Operationalising the sublime: bringing the sublime
from abstract to concrete
Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand
Abstract: The challenge of meeting the increasing residential demands in New Zealand cities has seen development of
urban centres in landscapes of industry, farmland, or natural spectacle. Quarry landscapes which were previously located
close to the city are now found surrounded by intensiﬁcation or even subject to it. Once quarrying ceases, these dramatic
landscapes have the potential to play a major role in the public realm. This paper approaches this question of the public
potential of deceased quarries by exploring the aesthetic notion of the sublime, speciﬁcally how to operationalise it into a
productive and practical concept to designers. Contemporary approaches remain too general and mired in cliché to be
connected with what creates these experiences. This research argues that the use of stronger representation and design
technique can allow the sublime to be engaged with in a stronger manner. The notions of assemblage and affect enable the
use of representation to connect to the experience of the sublime. This paper uses a real landscape example to describe
a design led methodology of ﬁeldwork, representation and design techniques oriented towards engaging with the sublime
that afﬁrms the primacy of sensation with design and research.
Keywords: Landscape Architecture, Sublime, Quarry, Representation
1. THE PROBLEMS AROUND URBAN QUARRIES
Increasing urbanisation has been a pressing concern since the industrial revolution which saw economic emphasis shift
from the rural agriculture to heavy industry and corporations. Populations shifted alongside these changes creating booming
cities seeking better economic and quality of life opportunities. Both a greater density and ever-increasing sprawl has
occurred often leading to large swathes of the urban structure underdeveloped. Some of these spaces are what Andrea
Kahn describes as [not] urban sites which are the “vulgar”, “the waste”, and “unsightly site” by-products of this 20th-century
urban planning practice (p. 7-9). As the city pushes out from its bounds, both on the periphery and internally as the city
increases in density, new [not] urban sites either uncover themselves or become more relevant to the world around them.
Deceased quarries that were once on the outer limits of the urban have often found themselves within this condition.
Often established to supply aggregate for the manufacturing of building and road material. Their operations tend to keep
out of the public eye, escaping the gaze all except those who work there or live directly adjacent. The only evidence of these
quarries in everyday life are the thunderous trucks carrying their burden of crushed rock along the road. That is until the
development forces of the city seek to push up into its realm. Recent trends have seen these quarried landscapes converted
into areas of medium density housing and areas of ecological restoration. Niddrie Quarry, Melbourne and Mt Wellington
Quarry, Auckland are both examples of this mechanism, with the Three Kings quarry, Auckland set to follow in the same
footsteps. I would argue however that this model is not taking full advantage of what these sites have to offer the city.
This ‘default’ position to ﬁll the quarried hole with housing immediately domesticates the landscape and transforms it into
an ordered and homogeneous ﬁeld. The potential of these landscapes lies in their ability to produce powerful and moving
aesthetic experiences. Often these aesthetic experiences are categorised as something like the sublime, which Central Park
(NYC) and Birkenhead Park have shown play a role in the life of the city.
2. ON THE SUBLIME
Since the rise of aesthetics in the 18th century few concepts are as mired in mysticism and abstract categorisation as the
sublime. The ﬁeld of aesthetics was developed during The Enlightenment as a reaction to the rising rational scientiﬁc method
of understanding the world. Knowledge was shifting from the religious doctrine to the beginnings of scientiﬁc inquiry around
the physical world. Geological thinking, for example, entirely displaced the biblical timeline of creation (Heringman, 2004, p.
8). This drastically shifted what it meant to be a subject, raising questions like ‘what is it that moves me’. Some experiences
in the world could not be explained by the rational model alone. In discussions on the sublime different theorists have put
forward a varying range of causes and effects of a sublime experience. Generally, it is regarded as an experience of fear,
wonder, or astonishment of something which sits outside our normative and habitual means of comprehending the world.
The Swiss Alps and other scenes impacted those who saw them profoundly, with Joseph Addison writing that “…we are
not struck with the novelty or beauty of the sight but with that rude kind of magniﬁcence…We are ﬂung into a pleasing
astonishment at such unbounded views and feel a delightful stillness and amazement in the soul at the apprehension of
P. Rajagopalan and M.M Andamon (eds.), Engaging Architectural Science: Meeting the Challenges of Higher Density: 52nd
International Conference of the Architectural Science Association 2018, pp.611–618. ©2018, The Architectural Science
Association and RMIT University, Australia.
them (Spectator 412, 1712). The sublime was seen as impacting and modifying the very being of those who experience it,
changing them from that moment onward into something different. Not a whole new being but shifted slightly. John Baillie
argued that in the face of the sublime “every person upon seeing a grand object is affected with something which as it were
extends his very being” (1996, p. 88).
Both Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke form the basis of much writing on the sublime and much has been written
on the speciﬁcs and differences of each theory. As such only a brief overview of each will be delved into here, elucidating
only what is relevant to this investigation. Published after the Enquiry, Kant’s Critique of Judgement in 1790 built upon this
foundation and at the same time radically shifted it. Perhaps the most lasting and inﬂuential aspect of Kant philosophy of the
sublime is the notion of two different modes, the Mathematical sublime and the Dynamic sublime. For the former mode, Kant
placed the source of the sublime in the feeling of the Faculty of Reason’s superiority over nature and by extension, sensation
and perception. The latter mode has the sublime emerge as the subject’s realisation of their power as moral agents and that
this is inﬁnitely superior to any power that nature may hold over them (Kant, 1914). Kant’s sublime is the result of the Faculty
of Imagination being unable to provide representations to the Faculty of Reason, the feeling of this inadequacy being the
sublime. Some concepts under Kant’s model are impossible for the faculties to represent. As Timothy Morton suggests on
the idea of inﬁnity: “you can think about it, you can directly experience it, but you can’t think it” (2012). You can, in fact, form
an idea, a concept of inﬁnity within your mind and yet in no way be able to represent it. This inadequacy of the Imagination is
felt by the subject as a kind of mental pain, a recognition of the limitations of your being in the world. What follows this mental
pain is a feeling of rising superiority of Reason over Imagination and sensibility, a feeling of the sublime (Budd, 2003, p. 69).
Within Burke’s Enquiry it is the notions of a critical distance between the subject and the terrifying object, alongside the
‘mental pain’ felt during the contemplation of large objects that have persisted and transcended into cliché. This masks
the more signiﬁcant aspects relevant to design of landscape. In Burke’s own words he describes the sublime as a force
“capable of affecting the body and thus exciting our passions” (p. 2). Burke regards the sublime as ﬁrst and foremost an
affection and change to the body, followed by subsequent shifts in the subject’s mental powers and processes. The sublime
is not an inherent quality that resides with an object and creates a shift within the subject, nor is it found solely within the
subjects own mental processes and feeling of their operation and superiority. Burke does not divide so evenly into objects
and the body (of the subject), instead he describes bodies as both animate and inanimate, each readily capable of affecting
another equally (Bromwich, 2014, p. 63). There is a relation between the physical responses in the nervous system where
“all motions are suspended” in an “unnatural tension of the nerves” and a similar response in the mental faculties of the
subject (Burke, p. 57,130). This mental affection is not a conscious and voluntary process that the subject moves through.
The sublime instead of being produced by Reason “anticipates our reasonings and, hurries us on by an irresistible force”
(p. 57). It works pre-consciously and involuntarily in an irresistible manner, we have no say in the workings of the sublime,
we are not shown to have any power over nature by it, we are merely along for the ride. The Enquiry’s aim is not to afﬁrm
the power of the subject, it is instead to show that the sublime operates beyond reason, beyond and before thought (Ryan,
2001, p. 270).
3. OPERATIONALISING THE SUBLIME
3.1 All entities are sublime
The task of how to make the sublime a more concrete and designerly concept than the works of Burke and Kant allows
requires engaging with the realms of affect. Burke was beginning to suggest the involuntary relationships between entities,
which if we follow Deleuze, can be made much stronger via engaging with it via the realm of affect. Deleuze, building upon
Spinoza, describes the world as being constructed of assemblages. These assemblages are composed of heterogeneous
entities (physical and non-physical) that enter into relations with each other, in turn producing empowerments or affects
(Deleuze and Parnet, 2007). Non-living entities or material objects have agency and are treated as seriously as an organism.
All entities have puissance, the power to act or be acted upon by other entities (Deleuze, 1978). By looking at a sublime
event as an assemblage, the dichotomy of subject/object can be bypassed and looked at as entities acting or affecting each
other. Arjen Kleinherenbrink further adds to this argument by suggesting that all entities are sublime, from the raging storm
to the teacup on his desk (Kleinherenbrink, 2015, p. 3).
Based upon his reading of Deleuze, Kleinherenbrink argues that the sublime is not some tension between object and
subject, or within the subject (as per Kant), but as a tension within an entity itself. A rift exists within all entities between
the “power to act, change, form assemblages” and singularities (the Virtual), and what may be deﬁned as “objects made
signiﬁcant by the subconscious” or the relational aspects between things (the Actual) (p. 4). So, if this rift occurs in every
entity and therefore every entity is sublime; how is this signiﬁcant? No entity is alone, it is always operating in allegiance with
others, the world is ecological after all. Every entity depends on other entities to actualise itself and others to fundamentally
exist. Every entity acts and is acted upon by another and is therefore sublime by virtue of this capability (2015, p. 5). But if
the ‘typically sublime’ entities are thus then how do they break this rule (and therefore proving it)? Such entities are sublime
precisely because they are withdrawn from all relations; they are experienced fully without relation to another entity. There is
a ‘hidden dimension’ within each entity of involuntary powers and possibilities which in the extreme examples we recognise
as being sublime rushes forward, affronts us and messes up our habitual responses, entering our consciousness. This can
easily be understood as the moment at which an affect is so impactful to our being that we consciously become disturbingly
aware of it. The sublime is not an inherent quality in an object or the disparity in our faculties. It is the affects between us and
other entities that are so powerful that they enter our consciousness and mess things up. Nothing mystical or transcendent,
instead these sublime affects are very concrete and can be engaged with directly via design.
3.2 Horokiwi Quarry
Approaching the sublime under an aesthetics of affect allows these experiences to be analysed and experimented with in
a concrete and precise way. The very real spatiotemporal relations that come together to produce these singular ‘sublime-
landscape-experiencing-assemblages’ can be engaged with via landscape architectural design techniques - if it works
hard enough. As a case study for engaging with the sublime potential of a large urban quarry park, the Horokiwi Quarry in
Wellington, New Zealand has been used as an experimental testbed. Horokiwi Quarry is the largest quarry in the Greater
Wellington Region, supplying aggregate for roading and construction materials. Situated at precisely the boundary of
Wellington and Lower Hutt cities, it is surrounded by existing housing. Adjacent to its northern border lies the land earmarked
for the region’s largest greenﬁeld development, Lincolnshire Farm. A large population already live around this landscape
and will continue to grow quickly in the foreseeable future. Operationally the quarry has upwards of 30 years of extraction
remaining, allowing design to take an active role in its remediation and transformation throughout its remaining lifespan.
3.3 Fieldwork: what happens and how it happens
Fieldwork is central to working with what landscapes do experientially. Periods of ﬁeldwork were conducted in blocks of 2-3
hours which proved enough time to acclimatise to the site, discover something and work through it on site via drawings,
photographs and note taking. This ﬁeldwork is structured around trying to unpack how the landscape gets you to move
and experience things involuntarily. In the case of the sublime certain events are so abrupt and impactful that they stand
out from everything else. The following an example of working through of one event within the quarry and the implications
it has for the design of the larger landscape. This begins with a short narrative of this movement, followed by a discussion
surrounding the experimentation with representation and design technique to bring this sublime event to life. This will focus
on what was discovered on the main bench (Figures 1,2,3,4,5).
Figure 1 (left) & 2 (right). Location of the quarry in relation to the existing urban fabric. Lower Hutt is less than 1km to the right of the
quarry. The Main Bench is located within the bottom half of the quarry.
Operationalising the sublime: bringing the sublime from abstract to concrete
3.4 A Sublime Event
Even before conducting this ﬁeldwork it was clear from
afar that this bench had something to offer (Figure 2).
Arriving at the quarry means parking up at the entrance
and making your way in by foot. The full scale of the
quarry unfolds as you move through it, much of it still
hidden from the entrance. Walking up the haul road from
the quarries base requires a signiﬁcant amount of effort.
Attention is focused downwards, carefully taking each
footstep one after another. It doesn’t seem to take long
before the ramp evens out and the massive ﬂat bench
opens out. Initially, the ground surface along the edge is
so loose that nothing else can be dealt with apart from
focusing on your movement. Along this edge a sort of
free-wandering is produced, the rest of the quarry seems
to fade away into an abstract background leaving only the
immediate foreground right ahead. Your own movement
seems to envelop your whole being, little else is relevant
but this constructed wandering. It may take 5 minutes or
perhaps only 1, but as your moving around on this loose
rock eventually you will stray too far away from the edge.
The quarry face atop this bench grabs you and holds you,
slowly dragging your attentiveness up from the ground
plane towards its full extents. This massive object stands
alone from its surroundings too imposing to ﬁt in. You’re
drawn in towards it, moving slowly and almost timidly in
its presence. Moving closer, I begin to open up to it as it
ﬁlls my entire vision, I can’t see anything else except this
roughhewn rocky form. My eyes trace across its seemingly
scale-less form. As I move even closer, now about 10 meters from the base, I am arrested by the sheer scale and mass of
this land-form. It leans over and upon on me, it disturbs me. But as I begin to move closer the intensity begins to change
into something else. The closer you move to it the less of a formal object is in front of you, more of a visceral material. Here
the mass and scale of the quarry face seems relatively unimportant if it can even be perceived at all. This shift intensiﬁes the
closer to the base you get until you’re right there and suddenly you realise that the tension in your body is no longer there,
it’s a sharp shift into relief - or even just not feeling tense and under pressure.
3.5 Expression and sense-making
Representation is arguably the most central tool for landscape architectural design. It allows connections to both the
pre-existing landscape and for the projection of new futures upon it. Unlike architectural design which can function (very
successfully) almost entirely within the abstract XYZ space of CAD or the sketchbook, landscape design must engage with
this already speaking material of site constantly via representation (Meyer, 1994, p. 31). In this example of the Main Bench
at Horokiwi, the intent is to use representation in both word and graphics to give expression to the affects produced by the
relevant human-environment assemblages. According to Deleuze and Guattari affects are always twinned with sense. This
is not sense as in common-sense, or sensation, but signiﬁcance - the signiﬁcance of the empowerment to the organism (in
this case a human in a quarry). This signiﬁcance of an affectual empowerment is built upon all past, present and possible
future empowerments (Massumi, 1992).
The role of representation is to bring this affect and its sense to life, to be re-produced and re-lived (even if just partially)
by those engaging with it. This is what Deleuze, following Baruch Spinoza, calls expression, in the act of which “what is
expressed is sense” (Expressionism 335). Expression in this context is the moment where your involuntarily functioning body
and involuntarily functioning brain connect to the doings of that which is being represented. When looking at a drawing
or hearing a description and you click, the ‘a-ha!’ moment where you connect to what is being described - is the result of
the affects and assemblage being given expression. You can feel the empowerments being represented due to your past
and any possible future empowerments related to it. Representation must ﬁrst connect to what the landscape is already
producing in order to design with it. To do this involves the use of drawings at a certain scale where the relations between
the body and space becomes perceptible, cross-referencing different types of drawings and drawing out the relevant
relations that produce the affects in question.
Figure 3 Experiential differentiations upon the main bench.
Figure 4 Drawing assemblage describing the spatial shifts as you begin to perceive the quarry face, just before it pulls you in and arrests
Figure 5 The change in spatial relations at the base of the face where a massive sense of relief and release is felt
Operationalising the sublime: bringing the sublime from abstract to concrete
For representation to experiment with the sublime it must allow for a direct unmediated connection between the body
and landscape(Deleuze, 2003). Figures 4 and 5 show an excerpt from a series of drawings and edited photographs that
work through a series of transitions contained within the above narrative. Transitions within the landscape are often the point
where an empowerment shifts and changes into something new. Drawings are employed to pull apart what has shifted
and changed to produce this transition. In this example, section drawings proved to be the most productive due to the
geometric form of this landscape, alongside a plan and photograph showing the bodies location on the bench and where
attentiveness shifts throughout this movement.
3.6 Transitions/tipping points/variabilities
The most signiﬁcant discovery regarding the sublime and representation was through sectional drawings employed in the
analysis of the movement atop the Main Bench. The geometric nature of this event allows quick and efﬁcient manipulation of
it. What would happen if there was a ramp leading up to bench? This would perhaps orient the body up to the quarry face,
extending this zone where the body is arrested. A series of quick explorations began of what this research terms ‘tipping
points’ and ‘variabilities’ which are each an expression of a shift in affect. Because we live and experience events in this
world our past experiences can tell us how a shift in slope at a quarry bench is going to feel, or how an abrupt change in
level produces another type of sensation. If drawings are made to work hard enough in order to give expression to sublime
events then through the use of tipping points and variabilities the sublime can be designed with in a concrete manner. There
is an exactitude to engaging with the sublime in this manner provided by expression, “it involves an impersonal precision
that might be expected in science and it inseparably involves a creativity” (Connolly, 2012, p. 98). Each shift in the designed
landscape using this method connects to what the landscape is already doing at the same time as the bodies involuntary
knowledge of how the world works. It is a way of designing that bypasses any form of taste or ‘what I like’, it eliminates
statements such as ‘that’s just subjective’, it connects to how things work.
3.7 Designed alterations
What was discovered atop the Main Bench is just one event within the quarry, but this event has spun off and been
transformed into something more. Arising out of the analysis and experimentation with these variabilities was a set of
design possibilities to produce a new and heightened movement atop the bench. Designing with the sublime involves
ﬁnding what escapes thought, common sense, and representation and then stretching it, making it larger or more intense.
It involves what the landscape is already doing, not an abstract idea or concept transplanted from outside. In this example
it was transitional shifts between being assaulted by the scale and mass of the quarry face and the sudden shift away
from thatfound at its base. Alterations of the bench’s slope employed to shift how far back or intense these transitions or
differentiations could be created. Creating a sloped surface towards the face orients the entire body up towards it, extending
the distance back that disturbs and arrests you. In contrast, a sloped surface down towards the face would extend that
‘relief’ zone, or more likely a greater connection to the visceral material nature of the rock. Ultimately a simple combination
of the two slope orientations was drawn in plan and section as the most powerful and simple solution (Figure 7). Both
movements are exaggerated and extended at the same time with a simple geometric form. This set of spatial relations
could then be taken and tested in other parts of the quarry. What would happen if at the base of each signiﬁcant cut quarry
face this or a similar solution was employed? Could a pathway running around the entire base of the quarry be designed
that ran through this zone of ‘easiness’. What would then happen in the remaining more intense space? More designed or
programmed activities here would be ampliﬁed and transformed into something greater. See for example Estádio Municipal
de Braga in Portugal, a major soccer stadium built into a quarry where the whole event of the soccer game is made to rise
up to the occasion of the event of the quarry.
Figure 7 Plan and section drawing of the designed landform that in sequence extends the area in which you are forced to deal with the
mass of the rock face and then extends the material haptic zone
Quarries and other post-industrial ‘disturbed’ landscapes have now found themselves at the edges of development and the
public realm. Typically, these are seen as an opportunity for intensiﬁed housing or ‘best-practice’ methods of remediation
in the name of sustainability. But perhaps these landscapes are the opportunity for something greater, something that the
public can connect to and express themselves through, or the landscape may express publicness itself such as Central
Park, NYC or the Wellington waterfront does. To do so requires a practice that treats aesthetics and technical requirements
of excavation seriously, not just one or the other. Landscape architecture has the power to do this and engage with the
mining processes throughout the quarries lifetime in a way that does not leave a problematic hole in the ground to be
returned to an abstract idea of ‘natural character’.
By engaging with the sublime as part of this process in a concrete and productive practice these landscapes can offer
something entirely different to the public realm of the city that other parks may not. As shown by both Central Park, NYC and
Birkenhead Park, the sublime plays a role in the publicness and sense of ownership of each park, they have become “our
park”. The landscape designers of the 18th and 19th century saw the sublime as a very practical concept to engage with
via design. This research is attempting to revisit their interest and propose new methods and techniques that make it a more
designerly concept, to make it practical and tangible, not mystical and abstract. Central to this is the use of representation
and its power to connect to the involuntary workings of the world. The body in space and time must again be given a seat
at the table of landscape architectural design alongside systems, quantities, and change over time. Only then can these
incredible post-mining landscapes be developed into something that really moves people and plays an active role in the
public realm of our growing cities.
Operationalising the sublime: bringing the sublime from abstract to concrete
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