On the Interpretation of Architecture
Applied Interpretation

Vol. 13, No. 1, May 2009


___Ryszard Sliwka
Cambridge, Ontario (CA)
  Sublime Phenomena:
Notes on the Architecture of the Horizon


    We are accustomed for the most part to measure our buildings in terms of the quotidian, where architecture exists in a dependant relationship to the practice of everyday life. There is another aspect of architecture however, that concerns itself with limits, with architecture’s capacity to debate the inexpressible.

The 18th century aesthetic concept of the sublime, unlike the ‘merely’ beautiful, has survived and become a point of orientation in the maelstrom of conflicting sensibilities that surround the production of contemporary art work. ‘Sublime Phenomena’ examines the question of limits in the interpretation of architecture and its relationship to the horizon.

The significance of the horizon to Le Corbusier serves to introduce a broader discussion on the sublime in relationship to two recent pavilions by David Adjaye. One of these pavilions was designed by Adjaye to house Olafur Eliasson's 'your dark horizon' installation on an island in the Venetian lagoon as part of the 2005 Biennale. The other ‘horizon’ pavilion is a project that Adjaye recently constructed to frame a specific horizon located on the Sea of Galilee. By comparing these examples, I hope to outline some of the key questions regarding the capacity of architecture to evoke the sublime and the assumptions about the sublime that might concern us with respect to gender, consciousness, representation and power.

The interwoven artistic, cultural and religious complexities that gave shape to Romanticism and the sublime as an aesthetic category in its own right are captured in Caspar David Friedrich's depiction of landscape and horizon in Monk by the Sea (1809–1810). Through the elimination of elaborate detail, Friedrich is able to control the visual emphasis of the compositional frame. The diminished scale of the silent human figure portrayed on the shoreline in solitary contemplation of the vast, abstracted expanse of sea and sky provides a dramatic depiction of communion with the overpowering presence of nature. This work along with the paintings of J. W. Turner perhaps most closely embodies Edmund Burke's eighteenth-century treatise on the sublime and its subsequent affirmation in Immanuel Kant's discussion of the same subject in his Critique of Judgment (1790). Burke’s treatment of the sublime, which represents a more complex reading of a first or a third century Greek text attributed to Longinus, is notable for the emphasis he places on terror and the sublime and the passion of astonishment that so affects the soul that “
the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." (1958, 58)

Moreover, Burke declares an opposition of beauty and the sublime in terms of a physiological theory where these two aesthetic categories are derived from an opposition of pleasure and pain. Burke not only explains beauty and sublimity purely in terms of the process of perception and its effect upon the perceiver, but also engenders these two notions, ascribing beauty to the feminine and the sublime to the masculine. This aesthetic split is somewhat problematic to our discussion in the sense that the beautiful has been effectively trivialized in comparison to the sublime, which carries a greater contemporary resonance.

Kant’s treatment of the sublime is perhaps the most complex of the three texts and he further subdivides the concept of the sublime into the mathematically sublime which through our imagination, relating it the faculty of knowledge and the dynamically sublime which is determined by desire. While the dynamically sublime makes us aware of the powerlessness of humans in the face of nature, with its enormous storms and massive scale, the mathematically sublime can be a supersensible awakening to the magnitude of architecture such as the Egyptian pyramids or St Peters in Rome.

Burke and Kant’s views on the sublime are still framed in a conversation where the ultimate legitimacy of aesthetic enquiry was determined by God’s relationship to man; a relationship that assumes a divine intelligible will linked to the idea of progress. Our recent history is much less secure in these assumptions. Our horizons of transcendence are even less secure in their meaning and our orientations are more philosophically inclined to the world of immanence and engagement in the limits of our corporeality.

The projects under discussion approach the sublime perhaps more cautiously, in a way that is simultaneously contemplative and yet structured to trigger emotions beyond the rational minds limits of comprehension. Modest in scale, these projects function as instruments that measure the relational, the fragile, the human, against scales of extraordinary magnitude, suggesting that ideas of beauty and the sublime are perhaps more intimately interrelated perceptually than Burke assumed.

Le Corbusier’s sepulchral monument, Roquebrune

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Figure 1:
Le Corbusier, Roquebrune
  For Le Corbusier, the horizon began as a datum for structuring the everyday experience of modernity in his ‘Purist’ work only to emerge later as an absolute limit in his late work. Nevertheless, the significance of the horizon as the boundary of a cosmic room can be traced back to his early travels and studies of the Greek landscape. His elaboration of the great horizontal, the "icon of sleep and night, of dreaming and recollection, of dissolution or potential order" converges with other themes at Le Corbusier’s final resting-place on the hillside above his cabin at Cap Martin.[1] (Figure 1) The site overlooks the Mediterranean Sea he knew so well and where he died “swimming toward the sun".[2] The concept of the horizon is tied to Le Corbusier’s notion of the sea as the destiny of things. In his Poème he suggests that our intimate relationship to the sea is mirrored in the realization that we being largely composed of water are subject like the sea to the lunar tides.

At Roquebrune, a modest concrete plinth rests on one of the stepped tiers of the cemetery, located above the village. Within it Le Corbusier reiterates themes elaborated in his paintings and writings. Part of the plinth is cut away for a small garden in a geometrical configuration that alludes to the labyrinth in the Swiss Pavilion Mural and the Poème. His wife Yvonne’s cross lays on the concrete surface adjacent to a cast circular vessel.[3] Le Corbusier’s complements this female form with a strong male counterpart; a tilted crystalline figure also cast in concrete, is embedded beside Yvonne. Within one plane of the crystal, Le Corbusier insets an inscribed enameled painting, showing the marriage of sea and sky at a glowing horizon line. Beside this tilted figure, a small shell is cast into the surface of the plinth, its shape perhaps cupped to receive the “limitless subjectivity ... of ...a clouded sky”, that Le Corbusier imagined as the source of female architecture.[4]

Richard Moore sees the crystal as a self-portrait, as a variation of the stone head, the philosopher’s stone that Le Corbusier frequently included in his paintings. In the mural for the Swiss student house as well as in several sketches for the bull’s head in Poème,[5] this crystal represents the eye.[6] This reading allows us to interpret Rocquebrune as the crystal eye of Le Corbusier in his persona of the mythical bull surveying the marriage of sea and sky. Viewed from the site, the horizon is a constantly moving demarcation line, organizing our field of perception in relation to our experience of the immediate landscape and seascape beyond. As the viewer crouches to read the enameled inscription, the middle ground falls away from view in a way that allows the horizon line of the painting to align itself with the distant horizon. Within this tableau the idea of the sublime is conceived in terms of both masculine and feminine, with the irreducibly feminine aspects given a prominence and engagement that Kant could not have imagined.

Le Corbusier’s horizon of yearning suggests an orientation towards the natural forces behind the sublime that is in marked contrast to the observation of Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s unsettling ‘anecdote of the sardine can’ suggests in psychoanalytic terms something of the perceptual mechanism involved in the experience of the sublime.

Since the emergence of perspective from the time of the Renaissance, the conventions of representation have established the human eye as a source of stability in which the human subject observes the world as object. With his anecdote Lacan brings awareness to an opposing condition where the world presents itself as subject and the human being becomes the object. In an account of a fishing expedition when he was young, Lacan relates how he became conscious of the rays of the sun reflected by a sardine can floating on the surface of the water. This reflectance triggered a sudden awareness that it is not just he who was observing the world but the world was also looking back at him in a way that differed entirely from his relations with other human beings and in a way that he had no control over. The immensity of this revelation to Lacan, and its oscillation with the normative way of seeing suggests that the experience of the sublime occurs at the intersection of these two states. While not specifically identifying the sublime, Gitte Ørskou in a discussion of Lacan’s anecdote observes that:

Lacan places the human subject at the intersection between seeing and being seen. In our ordinary intercourse with the world, we manage to hold this non-localizable gaze at bay through the agency of the many cultural codes out from which we insensibly take action. Similarly, we regard our surroundings on the basis of the very same cultural codex. The situation is stabilized by this double coding and we harbor the illusion that we, the subjects, have control over our world. Up until that moment when, like Lacan, who becomes ‘ensnared’ by the sardine can’s radiance on the glittering surface of the water, we experience ourselves as an insignificant particle in the context of a greater totality.

Ørskou adds that:

For Lacan, that which defines the human subject is precisely this both-and: For the most part, you are balancing in a pulsating position between seeing and being seen and only seldom is the balance upset by ‘the world’s gaze’, as materialized in the sardine can’s reflection.” (2004)

Lacan’s anecdote, communicates something of the threshold of encounter where the sense of being overwhelmed by the world oscillates with a restoration of control, or rather an acceptance of a new reality. We can imagine the character of Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea experiencing something like this in psychological terms.  The three works under discussion attempt to bring the observer in a direct relationship to the horizon in a way that raises his or her consciousness of the sublime.

Olafur Eliasson’s ‘your dark horizon’

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Figure 2:
Your black horizon, exterior

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Figure 3:
Your black horizon, interior
  The pavilion designed by David Adjaye for Olafur Eliasson’s installation, sets up framework for a particular experience of the horizon. (Figure 2) Located originally on an island in the Venetian lagoon as part of the 2005 biennale, the pavilion was approached over water. Adjaye's contribution set up a transitional threshold to the immersive experience of Eliasson’s project. The visitor’s procession into the main space is mediated by the repetitive vertical rhythm of sunlight generated by a structure of alternating wooden slats and voids projecting onto the entrance corridor. The emphasis on movement and verticality that initiates entry into the pavilion gradually diminishes to be replaced by immersion in a chthonian darkness, illuminated by a narrow 360º horizon of light that flows continuously around the perimeter of the central space. The light is calibrated to the specific light conditions of the Venetian lagoon and moves through the changing colour spectrum of an accelerated day every fifteen minutes. (Figure 3)

The effect invites comparison with the sublime paintings of Barnett Newman. Like Newman, Eliasson’s installation conveys notions of limitlessness. The critic Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe has observed a particular characteristic of the sublime in Newman that anchors the sublime to a principle of origin and return. This is a theme that also is communicated through  the blackness of Eliasson’s interior to convey a sense of absence - intended like Newman’s immersive colour fields, to evoke an immanent presence. Gilbert-Rolfe likens Newman’s work to the notion that “before making the world, God had to make the space it could occupy.” (1999,54)

Through a mimesis of the horizon, Eliasson attempts to induce some aspect of the experience of the sublime in nature. At the same time this indeterminate space of the horizon pavilion conveys the experience that we could be at once both inside and outside of it. Through this ambiguous sense of interiority and exteriority, Eliasson's ‘black horizon' communicates an extraordinarily powerful and moving evocation of the sublime. Eliasson believes that,

"If the public gets involved in a stimulating situation, the situation 'commits itself' in return. There's a reversal of subject and object here: the viewer becomes the object and the context becomes the subject. I always try to turn the viewer into what's on show, make him mobile and dynamic."[7]

Our response however, is conditioned by our capacity to imagine the transcendental significance of the work. An alternate reading of the title 'your black horizon,' might prove equally suggestive and is connected to the pervasive presence of an invisible technological sublime. This alternate reading imagines the blackness of the space as a silent immersion within the screen of a giant heart monitor or electrocardiogram, where amplifications of our bodily pulses return to us as signals on electronic screens. In this experience, the flatline presence of the enveloping horizon conveys the absence of electrical activity and inscribes in us the limit of our human mortality, namely the cessation of life.

David Adjaye’s Galilee Pavilion

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Figure 4:
David Adjaye, Horizon, exterior

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Figure 5:
David Adjaye, Horizon, interior

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Figure 6:
David Adjaye, Horizon, view 

  Adjaye’s pavilion shares many of the formal and material characteristics developed for the Eliasson pavilion. It is a minimalist structure of interlocking dark stained wooden slats that unifies floor ceiling and walls into a singular experience. (Figure 4) Like Eliasson, Adjaye eliminates unnecessary detail in order to emphasize the visual focus of the compositional frame. Like Eliasson, Adjaye confines himself to purely phenomenological description of the experience rather than any metaphysical orientation of the work. The pavilion consists in plan of two intersecting wedges, that induce a sense of spatial compression, darkness and constriction, followed by an expansive movement out towards a picture frame view towards a horizon dividing water and the sky. (Figure 5) In this immersive tableau we stand in a vertical relationship to the horizon, like Friedrich’s figure by the sea, but in this instant experience a sense of interiority in viewing a landscape image captured within the surface of fritted glass. Adjaye is fascinated by the unusual atmospheric condition whereby the specific topography of the surrounding terrain creates a horizon that is often shrouded by mist. Only when we realize that the horizon and the body of water presented is in fact the Sea of Galilee, do we grasp a contemplative metaphysical narrative of transformation tied to the biblical association of Galilee and the redemptive narratives of Christianity. (Figure 6) Unlike Lacan’s fear of dissolution and loss of control brought about by a sudden awareness of an omniscient gaze where the sublime manifests itself, Adjaye’s focus on the transformative condition of the horizon returns us to the possibility that the omniscient gaze of the world might indeed be redemptive. Metaphorically, the pavilion depicts an alchemical process evident in the natural processes of nature, analogous to a bodily experience of transformation within the Christian Covenant.


Whereas the significance of the horizon for Le Corbusier is connected to a cryptic personal language informed by alchemical and Greek mythological themes, both Adjaye and Eliasson rely on phenomenological descriptions that consciously ground any transcendental intimations of the sublime within horizons of immanence. Le Corbusier saw life in agonistic terms, where humans witnessed the power of nature and yet were destined to pursue an ambitious rivalry with it. His use of mythological themes and reference to the horizon as a means to communicate his sense of ‘espace indicible’ serve to bring awareness to theses issues. Adjaye and Eliasson tend not to speculate on the motivations behind the extraordinary atmospheric and temporal effects created, or the epiphanies that experience of these works can elicit. If in the case of Le Corbusier, we can still discern an ideal and the belief in the realm of the ‘supersensible’ that underlies all of nature and humanity, Adjaye and Eliasson appear more suspicious of the appeal to a transcendence cut off from its immanent basis. If the role of beauty in Le Corbusier’s architecture was to uncover to the concealed substrate of a world, which was itself necessarily in sympathy with our highest ambitions, Adjaye and Eliasson’s sublime is dependent on a certain fragility or delicacy of perception which we might ascribe to the beautiful. Architecture frames a world of limits in which the absolute associated in the works of Caspar David Friedrich or Barnett Newman is conceived in terms of effects that acknowledge the corporeal side of our being together with its desires and hopes for a momentary epiphany. The calibrations of specific light conditions and other atmospheric phenomena are intended to ground the "supersensible" world to the world of sensuous forms, natural or man-made.

All three works involve a process of removing visual distractions in order to allow for the intensity of the changing horizon line to emerge as a point of reference. The meditative frame of these works sets up a temporal experience of the line separating earth and sky and in turn triggers the viewers own subjectivities which may be less assured in significance and meaning than would have been the case with Burke and Kant. Indeed a broad range of different feelings may be involved on different occasions, since the social and cultural context of the sublime may have a significant bearing on our experience. Yet the persistent fascination with the sublime that these works embody, suggests an underlying desire within us to encounter and measure themselves against immeasurable forces. In this way, architecture also renews itself through an interrogation of its limits, whether they are set by the discourse of reason or the familiarities of convention. As Adjaye has commented: “Buildings are deeply emotive structures which form our psyche. People think they’re just things they manoeuvre through. But the makeup of a person is influenced by the nature of spaces.”[8] This proposition regarding the emotive potential for architecture suggests that, by facilitating a sense of presence to ourselves we momentarily connect ourselves to the ‘reality of the world
, The works discussed are symptomatic of the desire to experience the world in all its depth and fullness as a necessary reminder of what it means to be alive. In this the experience of the sublime binds us to a condition of being human, in a way that operates with or even without our acknowledgement.





Burke Edmund, A philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas the On the Sublime and the Beautiful, ed. J. T. Bolton. (New York, 1958).

Krustrup Mogen, Le Corbusier – Painter and Architect Exhibition Catalogue for Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum, Aalborg, Denmark, September 30 - December 10, 1995.

Le Corbusier, The Modulor, Cambridge, Mass.1954.

Ørskou, Gitte, Inside the Spectacle, 2004 in: Olafur Eliasson. Minding the world, ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, 2005.

Rolfe, Jeremy Gilbert, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, Allworth Press, New York, 1999.





[1] Le Corbusier, "A3 milieu", Le Poème de l'angle droit, Paris, Teriade, 1955.

[2] I believe this comment by Le Corbusier "how nice it would be to die swimming towards the sun" occurred in a conversation with the architect Jerzy Soltan.
see http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/01/magazine/le-shack.html

[3] Mogen Krustrup points to a small sketch of a theatre set for Sophocles’ Electra with a circular altar for Chthonic deities as one possible source of this part of the design. (1995, 134). 

[4] "In the one, strong objectivity of form, under the intense light of the Mediterranean sun: male architecture. In the other, limitless subjectivity rising against a clouded sky, female architecture." Le Corbusier, The Modulor (1954, 224).

[5] Le Corbusier, Le Poème, p. 77. See also; Moore Richard, Le Corbusier, images and symbols: the late period 1947-1965: an exhibition organized by the Department of Art, Georgia State University, January 10 - February 8, 1977, Galleries, Art and Music Building, Georgia State University.

[6] Krustrup discusses Moore’s observations and describes how the crystal achieves a cosmic significance (hovering in space with the stellar sky as background) on the tapestry, Traces de pas dans la nuit from 1957, the year Yvonne died. “The crouched black silhouette is the mourning Le Corbusier, and the rope connects him from the crystal to the sky. Only the footprints in the night bear witness to the time when Yvonne moved among the living and the rope moored the boat next to which he had often painted her lying on the beach.” (1995, 139).

[8] Spaces for Art, Announcement for a lecture by David Adjaye at the British School in Rome on Wednesday February 13, 2008.