Underground and Sublime: How the Subterranean Context of a City Embodies a Unique Spatial Experience

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Underground and sublime

“The high gained from such subterranean exploration is so fucking intense, there’s no need for a chalice in this wonderland. Unequalled by anything on the surface level, the bowls of the city are a sight behold.” (Graphotism, 1999)

Modern space, in context of the city and the experience of a city dweller, has been reduced to a generalized perspective that can be described as ‘verticality’. Gaston Bachelard (1969) presents his theory on verticality through the polarity of the cellar and the attic, which in turn brings definitive insights into the very different phenomenological paths the imagination perceives; the House in our eyes is a concentrated edifice, constructed with upward momentum. It becomes an independent volume which provides us with a psychologically concrete nature. But within the house, space is opposed by the rationality of the attic and the irrationality of the cellar.

If the House serves as a metaphor for a City, the principles are the same in that the attic is representative of the rational approach taken to urban spatial design. Henri Lefebvre comments in his book The Production of Space, “Verticality, and the independence of volumes with respect to the original land and it’s peculiarities, are, precisely, produced”. As long as we adhere to Verticality being the key axis of the urban environment, our eyes rise above the immediate specificity of territory on which it is built, resulting in a homogenous built environment, thus an abstraction of reality.

The cellar on the other hand, in the case ‘The Underground’, is perceived as a lost dimension, one which is defined by abstraction, but Bachelard points out that the phenomenology of inhabiting a ‘cellar’ space places the inhabitant in a harmonious state with subterranean forces and the irrationality of excavation. The perspective of a city dweller on their immediate environment, once inhabiting an underground space, is returned and further deepened, to the point that the imagination is limitless within the foremost ‘dark entity’.

The essay will explore what, why and how the subterranean context of a city embodies a unique spatial experience through an enquiry into the Sublime. The relation of Sublime theory to civic infrastructure embedded in the city underground will provide the grounds to question whether the ideas of the Sublime are relevant, especially in the case of space designed without architectural theoretical intentions. Can space be more purely sublime if it isn’t intentionally designed to be sublime?


“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 the mind is capable of feeling.”(Burke, 1990)

Bachelard(1969) uses a short narrative to explain his theory on how underground space initially induces a sense of fear in the subject provided by C G Jung in his book Modern Man in search of a Soul.

“ Here the conscious acts like a man who, hearing a suspicious noise in the cellar, hurries to the attic and, finding no burglars there decides, consequently, that the noise was pure imagination. In reality, this prudent man did not dare venture into the cellar.”

The Underground is depicted as the more fearsome in the comparison of elevated space and subterranean space due to the levels of conscious thought used to rationalize fear. In which, brings us to a fundamental trait of the Sublime. Fear is an apprehension of pain or death, thus rendering the body nullified of its powers of acting and reasoning when subjected enter the underground. (Burke, 1990) Yet this poses a paradox when we consider different scenarios that involve the ritual of entering an underground space. In some occasions, for instance during wartime, man seeks the protection of the underground to avoid pain or death. The bunker mentality takes a number of distinct forms, from which it is worth commenting on their lack of basic design considerations including comfort, ventilation and light. This natural inclination towards subterranean dwelling stems from the earliest form of shelter for man, the cave, and yet even now the design of underground bunkers isn’t distinctly different from a naturally occurring cave, suggesting that we also share a sense of security alongside fear.

There is also the passion of curiosity, even though it is the simplest of our passions, which can overpower our fears and force us to follow the path to discovery. “When danger or pains press too early, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful”. (Burke, 1990)

In essence, it is the ideas of pain that are much more powerful than pleasure, thus the ideas of the sublime emerge through terrible experience, but inevitably our encounters result in pleasure. The journey undertaken by human beings with the curiosity to delve deep into the unknown, the steps taken to reach a destination, especially into depths of the underground apart from any above ground spatial experience as the subject is confined from all around. A yearning for the safety of the surface indicates feelings of anxiety and claustrophobia, which could have dire consequences, but it is exactly this fear that consequently produces the extreme highs which will always be attractive to the subject. (Carlyle, 2000)


“Adjusting to the extremes of silence and deafening noise, bright corridors and pitch black stairwells and fundamentally developing an intimate knowledge of a labyrinthine system in which were once ignored [become] openings to underground frontiers.” (Carlyle, 2000)

The ritual of going underground alone is sublime; as we descend into darkness our senses are aroused, awakened and heightened. Our attention to minute details is increased within a confined space, like the sound of a rat scuttling along the rails of the London Underground; the physical boundaries are real, putting the senses under incredible stress, leaving the imagination to extend into the overwhelming darkness inducing a strong sense of fear over usually insignificant events. ”When we know the full extent of any danger, when we accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.” (Burke, 1990)

These all being corollaries of our human nature, we are involuntary to these effects which in all aspects are linked to Sublime Theory. Edmund Burke in his book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful, the peculiarities of the sublime are set out in parts and section clarifying the theory of our passions and their genuine sourced. In relation to architecture, he supplies concise instruction and critique of the nature of sublime space, but it is the direct personal experience and feelings he describes, the source of the sublime, which I endeavor to compare with the phenomenology of Underground space.

“Stepping outside our prearranged traffic patterns and established destinations, we find a city laced with liminality, with borderlands cutting across its heart and reaching into its sky. We find a thousand vanishing points, each unique, each alive, each pregnant with riches and wonders and time.” (Cook, 2009)

Modernity has brought a vast clandestine underworld into city levels, cluttered with writhing transport tunnels, telecommunication lines, the mail rail, bunkers and vaults. All of which are excavated from the earth, descending into darkness, away from any source of natural light, which incurs that all light is artificially substituted. Shadows engulf space, creating these vanishing points that Michael Cook, an urban explorer who runs the website Vanishing Point, talks about in Geoff Manaugh’s The BLDG BLOG Book. The vanishing point also refers to a point of infinity, which in Sublime terms refers to a delightful horror. Upon looking down a transport tunnel, in underground civic architecture, there is no light illuminating the end, there is only darkness, which presents the pheonomenon of infinity, thus our imagination is free to extend to our terror, or pleasure. Ideas are able to repeat in our mind almost infinitely, like “if you hold up a straight pole, with your eye to one end, it will seem extended to a length almost incredible.”(Burke, 1990) So even though the actual dimensions of an underground tunnel create a sense of claustrophobia, they also comprehend vastness in the mind of the object, not only through the illusion of infinity but also the knowledge of the labyrinthine system that they inhabit. At this point, the entrance and the escape seem incomprehensible, but the effect of infinity on the imagination switches pain to pleasure.

Greatness of the dimension has a powerful impact on the sublime, especially in consideration to architecture. But it can be perceived in many ways, much of them opposing. For example Norberg-Schulz in his book Genius Loci describes “The Mountain, thus, belongs to the earth, but it rises toward the sky. It is ‘high’, it is close to heaven”, and the cosmic relation it has in connection heaven and earth, implying that the monumental scale of a mountain reaching out to the heaven is truly sublime. On the other end of the spectrum, Burke explains the level of minuteness’ referring to such things as the ‘infinite divisibility of matter’. We are equally confounded by littleness as vastness.

Although in terms of underground space, greatness of dimension has its most striking effect through alternative meanings. Vastness of extent, in terms of length, height and depth in particular, exaggerate perceptions of the sheer quantity of such spaces, even though we cannot see them, which has a profound effect on the mind. Once we explore them for ourselves our civic amenity function are made palpable, and we know that, “Every time we turn on the tap, pull the chain, pick up the telephone, there is an underground movement; a gurgle of water, an impulse along a wire.” (Trench & Hillman, 1985) As the layers are peeled away the veins of the city are revealed, putting the underground realm on a scale similar to the starry heavens in its magnificence. ‘The great profusion of things which are splendid’, creates the widespread vision of the sublime. (Burke, 1990)

The most transcendent attribute to Underground space is darkness. Darkness being the most productive of the sublime, and the Underground being unable to harness the power of the sun, it descends into a fearful state overwhelmed by darkness. The theory of the sublime stresses the importance that when you enter a building, to make objects most striking, they should be as different as possible to the object we have been most conversant with, which implies that our visual organs must be put under the most stress to enhance our perceptions of the sublime. (Burke, 1990)

This can be further assisted by the nature of shadows which bring a level of obscurity into play. Burke uses characters of fear in human beings; “how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which gave credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings.” Shadows reinstate the feeling of presence, but in a confined space clarity is scarce and they become abstracted in the eye of the subject, immediately striking terror in their heart. (Burke, 1990)

Other than this type of light that may create a sublime atmosphere, the opposite of darkness, that is light that obliterates all objects through its pure extremity, will have the same effect as complete darkness. An example of this is a bolt of Lightning. It moves with such celerity and brightness, that our senses are overcome. Thus, upon entering a space a quick transition from light to darkness or vice versa, recreates this effect in an atmospheric environment. (Burke, 1990)

Apart from the effects light has on the eye of the subject, it is the combination of vision and sound which achieves the highest degree of the sublime, and is relevant to the design of tunnels. A tunnel is constructed by continuous repetition which sight perceives as one point multiplied to infinity. “The eye vibrating in all its parts must approach near to the nature of what causes pain, and consequently must produce an idea of the sublime.” This is also relevant to the sound of the Underground. Within the confines of all surrounding solid material walls, sound reverberates around the space, gathering momentum and arrives at the subject with excessive loudness, which has the ability to overpower the soul, suspending it in action and to fill it with terror. (Burke, 1990)


“The tree drawn on the ground by their shadows made the most profound impression on me. This picture grew in my imagination. I then saw everything that was the most somber in nature. What did I see? The mass if objects detached in black against a light of extreme pallor.” (Vidler, 1992)

Modern architecture, especially in the approach to underground architecture, has frequently attempted to rid itself of the threatening darkness which is so imperative to the theory of the sublime and copious in the nature of underground space. This is due to a modernist theory led by Le Corbusier in the twentieth century, which takes a stance on urban design as a collective. Darkness seemed to be a parasite to architecture and it was thought that transparency would “eradicate the domain of myth, suspicion, tyranny and above all irrationality.” Architects concentrated on opening up cities to circulation, light and air, labeling the profession as the ‘light-bringers’ when it came to designing underground space in particular. (Vidler, 1992)

A specific example of this modernist theory being evident in current architectural practice is the Canary Wharf London Underground Station by Foster+Partners. Which I will compare with another contemporary underground station, the Westminster Extension by Michael Hopkins to underground space taken with reference to sublime theory.

Canary Wharf London Underground Station is by far the largest station to be built in the recent Jubilee Line Extension act due to the context it uses, that being the former West India dock, thus it benefits from the availability of space. The sheer size of the space advocates greatness of dimension, yet its horizontal proportions don’t comply with sublime theory. The building boasts its length equaling to the height of the Canary Wharf Tower to Burke (1990) “an hundred yards of even ground will never work such an effect as a tower an hundreds yards tall.” Although the uniformity to design, with equal proportions and design based on repetitive entities, enhances the subject’s experience of vastness within space. It also shows similarities with the architecture of Gothic Cathedrals in that the engineering on show is reminiscent of the flying buttress.

In the study of light and design details, the station doesn’t seem to embrace any aspects of natural underground space by expelling darkness from every crevice in the design. First of all, the main focal point comprises of 3 swelling glass canopies whose prime function is to draw daylight deep into the space. But the dimensions of the space prevent these from having a significant effect all day long, thus the adoption of bright artificial lighting reduces any transitional effects between the outside and inside to nearly nothing.

In comparison, the station at Westminster begins with a substantial descent into the depths of the underground, which has a ritualistic journey reminiscent of descending into a huge cavern. The difference here is in the dimensions of the space which is of verticality, almost falling away from street level, past the subterranean infrastructure, into the shadows of the underworld. This is augmented by the honesty of its construction which contributes to the dramatic atmosphere through sheer robustness of engineering. The artificial lighting used has been cleverly situated in order to act functionally and atmospherically. The lights act like a beacon that directs passengers out of the station, as if they are returning to the daylight of street level, but they also create an amazing ambience by casting space consists of criss-crossing posts and beams between the descending shafts, which catch the light in juxtaposition, which also conflicts with the framing of a bird-eye perspective on the station floor. Perceptions of the space are incredibly phenomenological, engaging the subject with the architecture and successfully shifting the perspective from street level to the underground.

In my opinion the principles in which Michael Hopkins Architects have based their architecture upon, heavily implement the theories of the sublime into a rationalized design fit to serve as a functional space, but also an incredibly atmospheric experience for the subject. On the contrary, Foster+ Partners’ approach to underground space fits in with the fully rational approach of modernist theory, which instead of harnessing the qualities of light and rituals that go in tandem with the experience of the underground, transparency has claimed its victory.

Thereby, through an extensive conjunction between sublime theory and underground space, in particular the civic architecture of city levels, many distinctions have been made that link sublime theory to spaces that we have discussed, making it hugely relevant. What distinguishes the spaces I have talked about from Architecture is its irrational nature in the fact that earth is excavated to create a functional space. There is no visible shape to take into account when commenting on aesthetics of underground space as one is surrounded by earth. But it is precisely this that makes the irrational space of underground more purely sublime than Architecture that tries to recreate what irrational space has. Even though Westminster station applies much detailing with intent to exploit sublime traits, it will never breach the threshold, due only to the fact that the rational process architects apply to design, retreats from organic thought. The design of civic amenities is seemingly free from rational thought because there is no need to take the human experience into consideration. Thus, it may stand as its own separate entity, suspended in the underground, beautiful because it has been designed to be beautiful.