Case Study—Hallets cove and the sublime

Over time, the word sublime has held a variety of different meanings. It was first popularized by a Roman-era Greek named Longinus in the 1st century and was used to describe language of great, or elevated status. Over time, the term became synonymous with the feeling of awe or astonishment.

English philosopher Edmund Burke further redefined the meaning of the word in his book “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”. In this, he explains that the awe-inspiring feeling humans experience comes as a result of fear when confronted with something great, and the sudden subsequent realization that there is no immediate danger. Many of William Turner’s paintings are a great example of this effect. His paintings of ships on a stormy sea, for example, cause the viewer to be caught in the storm. The viewer realizes their position as a passive onlooker, but also is struck with fear and uncertainty as they put themselves on the ship. The state of man and nature becomes blurred, just like Turner’s blurry brushstrokes. It is the oscillating between this understanding and uncertainty that causes a sublime experience in the mind.

Immanuel Kant went a step further in his definition of the sublime in his book “The Critique of Judgment”. In that book, he explains that the awe-inspiring feeling comes when man confronts something great and difficult to understand, but realizes that there is an inner infinity within himself that is greater than what lies beyond. He refers to this as transcendence of the mind over the body.

Recently, the sublime wears a variety of different hats. The Natural sublime is where transcendence occurs as a result of nature. The technologic sublime is where we recognize our own species ability to destroy and save the planet because of our technologic advancements.

The scientific sublime is when water is able to change straight from its solid state to its gaseous state without ever becoming a liquid. There has also been writing on the ecological, the environmental, the digital, and many other types of sublimes.
My project uses Kant as a lens through which to investigate a variety of these sublimes with the goal of synthesizing them into the development of a new sublime.

The site of the project was Hallets Cove, situated in Astoria, Queens, right on the East river. New York as we know it would not exist without the river, and yet, produced the pollution that has ultimately caused the destruction of the river’s ecologies. Our site, interestingly, has an immense potential for fostering these ecologies. It participates in the “edge effect” which is a phenomenon where the greatest proliferation tends to happen on the boarder of two different ecosystems (in this case, land and water). It also is in-between the Long island sound and the New York harbor, which means the direction of water flow and salinity of the water continually changes throughout the day (which is very good for diverse aquatic life). In the 1940s, the edge condition was quite evident in the lives of humans in Hallets cove. Industry existed, people would swim, boat, and fish, and also had housed on the cove. Whereas leisure, living, and industry once existed because of the river/land/ person relationship, now the site is deteriorating and filled with garbage.

In my proposal, I have evaluated the flows of water in relationship to time and manipulated the site to foster the ecologies of plants, animals and people. I did this by using boardwalks as the infrastructure to manipulate the ground plane and create various water swales geared towards specific plan and animal life. In the middle of the building, I have made a large water filter which extends from the river to the sky. It works by vaporizing water at the bottom through heat and freezing water at the top, resulting in a beautifully violent process of purification. This filer is an enclosed microclimate, where time, temperature and water again together to create a scientific sublime. The dwelling spaces are attached to this on the outside. Occupants move in a vortex like circulation pattern around the building making building appear to emerge from the earth. Occupants dwell in the space between the microclimate and the outdoors.

Ultimately the building is representative of the human body and its flows, as well as a microcosm of the earth. The user’s ontology is put into question, where they are the main actor

on the stage of two different performances. The user recognizes his or her interconnectivity with the rest of the building, and the rest of the world. The building is a time machine for the existential, where we realize our abilities to create and destruct, and understands that with our progress as a species comes destruction of the earth and ultimately ourselves. Like the earlier investigations demonstrated, the user realizes that ontological boundaries between man and nature are merely in the mind. Though initially, the inhabitant occupied a literal edge between land and water, the real edge has been relocated into the inhabitant’s mind, and then abolished/blurred. Transcendence occurs of the mind over the body. In other words, through this in between condition we experience the contemporary sublime.

Spiritual Space—The Journey to Transcendence

    The primary objective of most buildings is to fulfil their functional requirements i.e. to adequately protect against weather, provide safety and security, and to cater to the intended program. In the context of psychology, Maslow would say these buildings satisfy basic, or deficiency needs, and fail to provide for higher level needs. Higher level needs were originally defined as self-esteem and self-actualization, which are about the need for people to respect themselves and to recognize their own potential. Later in life, Maslow revised his theory and added a higher level of self fulfilment called transcendence, which is where individuals give themselves to something greater or beyond (Lee). In wellness terms, this is described as the spiritual dimension (Hettler et al.). According to Maslow, once transcendence occurs, individuals are able to relate themselves to others, nature, and the cosmos and are filled with a holistic sense of purpose. In his book, A Critique of Judgement, Kant’s talks about a similar effect when he describes the sublime, which is where the mind transcends over the body and an individual’s inner infinity is directly confronted with a great beyond. Architecture has the ability to facilitate or evoke these types of, what I will refer to as, spiritual experiences. When this happens successfully in design, ontological boundaries between man, nature, and architecture cease to exist.

Lack of spiritual experiences are a contemporary wellness issue that have been shown to manifest in stress, anxiety, and depression (Koenig)(Seligman).  Additionally, research has shown “Americans who are more spiritually oriented are more apt to engage in various kinds of pro-social behaviors” and “higher levels of spirituality are strongly related with higher life satisfaction across a range of measures” (Jones).  Since architecture can create spaces that evoke spiritual experience, it is essential to learn about and implement designs that can help with our contemporary crisis.

Ongoing personal investigations have  led me to an attempt at a definion for the qualities of space that evoke and facilitate transcendence. I have a particular interest in the region of southeast Asia where the integration of spiritual space in contemporary society is far more prevalent than it is in the west. Using anthropological, ethical, epistemological, and theological traditions as a basis of understanding transcendent space, I have investigated how architecture use scale, material, organization, light, landscape, and human senses. For example, in Myanmar, I am interested in how Burmese temples are used as focal points for community engagement and symbols of spiritual devotion. I have studied how architects, such as Vann Molyvann, have dedicated their lives to designing buildings that reconcile the spiritual past of Camodia with modern architecture. I have also studied the kuti housing type in Thailand and how these inward facing residential clusters were used to facilitate the spiritual journey of Monks.

The goal is to understand more about the essence of spiritual spaces and discover how these spaces can be brought into everyday architecture. Spiritual spaces cannot just be a luxury of the wealthy or reserved for religious buildings.  They are a fundamental requirement for us as humans. An understanding of these spaces enables design which promotes wellness, develops meaning and purpose, and helps us confront relevant contemporary environmental, social, and political issues.

Works Cited

Hettler et al. “THE SIX DIMENSIONS OF WELLNESS.”  National Wellness Institute, 2 Dec. 2015,

Jones, Robert P., Daniel Cox, and Art Raney. “Searching for Spirituality in the U.S.: A New Look at the Spiritual but Not Religious.” PRRI. 2017.

Koenig, H. G., L. K. George, and B. L. Peterson, 1998, Religiosity and remission of depression in medically ill older patients: Am.J.Psychiatry, v. 155, no. 4, p. 536-542.

Lee, Katherine. “Transcendence as an Aesthetic Concept: Implications for Curriculum.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 27, no. 1, 1993, pp. 75–82. JSTOR,

Seligman, M. E., L. Y. Abramson, A. Semmel, and B. C. von, 1979, Depressive attributional style: J.Abnorm.Psychol., v. 88, no. 3, p. 242- . 247

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