In landscape architecture, ‘beauty’ is often considered as the ultimate design goal. However, the landscape architecture profession deals with many more issues than only beautiful landscapes, such as water safety, brownfield restoration and human engagement – issues that touch upon a deeper relation between man and landscape. In this relation we recognize the mechanism of ‘the sublime’, a concept emphasizing deep human emotions. We assume that people encounter sublime experiences in their everyday lives and landscapes. In this research we studied whether the sublime can be a guiding principle for the analysis and design of landscapes.
Chosen location for this research is the Hamerstraatgebied, an area providing different atmospheres in which we recognize the idea of the sublime. The Hamerstraatgebied lies within the urban setting of north Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The area is a work landscape and has a continuous demand for efficient workplaces. For a long time, the area has provided a diversity of work environments, starting 100 years ago with large shipbuilding companies and factories. Nowadays, it grows into one of the city’s main location for new offices and creative industries. Instead of other areas in north Amsterdam the Hamerstraatgebied has not yet been redeveloped recently, although a new ferry line of the Oostveer and the (soon to be opened) underground of the Noord/Zuidlijn strongly connects the area to the rest of the city. All different users try to find their own way in the area and have their own experiences. These everyday diverse experiences make the area a perfect location for our research.
However commonly known for its 18th century appearances within natural elements (e.g. waterfalls, thunderclouds and rocky mountains), we expect that the sublime has a more current potential. To establish an understanding of the sublime we use three main theoretical contributions, written by Longinus (transl. 2012), Edmund Burke (1757) and Immanuel Kant (1790). Through a study on the descriptions of the sublime in literature we could select different mechanisms that lead to a sublime experience. We also used other literature sources including that of Jean-François Lyotard (1988), Elizabeth Meyer (1996) and Paul Roncken (2015, to be published) to make a collection of words that are used to describe a sublime experience. These words we called clues for the sublime, and include emotions such as surprise, anxiety, awe, pain, lust or ambition. Together, the mechanisms and the list of clues formed a strong basis to analyse different sublime experiences and enabled us to translate the sublime to everyday life.
People can have unique sublime experiences. We conducted a questionnaire and told with more than 50 persons working in the area. To make this graspable, it was needed to generalize the findings. By using the persona method (Miaskiewicz and Kozar 2011) we could connect the difference findings to four archetype users: Abdel the craftsman, Frits the creative employee, Marian the desk worker, and Jos the manager. Through these four personas we can understand the area from the perspective of its users, including their work activities. Conducting a rhythmanalysis (Lefebvre 1992) enables us to relate their activities to specific locations and time. With this, we get a better insight of the behavioural patterns of each user group. This process leads to a differentiation in two main design approaches: the individual sublime, based on the person in relation to the landscape; and the group sublime, based on the spectator in relation to other people.
The individual sublime
Within the already existing harbour of the GVB ferries a pier is designed that proposes to take a linear route towards the IJ, providing a sequence of different experiences (figure 3). First there is a distraction from the daily rhythms, followed by a short moment of maximum enclosement by the hedge. Entering a small closed space with borders of moving cattail reeds. When entering the pier, first the spectacle is superficial, but further, when the pathway slightly rises, there is more visual exposure to weather, dynamics and other people’s views. The pier ends in a stairway towards water level. Here, the viewer fully experiences the strong edge of north Amsterdam, leading to a reflection on his distinctive location.
For this design, the sensational experience that the landscape evokes are sources for different clues of the sublime (figure 4). We recognize a strong presence of clues referring to an incomprehensible concept, as described by Immanuel Kant, and emotions such as solitude, intimacy, work dynamics, awe and vastness. The initiator of the experience is the set of formless concepts: the IJ, the harbour dynamics and the presence of others.
The group sublime
At the Spijkerhaven, the mono-functional parking space is redesigned into a sociable square for workers of the surrounding buildings. Petrified waves of concrete reminiscent the waves of the filled-in harbour. The concrete waves allow different activities but does not propose any fixed behaviour. The amount of freedom creates uncertainty with its users as instructions are missing. The four personas can do whatever they like: working, eating, meeting, sporting, or just gazing at others. By being creative and studying other users, personas can create their own manual to use this landscape. Planting of grasses allows users limited privacy while still being visual from the buildings.
For this design, sensational experiences by people’s activities are sources for different clues of the sublime. These are very diverse and can include joy and surprise, yet also competition and loathing. The initiator is the landscape itself and the performance of the users within this landscape. The process is an experience of discovery how to use the landscape. This by testing under limited privacy and spying on others while being subject to their gaze.
The everyday sublime
So is our assumption true that sublime experiences happen in the everyday setting of the work landscape of the Hamerstraatgebied? To get a grip on this question, we did several elaborate studies. First by walking through the area and understanding its history by map analyses. But also by talking to people and asking whether they recognize different emotions in their lives. And by understanding their behaviour, their patterns and their preferences. By getting involved in the area and the work lives of the users. By photographing the landscape, filming it and categorizing the results. By observations, being there at rush hours but also at night.
This learned us that there are many factors that can be seen as a source for a sublime experience: the vastness and freedom that north Amsterdam offers compared to the city centre; the mixture of old remnants of its harbour history, in contrast to the new allotment buildings reserved for start-ups; the sense of unsafety at night, especially near sinister or vacant buildings; the social dynamics and contrasts between firms and their work environments; etcetera.
In the case of the Hamerstraatgebied, the theory of the sublime gives space to different design approaches. By exploring these approaches into two design proposals, we can get a progressive insight in how the sublime can be used and what analysis is needed to come to adapted design ideas. We conclude that for this area the sublime can be a valuable source for landscape design.
References Burke, E. (1757) A philosophical enquiry into the origins of our ideas on the sublime and the beautiful, Cassell: London (reprint 1990). Kant, I. (1790) Kritik der Urteilskraft, translated by Bernhard J.H., London: MacMillan and Co. (1914). Miaskiewicz, T. and Kozar, K.A. (2011) ‘Personas and user-central design: How can personas benefit product design processes?’, Design Studies, 32(5), pp.417-430. Lefebvre, H. (1992) Éléments de rythmanalyse: Introduction à la connaissance desrythmes, Paris: Éditions Syllepse. Longinus (2012) Het sublieme, ed. and trans. M. op de Coul, Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij. Lyotard, J.-F. (1988) ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde’ in Morley, S. ed. (2010) The Sublime, Cambridge: The MIT Press. Meyer, E.K. (1996) ‘Seized by Sublime Sentiments’, in Saunders, W.S., ed., Richard Haag; Bloedel Reserve and Gas Works Park, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 6-28. Roncken, P.A. (2015) Shades of sublime: landscape experience and the idea of the sublime (unpublished) PhD Research.