In the film, many scenes take place within homes and the scenographies of the rooms revise themselves constantly: doors and corridors change position and lead to disparate geographies, incongruously and in the collage of dream-like logic. The dimensionality of this cinematic space becomes a mirror of the characters’ inner worlds and casts the houses as emanations of the unconscious. The fallibility of the writer’s memories and projections also suggests that a sense of place is contingent on a ‘margin of imagination:’ memory of place is inherently a shaping of place too — a projection of coordinates.
Following Gaston Bachelard, the home is a place that allows for dreaming: “We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images.”2 The entry of the phrase dream-house into our cultural lexicon represents the autonomy, means and security brought from a comfortable space of one’s own. Yet there is a truth to this: the oneiric house in its ideal is a refuge for the psyche.
The anguish experienced through being apart from one’s home can be severely afflicting. Swiss physician Johannes Hofer documented the psychological effects of an acute form of homesickness affecting Swiss mercenaries serving in foreign armies abroad. To describe his observations Hofer coined the term nostalgia — from the Greek words nostos (a homecoming or return) and algos (a pain or ache). To be away was to be without the stability and sanctuary of home, unsettling for those for whom a domestic system had been strongly inculcated. Yet this desire for domestication has also become a tool of dominance (domestiquer in French means the subjugation of a tribe to a colonising power). Transplanting the locus of the home from one geography to another is a way to demarcate territories. To build on land is to own it and take from what was previously there; it is an apparatus of social control.
For example, Mission Revival and Spanish Eclectic styles, prolific in affluent areas of Southern California, originate from the architecture of Spanish missionaries of the 18th and early 19th centuries who were stationed in present day California, Baja California, and Mexico. Most of these architectural remnants and references derive from what were referred to as reducciones (reductions) — enforced settlements modelled on buildings, villages and towns in Spain but built and inflected with techniques and materials readily available in these new locations. The reducciones were analogous to re-education camps; the housing displaced indigenous peoples of Spanish colonies and functioned to deprive them of their language, faith, knowledge systems and pluralism. The seeding of design in other territories is a part of the ‘figurating function’3 at the centre of the excoriating momentum of colonialism.
The sense of a reality appropriated and transplanted brings to mind the experience of the lone protagonist in Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel (1940). Stranded on an island, he is tormented by looping projections from a mysterious machine which depict a recording of a group of visitors who had come before him. The lone fugitive only finds solace when he conspires to become a projection himself and join the apparitions. The question remains whether it is not just the visitors who are recorded and projected but the protagonist's reality of the island itself too. The protagonist sees in the machine an offer of a reality that is totally accounted for; a closed utopic system unto itself, not dependent upon the shifting viewpoint of the subjective self.
The apparatus of capture described in Casares’ novel eerily forecasts the tendencies of technologies for imaging, modelling and planning that are pervasive in architecture today. For example, asset stores are libraries of recordings and these textures, models and animations make up an information set for architectural visualisation. From a tree-generator in a nature starter kit to a lighting effect for a particular atmospheric condition, a place can be generated with the tools and models shared amongst a vast marketplace of creators. With file types such as .obj compatible across a range of 3D modelling platforms, architects, game designers and others have access to a proliferating exchangeability of assets that makes for the free and rapid combination of architectural styles and traditions. The virtual opens up a radical space for hybridisation, the scale of which is described by Amelyn Ng: “Today, virtual components are pre-approved and stockpiled in 3D warehouses on cloud or server, readily deployable for any project.”4
Of course, the world visualised and animated by 3D modelling software is inseparable from the computational infrastructure itself: the code and protocols of architectural drawing or camera optics such as ubiquitous isometric systems or orbiting-eye viewpoints, which worlds these virtual worlds. Architectural visualisation is a process that, according to Ng, “compounds information (visual and nonvisual) in an optically consistent space.”5 Heeding Donna Harraway’s point that “it matters what matters we use to think other matters with,”6 one can only wonder how the nostalgia function will emerge for dwellings designed, collaged and synthesised from the asset stores that supply such a panoply of component parts.
The ever-increasing complexity of architectural renders (often featuring photorealistic animations and simulations of various atmospheric conditions) raises questions about the expectations for these images. Realistic motion of trees swaying in the breeze possesses a notable fidelity, but the animations often appear most distinct in their eerie artificiality. The world of these renders is notable in the absence of people or animals, activity that would test the space and its reality. In lieu of giving control to the viewer to walk through the environment or to direct the camera in the first- or third-person view — allowing them to join the projected reality of the virtual — the programming of a realistic atmospheric space attempts to give the simulation its own time and place, which continues of its own accord, world-like, whether the viewer is watching or not.
1 Mark Cousins, The House-Home in Real Review (2016)
2 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1957)
3 Elizabeth Povinelli, "The Urban Intensions of Geontopower," in e-flux (2019) https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/liquid-utility/259667/the-urban-intensions-of-geontopower/
4 Amelyn Ng, “7D Vision,” in e-flux (2020) https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/software/337517/7d-vision/
6 Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in Chthulucene (2016)
HENRY BABBAGE (Te Rarawa) (b.1989) is an artist and writer currently based in Berlin. Henry graduated with BFA(Hons) from Elam School of Fine Arts in 2011 and completed the Open School East Associate Programme in London in 2016. Henry was a co-founder of the spaces Gloria Knight in Auckland (2012–2014) and Theresa in Maastricht (2015).