This chapter examines the potential of representations of human figures to contribute to the material imagination by drawing on intriguing parallels between the Baroque and the present day. Both eras witnessed a destabilization of architectural form and a profound turn in human subjectivity. To explore how the 17th century Baroque could inform contemporary design I focus on putti, Baroque-era ornamental figures— a trope that linked material and perception in the imagination of designers and inhabitants of architecture, and speculate on how such a figure could be integrated into contemporary design.
In the design of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Fonseca Chapel, ornamental figures such as putti were drawn in such a way to suggest that their gestures and positions evolved in conjunction with the design of the architecture itself; in this way, both the figure and material were animate in the creation of the drawing. Once built as ornament, the figures in the Fonseca Chapel directed the viewers’ attentions to the visual and haptic sensations arising from the interplay of elements in a rich bel composto. The figures themselves were materially and spatially integrated with their surroundings, in some cases appearing to merge with or float through it. In this way, they emphasized the forces of distortion implied by the composition, and helped to give inert materials a compelling duality which weaved together affective and representational dimensions of perception.
The images in my own recent projects include the incorporation of a Body Agent, a figure that is shown in a reciprocal engagement with the design. Narratives from the viewpoint of the Body Agent— in this case a ‘Digital-Age Putto’ — were keys to the design process and are excerpted throughout the chapter. An ornamental figure who has witnessed both the Baroque and our own era, the narrative begins as the putto expresses bewilderment by the ‘mesh carapace’ of the shell that defines his digital flesh. In the narrative, the putto explains his own embodied state; eventually, he grows to accept and enjoy the fleeting malleability of both his flesh and the material world that surrounds him. However, the putto still retains wistful desires from his Baroque-era predilections: It becomes evident that he wishes for discernible symbolic ‘meaning’ from the eccentric forms of digital architecture.
The architectural expression of the 17th century Baroque, achieved in part through a careful, radical manipulation of materials, and negotiated by figural ornamentation, purposefully signalled “a transformation of human consciousness.” In the digital design image, matter and the human body are equivocated: like all actants displayed on the screen, they are information, a mutable collection of points without fixity. As Wölflinn noted, space quivered and walls vibrated in the Baroque. Such an instability of matter and body is a given in today’s design image, but what is the human consciousness that is signalled by the designs that arise from them? I argue that the Baroque figure offers guidance through this thorny digital turn.