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The Sublime and Modern Architecture: Unmasking (an Aesthetic of) Abstraction

From: New Literary History
Volume 26, Number 1, Winter 1995
pp. 95-110 | 10.1353/nlh.1995.0014

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New Literary History 26.1 (1995) 95-110



Aesthetic Narratives

Within the discipline of architecture, theory is a parallel discourse which describes the practice and production of architecture and identifies challenges to it. Perennial questions include the origins of architecture, the relationship of architects to history, and the issue of cultural expression. Theory problematizes these inquiries in the manner of philosophy. A survey of current architectural theory finds a characteristically postmodern multiplicity of issues vying for our attention. Evident in all these contradictory tendencies is the desire to expand formalist theoretical discussions. This paper proposes that an aesthetic capable of accounting for modern architecture (defined as 1800 to roughly 1965) has only recently begun to coalesce in the postmodern period. Its fundamental category is the sublime.

The significance of the sublime as an aesthetic subject of art and architecture seems to lie in its conceptual reach, or in the case of the religious sublime, in its spiritual dimension. The sublime refers to immense ideas like space, time, death, and the divine. Historically, it can be traced to the writings of the classical rhetorician Longinus in the first centuries A.D. Translated into French in 1674, his On the Sublime deals with issues of form and style in oratory, the equivalent of literature in general for his time period. The publication of this ancient treatise had the unexpected result of launching the eighteenth-century development of a broad aesthetic based on a dialectic of the sublime and the beautiful.

Kant's and Burke's treatises will form the basis of my discussion of Enlightenment aesthetics. Their categories of the beautiful and the sublime were applied to the study of nature, to the character of men, and to their artistic output, in particular, poetry, painting, and architecture. Thus, by the mid-eighteenth century, the sublime had crossed disciplinary boundaries from literature to take on morality and the visual arts.

The sublime was the intention of architects C. N. Ledoux and E. L. Boullée, referred to by Joseph Rykwert as the "first moderns." They advocated a reductive architectural language, albeit neoclassical, at the time of the French Revolution. In the nineteenth century, the sublime in architecture was overshadowed by historical eclecticism, while dominating Romantic landscape painting. Around the turn of the century, avant-garde challenges to the pictorial traditions of painting were mirrored by architecture's rejection of the classical (and generally historicist) language of building in favor of a new expression. The abstraction of form adopted by both avant-gardes did not signal an absence of content, but rather, a less accessible content. In painting this has been characterized by Jean-François Lyotard as "presenting the unpresentable," the indeterminate, or the nondemonstrable. The sublime can be seen as an unarticulated aspect of continuity from the stylistically disparate nineteenth-century through twentieth-century abstraction.

The discourse of the sublime and the beautiful seems to have gone underground in architecture in the twentieth century. It is my contention that this discussion was deliberately repressed by theorists and artists anxious to distance themselves from the recent past. To assert a radical break with the history of the discipline, the terms of aesthetic theory had to be changed. A modernist polemic calling for a tabula rasa and the application of scientific principles to design supplanted the preceding rhetoric. Positivist emphasis on rationality and function marginalized beauty as an issue. Similarly, the subjectivity of beauty's reciprocal, the sublime, led to its demise. (The link between these interdependent terms cannot be easily severed.) By arguing that the sublime exists incognito in the work of the twentieth-century avant-garde, one can resituate the architectural discourse. Later it will be useful to review in more detail the received formal preoccupations of theory during modernism.

The potency of the sublime as transgressor of periods and disciplines is obvious from the outburst of recent writing on this rehabilitated subject. Lyotard's postmodern notion of the sublime as questioning the foundations of representational painting will be examined as part of a definition of the contemporary sublime. In relation to architecture, the sublime presents itself today in several guises, including the uncanny and the grotesque. These psychoanalytic and aesthetic...

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