Enthusiasm for the Sublime: about exercising aesthetic awareness and experiential learning, by Paul Roncken

The implicit reason to design an aesthetic landscape is fairly simple. It is to beautify or at least to establish an appreciate response between man and landscape. There is however a vivid series of recent contributions (Berleant, 1992; Carlson, 2010; Meyer, 2008; Saito, 2010) that articulates a distinction between ‘artistic aesthetics’ against something we can indicate as an ‘environmental aesthetics’. The design of landscapes seems at times to be limited by ‘too much wanting in art’ (Olmsted, 1902, p. 51), especially considering our contemporary awareness of pollution, over exploitation of resources, loss of local identities and a general decrease of sensuous competences. The definition of ‘environmental aesthetics’ is used to negotiate all the conflicting experiences of our (everyday) landscapes. Some of these experiences can be more of less controlled by well designed interventions (e.g. Meyer, 2008) others – I suspect – are the mere result of incoherent circumstances or even neglect and demand not improved design instead an improved capacity for the digestion of experiences. Within this debate the implicit reasons to design an aesthetic landscape seems to be expanded to become (1) more explicit and (2) less determined by beautification. The idea to expand the definition of aesthetics is not dependent on an environmental or landscape related context, yet the pragmatic circumstances that orbit the appearances of environments and (everyday) landscapes provide such overwhelming evidence of ‘negative aesthetics’ that we are inclined to include such negativeness in any serious definition of aesthetics. Arnold Berleant for example refers to the idea of the sublime as a ‘negative aesthetics’ that confronts us unprepared and we have not yet developed cognitive and social structures to deal with the inherent changes it provides (Berleant, 1997, pp. 78, 79; 2009). However more truthful a more explicit and less beautified comprehension of aesthetics might seem to critics and philosophers, the mere existence of a ‘negative aesthetics‘ is hardly appealing for designers that need to convince their clients and audience. Designers and clients would rather find an antidote against such negativeness, thereby interpreting aesthetics as the theory to provide them with the principles to do so.

To improve an inclusion of both designers, clients and philosophers in the fascinating discourse on aesthetic categories, I will create an argument that neutralizes the implicit favor for the ‘positive’ or ‘appreciative’ in aesthetics. By analyzing the accumulating idea of the sublime as an aesthetic category (Burke, 1759; Kant, 1951 (1790); Longinus, 2010 (1899); Lyotard, 1994; Weiskel, 1976) I will argue that what is perceived with great enthusiasm by painters, poets and nature explorers (e.g. Macfarlane, 2007; Muir, 1994; Newman, 1950-51) and landscape designers such as Adriaan Geuze and Michael van Valkenburgh (Horn, 2010; Louter, 2003) coincides with a philosophers argument to include both the ‘negative’ and the ‘positive’ in the concept of aesthetics. Any such inclusion questions a dominant ‘appreciative’ response of people amidst environments or landscapes and instead points at a range of ‘exercising’ responses that define (environmental) aesthetics. Such an ‘exercising’ interpretation of aesthetics provides insight in the both the failures and successes of aesthetic interaction and interpretation. My main proposal is therefore to redefine aesthetic categories in terms of exercising positions and their projected educational development. The five aesthetic categories that I propose enable to expand the field of environmental and landscape design by aligning it with the educational categories of experiential learning that have been developed by Dewey (Dewey, 1929, 1933; Miettinen, 2000) and Kolb (Kolb, 1984).

Berleant, A. (1992). The Aesthetics of Environment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Berleant, A. (1997). Living in the Landscape: Towards an Aesthetic of Environment. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Berleant, A. (2009). Art, Terrorism and the Negative Sublime. Contemporary Aesthetics, 7(2009). Retrieved from
Burke, E. (1759). On the Sublime and Beautiful (second ed.). London: Penguin Books.
Carlson, A. (2010). Contemporary Environmental Aesthetics and the Requirements of Environmentalism. Environmental Values, 19(2010), 289-314.
Dewey, J. (1929). Experience and Nature. London: George Allen And Unwin, Limited.
Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think, a restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and company.
Horn, A. T. (2010). Architects of the Outdoors, the sculptors of Harvard landscapes create sustainable outdoor havens. The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from http://www.theharvardcrimson.com/article/2010/9/14/landscape-harvard/?print=1
Kant, I. (1951 (1790)). Critique of Judgement (J. H. Bernard, Trans. Vol. 5). New York: Hafner Press.
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning. Experience as the source of learning and Development: Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Longinus. (2010 (1899)). Peri Hypsous. In A. Sanders Way & W. Rhys Roberts (Eds.). Cambridge: Nabu Press. (Reprinted from: 1899).
Louter, F. (2003). Adriaan Geuze wankelt in zoektocht naar evenwicht. Archined News. Retrieved from http://www.archined.nl/recensies/adriaan-geuze-wankelt-in-zoektocht-naar-evenwicht/
Lyotard, J. F. (1994). Lessons on the analytic of the sublime: Stanford University Press.
Macfarlane, R. (2007). The Wild Places: Granta.
Meyer, E. K. (2008). Sustaining beauty – the performance of appearance: Can landscape architects insert aesthetics into our discussions of sustainability? Journal of Landscape Architecture, 98(10), 6-23.
Miettinen, R. (2000). The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey’s theory of reflective thought and action. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19(1), 54-72. doi: 10.1080/026013700293458
Muir, J. (1994). The Wild Muir, twenty-two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures: Yosemite Association.
Newman, B. (1950-51). Vir Heroicus Sublimis.
Olmsted, F. L. (1902). Public Parks. Massachusetts: Brookline.
Saito, Y. (2010). Future Directions for Environmental Aesthetics. Environmental Values, 19(2010), 373-391.
Weiskel, T. (1976). The Romantic Sublime. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Paul A. Roncken, Wageningen University, NL


Harvard Citation Guide: Roncken, P. (2012) Enthusiasm for the Sublime: about exercising aesthetic awareness and experiential learning, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 12 June 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 15 June 2012].

The Gravity of Desire, by Ron Henderson

The contemporary Japanese architect, Toyoo Ito, described ohanami (the Japanese cherry blossom festival) as the quintessential Japanese construction. A blanket is laid on the ground to define areas of action and performance. Following the descent of the cherry blossoms, the blankets are removed – and act that signals the end of the architecture as well.  This framework of performative landscapes and cultural practices will be considered in relation to the economic, militaristic, and aesthetic implications of cherry blossoms falling to the ground.

Ron Henderson, Pennsylvania State University, USA

Harvard Citation Guide: Henderson, R. (2012) The Gravity of Desire, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 23 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

Human Landscapes, Virtue and Beauty, by David E. Cooper

By ‘human landscapes’, is meant parks, gardens, farmland and other landscapes that patently bear the impress of human intervention, including building. Many questions concerning the relation of ethical to aesthetic considerations about human landscapes can be raised. For example, is ‘aesthetic pollution’ of an environment also a moral offence? The question addressed in this paper is how, if at all, ethical considerations are relevant to aesthetic appreciation of human landscapes. In the first half of the paper, I reject the familiar view that the moral provenance and/or effects of a landscape affect its aesthetic qualities. (Eg. A seemingly beautiful verdant park is not beautiful if the water it requires causes serious environmental damage). I argue that the mere knowledge that a landscape has certain causal connections of a morally significant kind cannot alter a genuinely aesthetic judgement – though it may prompt a person to suspend aesthetic attention. For the moral aspects of a place to affect an aesthetic judgement they must, as it were, show up or figure in the experience of the place. This leads into the second half of the paper, which defends the ‘virtue-centric’ claim that an aesthetically admired landscape is experienced as having virtues – or, more precisely, as having features which, when possessed by human beings, are virtues. (Eg. In some cultures, to find a parkland graceful, noble and constrained is to admire it aesthetically). Put oversimply, a human landscape is beautiful when it exemplifies virtue. I proceed, after defending the claim against certain objections, to argue that a main merit of the virtue-centric approach is its considerable explanatory power. It explains why the beauty of human landscapes, and much else, matters a great deal to people. (It matters because virtue (and vice) matter). It also explains, much more plausibly than the ‘eye of the beholder’ account of beauty, the significant differences between cultures in the appreciation of landscapes. It renders these differences interesting by grounding them in different moral perspectives. (Eg. Differences in 17th C. Japanese and Italian tastes in gardens surely reflect differences in the kinds of virtues prominent in the moral thinking of the respective societies). The paper ends with the proposal that there is such an intimacy between moral and aesthetic sensibilities that the sharp distinction made between them in modern times is artificial, and registers an abstraction in effect from the conception of the good life articulated by the thinkers of ancient Greece and China.

David E. Cooper, Durham University, UK

Harvard Citation Guide: Cooper, D. (2012) Human Landscapes, Virtue and Beauty, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 23 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

Landscape, Imagination and Morality, Ian Thompson

This paper explores the agency of ‘landscape imaginaries’.  The notion of a landscape imaginary is related to the philosopher Charles Taylor’s use of the term ‘social imaginary’ to refer to ‘the way in which our contemporaries imagine the societies they inhabit and sustain’.   Imaginaries are not expressed in theoretical terms but are carried in images, stories and legends.  From the perspective of landscape architecture, one of the important things we need to do is to identify the imaginaries we have inherited from the past which continue to shape our landscapes and constrain our environmental choices today. Designers have a particular responsibility because not only do they make aesthetically and ethically loaded choices about how the world will be, but they can also reinforce and perpetuate harmful imaginaries or initiate new ones, hopefully less harmful.  To illustrate this the paper considers the influence, both for good and ill, of the pastoral-picturesque imaginary.

Ian Thompson, Newcastle University, UK


Harvard Citation Guide: Thompson, I. (2012) Landscape, Imagination and Morality, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 23 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

Do We have Ethical and Aesthetic Obligations to Respect Landscapes?, by Isis Brook

Traditionally we have thought of ethical obligations as placing constraints on our behaviour towards other humans and, later, sentient animals. With the rise of environmental ethics these obligations were re-examined and in some cases broadened to include living entities and/or communities such as ecosystems or species. However, that broadening – when focused on the intrinsic value of entities and systems – did not include what were perceived as cultural constructs: buildings, planned environments, and landscapes. If we were seen as having obligations of any kind regarding such things it was due to their importance to humans or other entities with intrinsic value. A core feeling in environmental ethics was that it was time for human preferences and desires to take a backseat; thus, the built or designed environment, even cultural landscapes, were not regarded as important except in regard to their impact on ecosystems or, for example, biodiversity potential. The fact that protection of wilderness was at the foreground of environmental thinking meant that cultural landscapes, if considered at all, tended to be thought of as defiled or degraded regions that only the uninformed would mistake for the real thing.

The idea of aesthetic obligations is unusual and, if it has any purchase at all (beyond a Wildean extravagance), would generally be seen as resting on ethical obligations to respect the aesthetic preferences of other humans. And yet an aesthetic response to something that is out of place or inappropriate as somehow ‘wrong’ is not, at base, a feeling that it is wrong because others would similarly be upset by it or deprived of a pleasing view; rather, it is a feeling that it is ‘wrong for this place’ per se. We feel the landscape has been treated disrespectfully; that it has been wronged regardless of other human preferences or perceptions. By the same token, developments or changes to a landscape that feel ‘right’ can feel ‘right for the place’ not just right in a second-order way, that is, in a way that is dependent on other appreciators of the place. Of course one would hope that there is a commonly felt sense of rightness, but it would be shared because it is ‘right for the place’ not because it was in accord with individual preferences that just happen to be similar.

This paper will examine these different axiological approaches to the question of respect for cultural landscapes and ask whether the moral or aesthetic – or a merging of the two – can be used to defend the thesis that landscapes should be respected in their own right, that is, regardless of, or at least prior to, concerns about human preferences. One route to this seemingly impossible task is Fox’s theory of responsive cohesion. Another is Goethean phenomenology. Both can be used to place the human being in a role of service to the landscape itself and thus use our moral/aesthetic sensibilities to make judgements for the good of the landscape.

Isis Brook, Writtle College, UK

Harvard Citation Guide: Brook, I. (2012) Do We have Ethical and Aesthetic Obligations to Respect Landscapes?, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 23 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

Landscape Aesthetics: in relation to nature and culture, by Marie Ulber

While people nowadays mostly live in built environments we may ask ourselves: How do we perceive natural landscapes? The starting point of this discussion is that our environment and our way of life in the western world have changed rapidly over the last decades. First, our perception has become used to new sources of imagery such as television, internet and cameras, secondly our everyday mobility has increased very much, and thirdly, what we perceive also has changed through new ways of using, designing or building our environment. In this talk I discuss the potential of the concept of ‘atmospheres’, that originated with the German philosopher Gernot Böhme, to investigate various types of landscapes in relation to how we perceive and what we feel in these surroundings.

Böhme’s new aesthetics “is concerned with the relation between environmental qualities and human states. This ‘and’, this in‐between, by means of which environmental qualities and states are related, is atmosphere.” (Böhme 1993, p 114) The main idea of the new aesthetics is that everything, the built and the natural things, the objects and subjects, tune their environments and, in this way, create spatial moods called atmospheres that we can perceive as embodied feelings. This means that form and design of the environment affect us one way or another by impacting our emotional states.

Gernot Böhme argues that the “primary ‘object’ of perception is atmospheres” (Böhme 1993, p 125). For example, when we enter a room we feel the existing spatial mood, before we make out any details. The fact is, whether we become aware of the atmosphere or not, because we are concentrating on things and signs, it will influence our feelings. Here, I claim that our everyday life and environment shape our perception in particular ways, and that our surroundings have a deep impact on our capacity to feel and to be are aware of atmospheres.

While the concept of atmospheres has already been thought through in a variety of ways, especially how it has been brought into play in the theater and in shops, it has not been considered yet in relation to landscape aesthetics. Based on what we already know about atmospheres, I discuss the physical conditions involved in the experience of atmospheres in particular landscapes. Moreover, I will take into account the natural, anthropogenic and social foundations of atmospheres in the analysis of the relationship between different, humanly influenced landscapes and how we feel in these. I will also include the spatial orientations that characterise the surroundings, their particular moods, and the typical ways of moving within those spaces and the types of action that they facilitate for the perceiver.

My objective in applying the concept of atmospheres to landscape aesthetics is, among other things, to highlight the value of natural landscapes for us today and to show that such natural places deserve protection not just as animal or plant biospheres but also because of their significance for humans.

(Böhme 1993) Böhme Gernot: Atmosphere as the Fundamental Concept of a New Aesthetics, In: Thesis Eleven 36 p. 113‐126

Marie Ulber, University of Weimar, DE


Harvard Citation Guide: Ulber, M. (2012) Landscape Aesthetics: in relation to nature and culture, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 20 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

Differences in Landscape Appreciation in Pilot Study of Place Attachment and Collective, by Julia Sulina

Does everybody perceive and appreciate same landscapes and places? If not, can social psychology aspects of collective identity be used to define those differences or similarities between cultural groups? Paper aims to answer these questions by results of pilot qualitative study of place attachment and collective identity.

Aesthetics and ethics of the environment is hided in the relationship of people and place, through identity construction people change and/or choose meaningful places in everyday landscape, while everyday landscape affect people.

Baumgarten definition of aesthetics as sensory experience is narrowed to sensory experience that is followed by cognitive process in which by appreciating environment, it is noticed, remembered or/and given particular meaning. Carlson argues that environmental aesthetic experience requires paying attention on the environment – seeing it as “obstructive foreground”, while knowledge define borders of appreciation of it. According to Berleant participatory model offers aesthetic experience. Places are chosen as study unit as usually associated with particular action and/or participation. Landscape consists of meaningful parts – places (Relph).

Landscape and places within it have collective meanings and clear social dimension. In the perception of the environment, objective situation is combined with associations that person experience of the physical world and of the people (Greenbie), collective identity is also based on mentioned experiences as well as on self-image.

Pilot study presented in the paper recognises importance of place attachment through study of meaningful places aspects together with collective identity. Aspects summarized by Ashmore et al are used in conducted interviews. Basing on qualitative comparison of interviews differences and similarities between two ethnic groups (ethnic Estonians and Russian Estonians) landscape perception, values and place meanings are identified. Bonds with places important for locals are studied taking into account aspects of collective identity (cultural groups) as there is no homogeneity in the ethnic groups.

Ashmore, R. D., Deaux, K., McLaughlin-Volpe, T. 2004. An Organizing Framework for Collective Identity: Articulation and Significance of Multidimensionality. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 130, No. 1, 80 –114
Berleant, A. 1988. Aesthetic Perception. Environmental aesthetics: theory, research and applications. Nasar, J.L. (ed).
Carlson, A. 2008. Appreciation and the natural environment. Aesthetics: a comprehensive anthology. Cahn, S.M., Meskin, A. (eds).
Greenbie, B.B. 1988 The landscape of social symbols. Environmental aesthetic: theory, research and applications. Nasar, J.L. (ed).
Relph, E. C. 1976. Place and Placelessness.

Julia Sulina, Estonian University of Life Sciences, EE

Harvard Citation Guide: Sulina, J. (2012) Differences in Landscape Appreciation in Pilot Study of Place Attachment and Collective, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 20 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].