The Sublime

Kant contrasts the sublime (in whose presence the fundamental human response is awe) with the beautiful (which elicits attraction). For Kant, to be confronted with the sublime is to be made aware of one’s insignificance; it is a tonic to ego. On the other hand, David Nye in American Technological Sublime (MIT Press, 1996) goes to great lengths to argue that grand human inventions create a “sublime of technology”:

“Kant’s sublime made the individual humble in the face of nature, the technological sublime exalted the conquest of nature.” (Chapter 6, p 152)


“Contemplation of these sites or of the Natural Bridge taught the individual his place in the world, lifting him out of himself.” (Chapter 2, p. 36).

“This sublime significance, unlike that which Kant had described, was man-made, creating awe and respect not for nature but for technology and for the engineers and businessmen who erected the displays.” (Chapter 7, p 197).

Emphasis mine. Quite the opposite is true in fact. Contemplation of grand human achievements, even those that dwarf the observer, produces self-congratulation, the antithesis of humility before the grandeur of nature. Grand public works cannot be considered sublime in the strict sense of the word, because they celebrate and valorize human achievement, even if those humans happen to be other than the observer.

“ ‘Did you ever notice,’ Johnson remarked when we were about halfway across to Staten Island, ‘what a Jewy-looking thing the Singer Tower is when it’s lit up? The fellow who placed those incandescents must have had a sense of humor. It’s exactly like the Jewish high priest in the old Bible dictionaries.’ ”

–Willa Cather, “Behind the Singer Tower

Later in Cather’s story the arrogance and folly of human efforts, rather than their anthropomorphic qualities, is underscored. But in Nye’s reading, rather than humble humans, these achievements puff them up, allow them to credit themselves for the grandeur at hand, even if only by association. To continue the distinction of subjective and objective postures, admiration of grand works such as electrification (or for that matter, the Saturn V) produce a relationship wherein the grandeur of human achievements replaces that due the natural world. The result is therefore not the sublime of technology, but rather the sublimation of nature, reframed and recontextualized as being on par with (or even dominated by) human achievements. Barry White was once misquoted as saying that man had replaced God; he corrected his interviewer and said that mankind had become like gods. In the context of the present day, this is hardly a shocking assertion, even if many do not dare voice it.

This substitution of by human achievements for nature in the origins of landscape architecture in the Western tradition is a theme for Professor Hope Hasbrouck. Artificial, planned landscape eventually replaces wilderness. Incidentally, this follows closely with the secularization of Western intellectual traditions; witness the medieval notion of “monsters”. The word is akin to the Latin demonstratum, which demonstrate the greatness of God and the variety of his creation. Contrast it with the remarkable dearth of public discourse on the ethics of genetic engineering. When the latter is debated it is typically only from a position of public health. Only in art it seems can the material world be understood as being the product of something outside of human control and domination. A case in point is the work of architect Josep Maria Jujol, who saw in every material object, even a lowly and twisted shovel, broken and bent, evidence of God’s glory, worthy of celebration as being of a world that is God’s mirror. In this view, the sublime is everywhere, and the physical world is evidence of the proper humility of humans. No distinction is made between processed and unprocessed nature, as all are the handiwork of the extra-human agent.

On the other hand, when Nye gets around to turning his attention to economic and social issues (Consuming Power), he there rings truer, striking a sympathetic chord with Tobey’s ironically titled Technology as Freedom. 1984, anyone?


About François Lévy

Registered Texas architect, former university lecturer and researcher, CAD/BIM consultant and trainer. I hold an M.Arch as well as an MS in architectural engineering from the University of Texas at Austin; I've taught architecture courses there. I have been practicing since 1993, and established my own firm in 1997. I design buildings that capture the imagination, express regional beauty and a sense of place, and touch lightly on the earth. My projects reflect their cultural and geographical context, are accessible and comprehensible to the user, relevant to their surroundings, and contribute to a sense of place rather than obeying a preconceived architectural agenda. All my work—whether in teaching, research, or architecture—investigates the intersection of design, technology, and sustainability. I am particularly passionate about working collaboratively to create projects that eloquently express how we use and conserve energy and water, and inhabit the land. My architectural projects have attracted regional and national press, including Dwell Magazine and HGTV. My residential architectural work includes projects up to 10,000 SF, with project budgets up to $2M. Nonresidential work has included collaboration with other firms on commercial office buildings, school projects, and public infrastructure. In addition to leading Vectorworks seminars to architects for over a decade, I have presented and lectured widely on CAD and BIM. My current areas of research interest are sustainable architecture, BIM, cooling through passive ventilation, and space architecture, on which I have presented at international conferences. Specialties: Sustainable architecture, BIM (building information modeling), CAD, space architecture
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