Sublimis: An Exploration of the Sublime Through the Exploitation of Fear

Designed in Revit 2018
Rendered Using Enscape
QR Codes used to view renderings in VR

         We interpret our surroundings through our five senses: our tactile, olfactory, auditory, visual, and gustatory senses. These five senses are traditionally accepted due to their ability to measure quantitative information as well as being associated with an organ responsible for interpreting what we experience. The tongue tastes, the eyes see, the ears hear, etc. Because these five senses have traditionally been accepted as the only senses we use to interpret our environment, our built environments accept and reflect this norm causing a plateau effect in the built environments that are rapidly shaping our lives. The contemporary application of the sublime in architecture seeks to justify fear as the sixth sense and create a new sensorial experience that requires users to take a more actively cognitive role while experiencing their surroundings.
          Fear has always been an integral part of how humans interpret their surroundings. Our sense of fear determines whether we are in danger, which aids in keeping us alive. There are two types of fear: instinctual and learned. Instinctual fears are the fears we are born with that have kept humans evolving. Humans have one natural fear: pain. Pain usually means we are being harmed and can lead to our death. Fear can be classified as our sixth sense because it allows us to interpret our environment and is associated with a major organ--our brain. Specifically, our anterior cingulate gyrus.

          Our brain interprets our fears in two ways depending on the type of fright being experienced. Quick frights, such as someone popping out in front of us, cause an emotional fear reaction that is interpreted in the outer portion of our brain known as our “thinking brain”. This type of  reaction causes a very quick response, such as a gasp or jolt, which is over as quickly as it arises and usually stems from our learned fears. Slow fears, such as knowing danger is lingering, causes biochemical reactions commonly experienced as an increased heart rate and a change in body temperature which is interpreted through our primitive brain and is usually caused by our instinctual fears. These types of fears are often universally found among humans and cause the type of reaction I will be focusing on for my contemporary application of the sublime. Since this type of reaction is caused by knowing danger lingers, the contemporary definition of the sublime is that it exists in the balance of fear and beauty. Architecturally, this would manifest as moments causing this specific fear interrupted by moments of beauty and safety. In a successful project there would be enough of an element of danger to cause the biochemical fear reaction mixed with an element of beauty to make the inhabitant want to experience more.
          Too much of our day-to-day lives are spent merely skimming the surface of our experiences and interactions with people and our surroundings. People skim through life like a rock skipping across the top of a lake, hardly experiencing the depth and beauty of life and the world we are immersed in. The contemporary application of the sublime seeks to balance fear and beauty to create moments of sublimity; and when done correctly, this will also cause the user to experience the space in a more cognitively active role and would combat the mundanity of modern life in an often depthless world.

          Balancing fear and beauty is heavily reliant on site and the individual's surroundings. For fear and beauty to exist in harmony and create the experience of the sublime, the ideal sight for my vehicle has a number of necessary interior and exterior elements.
          When creating an experience, how the inhabitant comes to the space has a large impact on the individual, so the approach is a necessary element to my site. The approach has the ability to put the inhabitant in a certain frame of mind and a specific emotional space. Through my research I found that the anticipation of fear is a strong force that increases the actual experience of fear, so I would like the approach to the space to have instances of outlook followed by instances of refuge.
           The intent seeks to balance fear and beauty by exploiting the natural human fears of height, infiniteness, and the unknown. To most effectively do this, the site needs to be elevated either on a ridge line, a peak, or similar. This allows inhabitants to look over canyons and treetops and allows for an infinite line of sight to create the perception of boundlessness. Having a space on a ridge line also exploits the natural fear of heights while making the inhabitant hyper-aware of their feet, where they are standing, and their place in the surroundings. The isolation and elevation of the site, as well as the journey to reach the site, help guests become fully immersed in the experience of the sublime.
          Ample outdoor space is another key element to the effectiveness of the site. The concept of the sublime can be an esoteric topic and requires a certain level of cognition for understanding. Ultimately, I want the experience of the sublime and that level of cognition to set inhabitants up for further internal exploration. The outdoor element is key because of how it encourages this internal exploration. Among the boundlessness of mountain ridges and infinite vistas, human nature seeks to justify our place in the subsequent moment.

          From what I have learned through all of my research of the sublime, fear's effect on the human brain, and the beauty in art and form, the best vehicle for my concept is a sage's retreat in an isolated mountainous area. A vehicle of this kind would benefit tremendously from a space with this intention because it encourages introspection and a connection to your senses and the space. The moments of sublimity guests would encounter here would connect them with themselves and their surroundings, which would create a harmony between guests, space, and site that is neces­sary for higher cognitive interactions and thought.
          Too often everyday life suppresses the ability to expand your thoughts and work through obscure or arcane ideas. However, aimed toward the intellectuals of the world, the retreat will be a destination for introspection. The retreat will be privacy-centric and ensure the isolation which is often required for the endeavors of this demographic. The site will feature trails through the moun­tains for guests to further experience the isolation and seek peak sublimity. The retreat complex will feature sleeping areas for overnight guests and extended stays as well as spaces to interact with other guests if desired. Even in the private spaces, guests will still know there is another resident in the room next to them, but will not be able to make out any details of the person and they will not be able to interact with one another while in these spaces. Their presence will be known through the use of a translucent material that allows for their figure to be seen but nothing about the individual to be known. This would also create another element of the unknown that is important to the idea of the sublime. The retreat will be available for small groups to hold conferences and will feature gathering spaces for lectures and summits. The retreat is ideal for seeking and discover­ing the sublime because this vehicle requires isolation; this vehicle is not commission based or capi­talistic, so it does not require the use of many people, which allows it to be isolated away from dense populations and has the ability to only be open to a limited number of people at a time. This vehicle type is also favorable to the concept of the sublime because it is not a fast-paced institution such as a restaurant or nightclub; this vehicle is quiet, which is conducive to self reflection, contem­plation, and dwelling. Most importantly, this retreat is ideal for the concept of the sublime because it allows its guests to retreat from life while simultaneously facing it and discovering life on a deeper level. The quietness of the surrounding environment invites reflection of one's self.

          Every designer or architect wants to make beautiful work. However, too much of anything is a bad thing. Beauty tends to be overindulged in. The most beautiful flower in a field gets plucked and brought home for one viewer's enjoyment, rather than the flower being left to continue to grow and be admired by more viewers. While beauty and aesthet­ics are important in the design field, and a strikingly beautiful space leaves an impression on its viewers, spaces require purpose to be impactful. Architecture has a unique ability to bring awareness to problems faced in society. My goal as a designer and future architect is to use this tool to bring awareness to issues I see in the society in which I live. Too often the interactions we have with our surroundings are depthless and superficial, which causes a disassociation from ourselves, our environment, and our place in each moment. This proj­ect uses the sublime to create experiences that keep the viewer in moments of conscious­ness of surrounding and contemplation of self.
          The first step into the exploration of the sublime required defining it and how it would be used in an architectural context. Through my research of the philosophy I found numerous definitions used throughout history, but I was most drawn to one contrived by Immanuel Kant. Kant believed there were three kinds of sublime: the noble, the splendid, and the terrifying. I was immediately drawn to the idea of the terrifying and how that can manifest architecturally. I want to manufacture purposeful experiences for inhabitants, however, the sublime cannot live in moments of fear itself as fear alone leads to withdrawal from the experience. To keep the viewer engaged, the experience must include an element of overwhelming beauty or awe to balance the effect of fear. The delicate balance of fear and beauty is integral to the sublime and the subsequent experience for the viewer. Fear without beauty leads to the viewer's complete withdrawal from the experience, while beauty without fear leads to the viewer's overindulgence of the experience. The balance of beauty and fear holds the viewer in a hyper-aware moment of consciousness and contem­plation.
          With this, I have defined the sublime as the balance between fear and beauty; trepi­dation and refuge. Architecturally, I translated this idea of trepidation and refuge by using the conceal and reveal concept and exploiting the instinctual fears of heights, infiniteness, and the unknown.

           Project Manifestation:

         My project became an experiential resort where people aren't staying in order to retreat from something in their everyday lives but are rather looking for something which is missing in their everyday lives. Sublimis is located along Hurricane Ridge in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State offering panoramic views of alpine and sub-alpine mountain tops. The space is set up to accommodate day guests as well as overnight guests. With a large conference room, communal kitchen, open lunge areas, guest rooms, and personal contemplation areas, Sublimis is perfect for business meetings, conferences, and even thinker's retreats.

           Key Design Elements:

           Overlapping Glass Panes: Creating an illusion of indefiniteness was my highest priority as it is an instinctual fear in people and because the site provided an ideal environment to exploit that fear. In threshold areas where inhabitant can move or see from the inside to the outside such as the entrance halls, guest room corners, and conference room, glass panes are used for walls or ceilings which begin inside of the structure and protrude to the outside of the structure while overlapping interior walls or ceiling. Every threshold area in the space lies on the south facing wall which directly overlooks a gorge and an opposing mountain range. This allowed for opportunities of illusions of infiniteness and 'drop-off' views. I chose this approach because it ideally blurs the boundary between safety and fear to create a sublime environment. Visually, inhabitants experience breathtaking views which draw them closer to the edge in order to see more. Wanting to move as close as possible to bask in the entirety of the site but being visually unable to quickly determine where safety ends and danger begins, inhabitants must rely on their tactile sense to determine their boundary.

          Conference Room Wall: The wall of the conference room allows for an additional layer of boundary ambiguity. The wall is made up of eight panels which rotate an entire 360° and have a strip of light on one of the faces. When the panels of the conference room is open, coupled with the the ramp into the conference area beginning before the wall and the panoramic views being seen through the openings, the boundary of the room becomes blurred and the spaces begin to mix visually.

          Anechoic Chambers: In each of the guest rooms is an anechoic chamber which is to be used as a personal contemplation space. The chamber absorbs nearly all reflection of sound and at -32 decibels, the only sound inhabitants hear is the blood vessels in their ear drums. This element works on fear at a more personal level. With nothing in the anechoic chamber to focus on except yourself, the room, intimate in size and featuring only a small window framing the opposing mountain range, encourages introspection and the confrontation of one's self while remedying one's 'place' in that moment.

           Spinal Ceiling Element: The 'spine' of the ceiling is comprised of repeating arms which stretches across the center of the structure from the south facing wall to the north facing wall and follows the fluctuating height of the existing roof. On the north face of each arm is a built in light and when viewed from either end of the building, creates an illusions that the spaces is much deeper than it is - potentially even infinite.