The Sublime and Architectural Theory

As Michael K. Hayes comments in Architecture Theory since 1968, a typology to emerge in the mid eighteenth century was a return of architecture to its natural origins, an example of the primitive shelter. This return and respect of nature was interestingly enough occurring across art, literature and landscape design simultaneously and internationally. It was as if people were warily eyeing the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and entered into a love-hate tolerance of the machine age with the concepts of nature playing a reassuring role throughout these social and industrial evolutions.
In reference to nature, the sublime countered many perceptions of the tamed environment through poetry, painting, national parks and urban design. The term “sublime” was first used to describe nature by British writers taking the Grand Tour of the Swiss Alps in the 17th and 18th centuries. The sublime was meant as an aesthetic quality in nature that was both beautiful and terrible, horrible and harmonious, appreciating the unexpected and dangerous forms found in nature that had been avoided in literature and art through the concepts of a more tamed and friendly environment.
German philosopher Immanuel Kant reflects on the concept of boundaries between beauty and the sublime in his Critique of Judgment written in 1790. Distinguishing between the differences of beauty versus the sublime, beauty is connected with the form of the object, respecting the object’s boundaries whereas the sublime is found in a formless object, boundless, unfamiliar and unexpected.

The Romantic Period revealed a shift from the picturesque paintings of a controlled and safe landscape to paintings depicting the grotesque and beautiful as found in works such as Frederic Edwin Church’s Cotopaxi , oil on canvas 1826, an opposition to the classical ideals of perfection. The concept of sublime evolved through the machine age with a sense of self-forgetfulness, an awe-inspired feeling of well-being and security when faced with an object or place of superiority.
It is a realization of unavoidable suffering that is to be accepted and that the difficulties in life will never be completely resolved. The terrible, beautiful and inescapable sublime resonated with the social instability found in the Modernist period. These two movements faced suffering brought about by the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. Inescapably crowded cities meant survival was dependent on the proximity to work. Leisure was a little afforded luxury. As John Mitchell much later on discusses in his ook What Is to be Done about Illness and Health (1984), the attributes of a healthy life is a clean and safe environment, time for rest and recreation, a reasonable living standard, freedom from chronic worries, hope for the future, an adequate level of self-confidence and autonomy, and finally to have a worthwhile and fulfilling job. These well-being concepts were absent for many low and middle class families working in factories during the machine age and were threatened by social injustices of modern times.
Throughout difficult times experienced in the Romantic period up through present day, the order and at times chaos of nature remained a constant influence in the perceptions of design and life. It would seem our societies distanced themselves from primitive nature through perfect geometry of the Classical movement, imitated nature through the rusticity of the hut and embraced the sublime during the Romantic period.
It was as if a return to the most basic and natural state gave a sense of control over the uncontrollable, “the forest/city was to be tamed, brought into rational order by means of the gardener’s art; the ideal city of the late eighteenth century was thereby imaged on the garden” The acknowledgment and connection of the roles of nature throughout our design history offered an outlying and abstract zeitgeist: a continuing spirit of admiration, reverence and fearful respect of our natural surroundings as they are impacted by our industrial and socially changing cities.

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