The late 18th century brought radical changes to Western thought. Often seen as the beginning of the Modern Era, this period wit­nessed the turn to reason and scientific method effecting social, political, and economic systems in Europe. The waning of religious and monarchical control allowed the transition into a secular society engaged in a free market. Following the Baroque and the excess of the Rococo, artists and architects sought ways to portray new ide­als of the day.[1] At this time, two important philosophical works, Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790), sought to dissect our experiences of the beautiful and the sublime in both nature and art. As architects, we are caught between overlapping yet different views on the sublime as put forth by these two influential thinkers.  

Burke distinguishes between two types of affect: pain and pleasure. The later he ties to society, which he further segregates into passions of the sexes and those of general society. That which fills the mind with great pleasure, in his view, typically ties back to engagement with others, whether it is falling in love, being in the company of others, having lively conversation, or sharing a laugh. Though he concedes that pleasure can be derived from temporary solitude, such as an act of contemplation, prolonged solitude can nevertheless lead to emotional pain. In contrast, he ties pain to self-preservation; the passions concerning self-preservation include ideas of pain, sick­ness, horror, and death.2 He posits that in general, pain and danger do not directly pertain to society collectively because they engage hu­mans at the level of the individual by filling our minds with notions of horror. He explains, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort ter­rible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”[3]

Kant, however, offers two definitions of the sublime.[4] On the one hand, Kant’s mathematical sublime can be defined as the state of mind whereby the mind attempts to grasp something “that in com­parison with which everything else is small.”[5] The mathematical sublime results from that which is absolutely great — or absolutely miniscule — in comparison to the norm. This always implies a rela­tionship with something other, whereby the greatness is relative to something else.[6] The mathematical sublime is the feeling produced by the struggle for reconciliation of the irreconcilable disjunction between the imagination and our own rationality.

The dynamical sublime, on the other hand, results from that which strains our imagination because of its might over the mind—this is best represented for Kant by nature. Much like Burke, Kant believes that nature has the power to annihilate causing us to fear for our lives. This could be extended to other things that cause our resistance to remain insignificant to their might, including God or a tyrannical power.[7] Even as this state of mind grapples with the boundless and infinite, we realize that absolute freedom is even more resistant and unbounded than anything else we encounter, including the forces of nature.

It is this sense of boundless freedom that informed works of art and architecture that were contemporaneous with Burke and Kant. Whereas some artists and architects of the time returned to neoclassical examples as an appeal to science and reason, others sought to delve into the imagination in hopes of reaching a higher level of experience. Similarly, Etienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799) and Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) both elicit the sublime in their work. Here, I pay special attention to unrealized projects by both architects. Boullée’s cenotaphs and Piranesi’s Carceri (prisons) will be examined for their ability to demonstrate Kant and Burke’s varying principles of the sublime.


Boullée and Piranesi both intended to evoke monumentality and grandeur for their respective audiences. If they could be erected, Boullée’s proposals would stand taller than any historic structure with the exception of the Egyptian pyramids. His renderings are initially deceptive, presenting an ambiguity of scale. Only when one realizes that the tiny specks near the bottom of the frame are people does one understand the enormity of the buildings. The effects of similar overscaling have been well known: the grandest buildings worked to glorify overriding ideals or power structures of their time. Egyptian pyramids protected the bodies of pharaohs for eternity, Greek and Roman temples deified their various gods, and Gothic cathedrals soared to reach the Christian heavens. But with his cenotaphs, Boullée presents the viewer with temples to Reason: architecture that not only diminishes the individual man, but that also exceeds the logic of religion.[fig. 1]

Boullée saw more possibilities of evoking sublimity in painting than in the realization of architecture, making representation all the more critical, regardless of a project’s practicability. Unlike his contemporary Ledoux, who was interested in social reform, Boullée focused on more idealized programs illustrating to what architec­tural form can aspire.[8] For example, the cross-section of the Conical Cenotaph reveals a cavernous dome with an improbable thickness that technology of this time, using stone masonry, would likely not have been able to structure.[fig. 2]

Boullée “hewed” his cenotaphs from stereometrically pure forms such as the pyramid and the sphere, their simplicity a curious contradiction to the enormity of the forms.[9] These basic geometrical solids serve as symbols for a return to Reason as well as to principles free from mortal desires. The contradiction of scale to form subverts reason, especially because the scale is initially so ambiguous in all of the projects. While the forms appear rational to our mind, we men­tally place ourselves within the scene imagining the affective nature of these immense spaces bearing down on us. What at first appears overbearing and threatening in the end celebrates unbounded hu­man reason once we are able “to get our heads around it.”[10]

It is surely not by coincidence that most of Boullée’s theoretical proj­ects are for cenotaphs, funerary structures, and cemeteries, often as­sociated with monumentality. He surrounded many of his edifices with rings of cypress trees, symbolic of mourning. These projects strive to leave the viewer in a mood of anxiety and somberness as Boullée used harsh lighting to dramatize the scene and accentu­ate the austerity of his forms. In many cases, the rendering casts the building in a blanket of shadow and emphasizes an imposing eeriness in contrast to its surroundings. He continued these effects inside where he used dark and gloomy renderings for the interiors.[12]

Presented primarily in frontal view, Boullée’s projects often are com­posed symmetrically with a large structure on center with flanking lower walls extending out to the edge of the drawings.[fig. 3] This horizontal extension perhaps serves to suggest that the building is only part of a much larger complex. In addition, the lower exten­sions help to heighten the scale of the all-consuming central piece that appears within the frame. Some projects, such as the Monumen­tal Cemetery, sprawl out horizontally across the landscape implying an infinite repetition of forms, or at least more forms than can be seen in one view.[fig. 4] Yet another tactic of extension occurs in Boul­lée’s concept of ‘sunken architecture’ whereby a form appears as the implied tip of a much larger edifice underground.[13]

The basic formal vocabulary also resists the burdens of previous architectural languages, whether they are classical or Gothic, and the associative baggage that comes with them. Again, the only dom­inant metaphor is that of Reason. A sense of timelessness pervades Boullée’s projects. They produce severe temporal dislocation causing one to wonder if the structures are supposed to be ancient or futuris­tic. This infinite extension back and forward into time may serve to make us aware of our own limited time as mortals, merely glimpsing an instant of the life of these buildings.[14]

In different ways, each architect undermines the viewer’s under­standing of space to further exalt the architecture over the human inhabitants. Architects normally employ two-dimensional drawings (plans, sections, and elevations) as objective representations of mea­surement and use perspective to illustrate atmosphere. Though Boul­lée used elevations and sections in most representations, he rendered them to accentuate dramatic atmosphere while challenging our perception of scale by contrasting architectural form with miniscule inhabitants not perceived at first glance.

Piranesi, on the other hand, worked exclusively through perspec­tive, a convention thought to be “truthful” because it approximates reality as experienced through human vision. Perspective has the effect of presenting a work of art as finite and within the control of established rules. Karsten Harries states “Perspective reveals a world which has its measure in the spectator and leaves no room for the transcendence of the sublime. Yet perspective also can be used to negate the spectator’s point of view and the finite world which has its foundation in it.”[16] Piranesi plays with our ability to reason as the interior perspectives effectively pull the viewer into the space. Instead of looking at an abstraction, such as an elevation, with detached distance, Piranesi’s technique draws one into an immense, overwhelming spatial labyrinth. Here too the minute humans scattered throughout the space serve only to contrast the overscaled architecture. People remain sketchy and inarticulate in relation to the architecture, which Piranesi renders with highly detailed archi­tectural effects. Going far beyond the improbability of constructing a prison of such scale, Piranesi increases the anxiety by incorporat­ing a series of perspective deceptions not apparent at first glance. He intentionally subverts our perception by creating images using multiple viewpoints that fragment the linearity of perspective rep­resentation.[17] Instead of using perspective to present an objective, highly rationalized view of space, Piranesi deploys it as a mechanism for subverting this view of the world.

An example of this occurs in Carceri, Plate VII, where Piranesi com­poses a perspective using objects rendered from slightly different vantage point.[fig. 5] In later states, his addition of bridges betrays planimetric logic. The lower bridge and the drawbridge appear to be aligned on the stone wall centered over the arch. But as one traces each towards the left, the drawbridge remains in front of the column, while the lower bridge passes directly through it. Hori­zontal section cuts at different heights would indicate the different locations of the column in relation to the various bridges. Plate XIV provides the viewer with another of the more perceptible examples of intentional deception.[fig. 6] If one analyzes the first and second pier, at the top where they meet the pointed arch, they appear to lie within the same plane. As the eye moves down the bases seem to lie in different but parallel planes with the grand stair protruding between. In each case Piranesi defies the laws of perspective and of statics, forcing one into a game of mental reconstruction in attempt to reframe the coherence of the structure.

The suggested labyrinthine quality of the Carceri exacerbates our perception of monumentality in each plate. By layering a series of successive spaces, Piranesi implies an infinite spatial repetition. Under each arch, glimpses of more arches beyond extend the space further and further back. As one is never granted views to the exte­rior, much less given any plans, one never realizes the scale of the overall complex. The mind perceives the prisons as an unbounded space beyond comprehension. In addition, one imagines the anxiety created by walking through this space and not ever having sight of an exit or the perimeter of the structure.[18] In terms of representa­tional techniques, the interior perspective serves to break the frame of the etchings, suggesting that the spaces not only extend infinitely into the background, but also project out from the picture plane. Pi­ranesi resists the time of his present in a different way by returning to a formal vocabulary similar to that of ancient Rome. Inadequa­cies he may have seen in his time are put up to comparison with the splendor of the Roman Empire.

Piranesi carries the anxiety and somberness to an even higher level than Boullée invoking terror and the grotesque in his prison etch­ings. A decade after their original release, the Carceri series under­went a series of revisions in which the artist reworked the original copper plates to both add more elements and make the compositions increasingly dark and gloomy. As he made a second, third, and fourth pass, the increased the density of the etched strokes made the scenes more ominous. Additions include chains, spikes, and other torture devices suggestive of malevolent activities. In Plate X, we see prisoners shackled on poles, slumped over as if they have been tortured.[fig. 7] In the later state, Piranesi added a timber beam with chains, leaving it up to our imagination to think about what type of brutalities could occur with these props. Plate II of the second addition becomes more explicit, presenting a man in the process of being tortured on the rack.[fig. 8] This series reach the sublime, as described by Burke, by presenting scenes of terror in much the same way as the opening pages of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Foucault’s description of a prisoner undergoing torture and then execution by being drawn and quartered affects one through associa­tion as the mind attempts to imagine the unbearable happening to one’s own body.

The selection of a prison as the setting for the architectural fantasies in the Carceri is not insignificant and operates on various levels. In addition to projecting an eerie, somber setting for the sublime – as described by Burke – Piranesi intentionally uses the prison as a symbol for a higher, omnipresent authority. The subject remains in a state of alienation in respect to this authority. This could be seen as a critique on existing state authorities at the time. The critical theorist Manfredo Tafuri points out how “as early as the Carceri the affirmation of the need for domination clashes with the affirmation of the rights of the subject. The result of the clash – represented epi­cally in plates II and X, which depict surreal scenes of torture – is that not men but only things become truly ‘liberated’.”[19] In both plates, men are bound for torture, yet remain subservient to the architec­tural games around.

The etchings could also create awareness of the authority of reason that had become predominant during the Enlightenment. Simi­larly, by situating the viewer within the penal system, Piranesi demonstrates how we are all imprisoned by the limits of our own finite understanding. Or, going even further, he may be pointing – through his perspectival distortions – to the limitations of reason.[20]

The power of Boullée’s and Piranesi’s projects lies in their perpetual state of unrealization. Realization would only subvert their sense of the sublime, their attempt to defy the real and finite. In addition, the cenotaphs and Carceri fluctuate between reason and subversion. Piranesi probably comes closer to realizing the sublime in the Kan­tian sense. Working with perspectival trickery, he subverts the easy application of reason, forcing viewers to stretch their imagination by mentally reconstructing the impossible structure of the composi­tions. Boullée, at first sight, appears to present the more monu­mental projects when one looks at the overall size in relation to the humans below. But, another look should convince us that Piranesi comes closer to presenting the “absolute great.” Interior perspec­tives as a representational technique effectively deprive us of any understanding of the whole. The labyrinthine quality also alludes to the endless oppositions in Piranesi’s work which puts meaning into question.[21] The Boullée projects may be enormous in comparison to the norm, but as presented in most cases, we still understand them as clear and finite.

Though his scenes have a somber tone, Boullée mainly strives for the monumental while Piranesi, the more sinister architect, attempts to create anxiety and terror that Burke speaks about.[22] By actually pull­ing the viewer into the scenes, one becomes more of a silent voyeur witnessing an incident from behind a corner than a detached patron looking at a piece of art work. Both artists put reason and/or author­ity into question while seeming to exalt it through the rendered edifices. In both cases, one could argue that the images remained confined by the frame, but in fact, the frame enabled the representa­tion of the sublime by suggesting something further beyond. 

Marcus Carter
Pidgin Princeton Journal Issue 9

1 The architectural historian Emil Kaufmann sought to explicate a link between the “revolutionary architects” in France at this time (especially Boullée, Ledoux, & Lequeu) and those of the Modern Movement via their use of self-sufficient, isolated (autonomous) form that defied Baroque unity. He justifies this interpretation when he articulates the changing role of the historian from one of simply restating facts to one with the responsibility to investigate and analyze architectural form. See Emil Kaufmann, “Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Inaugurator of a new Architectural System” The Journal of the American Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 3, no. 3 (Jul., 1943), pp. 12-20, and Kaufmann, Three Revolutionary Architects, Boullée, Ledoux, & Lequeu (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1952). Even as he refers to it as a “myth,” Anthony Vidler explicitly supports Kaufmann’s position in his own interests of the late eighteenth century, especially his focus on Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. See the introduction to Anthony Vidler, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (Cambridge, MIT Press, 1990), pp. x-xv. Also see Vidler, Histories of the Immediate Present (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), pp. xiv, 11-13. Other contem­porary historians, such as Kenneth Frampton and William Curtis, to varying degrees, acknowledge this period’s role in the formation of modernism without explicitly endorsing Kaufmann’s narrative of formal autonomy. See Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (New York: Thames 94 and Hudson, 1992), pp. 13-16 and William J. R. Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900 (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996), pp. 28-29, 371.

2 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (New York: Penguin, 1998), pp. 85-7, 90.

3 Ibid., p. 86.

4 Kant distinguishes between beauty and the sublime. For Kant, the beautiful is that which pleases only our judgment, remaining disinterested in conceptual thought, or an idea. Contrasted to the idea, Kant says the ideal (of the beautiful) cannot be explained through concepts, but rests on pre­sentation serving as the archetype of taste which must be produced within ourselves by which we judge every object of taste. This view invalidates much art, such as that with religious affiliations, because a concept can be assumed to lie behind most creative acts. But, at the same time, Kant did not support an art that only created beautiful objects. The beautiful for Kant resides in the forms of nature. Those that take an interest in the contemplation of natural beauty demonstrate cultivation for moral feeling. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J.H. Bernard (New York: Hafner Press, 1951), pp. 68-9.

5 Ibid., p. 88.

6 Kant elaborates on this idea of the mathematical sublime, stating how “The feeling of the sublime is therefore a feeling of pain arising from the want of accordance between the aesthetical estimation of magnitude formed by the imagination and the estimation of the same formed by reason.” Ibid., p. 96.

7 Kant noted how with the dynamical sublime, “We find our own limitation, although at the same time in our rational faculty we find a different, nonsensuous standard, which has that infinity itself under it as a unity, in comparison with which everything in nature is small, and thus in our mind we find a superiority to nature even in its immensity.” Ibid., p. 101.

8 Vidler, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, p. 390.

9 Simple forms can acquire impressiveness by imbuing them with colossal dimensions and an extreme sparseness of detail only adds to the impression of grandiosity. For Boullée, the overall composition remained paramount since he believed ‘character’ depended on the artful arrangement of masses more so than from details. Kaufmann, Three Revolutionary Architects, p. 472.

10 Kant’s notion of freedom knows no limits, yet human understanding is finite in the face of the threatening sublime. But to acknowledge limits is to understand them and when we understand our limitations, we transcend them so human reason cannot be contained. Karsten Harries, The Meaning of Modern Art (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), pp. 40-1.

11 Even projects with more mundane programs such as the Museum at Whose Center is a Temple of Fame for Statues of Great Men or the Municipal Palace for the Capital of a Great Empire instill a sense of grandeur in their title to further the representation of monumentality.

12 Kaufmann notes, “The artist declared himself to be the ‘inventor of architecture of shades and shadows.’ i.e. disposing masses so that their contrasting forms produce attractive lighting effects.” Kaufmann, Three Revolutionary Architects, p. 472.

13 Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos, Etienne-Louis Boullée, 1728-1799: Theoretician of Revolutionary Architec­ture (New York: George Braziller, 1974), p. 36. This impression arises from our knowledge of complete forms in traditional architecture. The Funerary Monument, like similar triangular compositions, is an example of “sunken architecture” as it implies a pediment devoid of its portico. In many of the proj­ects, the verticals supporting an entry arch are reduced or even eliminated to exacerbate this effect.

14 Harries explains: “The megalomaniacal, inhuman scale of so many of these designs – their sublime, time-defying, archaic, or ‘Egyptian’ quality – answers to modern individualism and its dread of death, which is always also a dread of individual life, answers the dread of individual dying by glorifying death in the service of some abstract collective, be it humanity or the nation, that dwarfs the indi­vidual with its importance.” Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture, 307.

15 Filippo Brunelleschi conducted his notorious experiment in linear perspective on the Florence Baptis­tery in 1413. Leon Battista Alberti formalized the rules for perspective shortly after in his treatises for painting and architecture.

16 Harries, The Meaning of Modern Art, p. 41.

17 Alberto Perez-Gomez and Louise Pelletier, Architectural Representation and the Perspective Hinge (Cam­bridge: MIT Press, 2000), pp. 216-7.

18 Critic Manfredo Tafuri states, “In the Carceri, the constriction comes not from the absence of space, but from an opening toward the infinite.” Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995), p. 31.

19 Ibid., p. 32.

20 “Piranesi’s heterotopia lies precisely in giving voice, in an absolute and evident manner, to this contradiction: the principle of Reason is shown to be an instrument capable of anticipating… the monsters of the irrational.” Ibid., p. 46.

21 Piranesi operates on endless oppositions: republican justice vs. imperial cruelty, the need for domination vs. the need for rights of the subject, architectural signs vs. signifieds, language vs. non-language, reason vs. irrationality, new vs established. Tafuri believes Piranesi understood contradic­tion as reality. “The loss of meaning, of its univocity, is fully explained: the Piranesian heterotopia consistently uses infinite dialectics.” He adds, “The greatness of his ‘negative utopia’ lies in his refusal to establish, after such a discovery, alternative possibilities: in the crisis, Piranesi seems to want to show, we are all powerless, and the true ‘magnificence’ is to welcome freely this destiny.” Ibid., p. 54.

22 It is important to note that Kaufmann did not see Piranesi as being as important as Boullée and Ledoux. He states, “We should of course keep in mind that Piranesi did not go beyond the old system. The time was not yet rip for the next step.” Perhaps Kaufmann's evaluation of Piranesi was premature or it didn't fit his thesis about autonomous form. Piranesi gained considerable stock during the postmodern debates when discourse returned to language and a de-centered space in reaction to Modernism’s austere forms. Piranesi’s influence shows in projects by contemporary architects such as Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas. See Kaufmann, Architecture in the Age of Reason (New York: Dover, 1968), p. 110.