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On the Sublime

The architectural limits of the sublime may be extended from the single object in its immediate physical context beyond the immanent limits of the sight.

1. Περì ‛γψους (Pseudo- Longinus, 1st to 3rd century AD):

I took this picture while touring in 2009. It shows more than an expressive landform with traces of human intervention, because this is not just any asphalt road in any stone desert. The scene opening up right before our eyes is the Biblical River Arnon in the Land of Moab, where one of the most important sequences in human history took space, time and place. It ranks among the most impressive places in this world, impossible to capture within a single view. As if Leonardo’s Study of the Grand Deluge was petrified into the actual presence. This radical compression of the immense geomorphic time suggests how the heavens have descended to the earth, displaying the causal relation between the movement of the tectonic plates and the longue durée human history evolving inside. By its natural virtue, the reasoning of even the most primitive humans understood exceptional relief formations as visible proof of the existence of the world beyond this visible one. The ancient narratives about creation may indeed be read as inspired records of the actual natural facts.

On my second visit to this place, on a scholarly journey two years later, I attempted to substantiate this excitement of reason and perplexion of senses into the aesthetic category of the SUBLIME. Along with childhood memories of the first time I entered St. Peter’s Basilica, and a young architect’s memories of the view from the airplane over the city of Buenos Aires by the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, it has brought me to the idea that the architectural limits of the sublime may be extended from the single object in its immediate physical context beyond the immanent limits of the sight. A particular perspective is required for this mental exercise: the detached VIEW FROM ABOVE, essential for the sublime experience of natural and artificial things and specific to the object of our contemplation here: the DESERT.

2. The Castle of Indolence (James Thomson, 1748):

Sublime, according to Immanuel Kant in Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790), “is the name given to what is absolutely great.” Triggered by exceptional natural occurrences, such as the Great Lisbon Earthquake (1775), the modern rediscovery of this Hellenistic aesthetic category was preceded by the advancement in natural sciences and the sequence of great discoveries, closely related to the ideas about nature already existing in the seventeenth-century landscape painting and literature. Combining artistic impression and Newtonian scientific description, James Thomson found the beautiful through Claude Lorrain, the sublime through Salvator Rosa, and the picturesque in rhetoric landscapes of Nicolas Poussin. A century and a half later, William Turner wanted to be associated with Rosa and insisted that his large paintings be hung low, so that the observer can enter the perspective. He moved the sublime towards its spatial dimension: Hannibal has crossed the Alps exactly here, and spectators are invited to join the spectacle.

The sublime was given the philosophical substance with Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry (1756):  “the sublime anticipates our reasoning… the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” He saw the beautiful in functions of generation and reproduction, as such manifested in physical attraction, and the sublime in the function of self-preservation, which does not equal the pure fear from death, pain or danger. It requires a certain detachment from its cause. Immanuel Kant criticized Burke for his empirical attitude: “the sublime is not to be looked for in things of nature, but in our own ideas.” The delight in the sublime unites the aesthetic with the moral experience into a rational aesthetic judgment, attributed to the object through the faculty of cognition as a mathematical imagination, or through the faculty of desire as a dynamical imagination. Hence, the two categories of the sublime experience: the mathematically and the dynamically sublime.

MATHEMATICALLY SUBLIME is the feeling of reason’s superiority to imagination when confronted with something so large that it overwhelms the imagination’s capacity to comprehend it: a glance through the telescope into the depths of the Universe, a natural thing which does not involve the idea of an end, but we are still capable – because we can think – of grasping its infinity as a whole. DYNAMICALLY SUBLIME is the experience of nature as a fearful power that has no dominion over us, although a human being – because we are mortal – has to submit to that dominion. Dynamically sublime implies a safe position, such as that of the protected observer looking at the DESERT which cannot sustain his life. Visible nature is insignificant before the ideas of our reason.  Paraphrasing Kant in Architectural Parallax (2011), Slavoj Žižek put the dynamically sublime experience into strictly architectural terms, invoking Leon Battista Alberti’s window paradigm (1435-36); the intersection frame of the perspective drawing with the pyramid of sight whose apex is in our eye and base in the shape of the object of contemplation. “The sublime is the majesty of nature seen from the inside, through a (real or imagined) window frame – it is the distance provided by the frame which makes the scene sublime.” The barrier between the scene and the eye frames the dynamically sublime within Immanuel Kant’s general theory of aesthetics. Opposed to representation and imitation, any right aesthetic judgment must be disinterested and non-conceptual.

The Hellenistic notion of the sublime, explicated by Pseudo-Longinus, applied not to nature but to the works of men. In times when wilderness was never far out of reach, all the Seven Wonders of the World were artificial. Coming from those parts of Europe which were becoming increasingly de-naturalized, the eighteenth century’s Wanderers described nature, occasionally also ruins taken by nature, as sublime. For Alexander von Humboldt, upon the return from his journey to the South America (1799- 1804), “everything in creation could be taken as evidence of divine order of the universe”. Scientific discoveries and religious beliefs converged, changing the idea about the visible world around us.

While nature was scientifically explained, man-made structures of ever greater size were constructed, and new questions arose. The metropolis and the advancing technology replaced nature as objects of the sublime experience. Early engineering structures may indeed be seen as embodiments of moral intentions of their builders. But as productivity was becoming the main objective, the new, popular kind of sublime feeling was born outside the Old Europe. Displaced from the philosophical substance, it embodied in the progressive sequence of natural and artificial objects continuously replacing each other, increasing the excitement of the masses. In American Technological Sublime (1994), David E. Nye described this “essentially religious feeling, aroused by the confrontation with impressive objects, such as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the New York skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the earth- shaking launch of a space shuttle”. Kant’s universal moral worth was replaced with a sort of technologically aided materialist faith: in America in the national, in the Soviet Union in the class greatness. Paralleled with the growing awareness of possible self-destruction, it manifested itself most clearly in the dynamically sublime of the controlled nuclear explosions, and ended with the 1970s energy crisis. Our digital age has enabled further detachment of the observer from the actual presence, opening a truly vast field of sublime experiences: the Google Earth global panopticum, the World Wide Web, the hypertext – hypermedia with a seemingly endless capacity for growth… but technology has its limits. Our scientifically explained and technologically controlled world aspires to transcendental significance.

3. The Lamp of Power (John Ruskin, 1849):

Burke’s Inquiry abounds in architectural analogies and paradigms. Architecture is limited by clearness and perfection, yet it can deceive our senses and suggest the infinite by means of division and addition, rhythm, pattern and repetition, extended either in length, height or depth, and constituted by succession and uniformity of parts. John Ruskin’s discussion on the POWER OF ARCHITECTURE follows the Burkean substance in almost every formal respect. It depends on the overall size of the building, the relative scale of its parts, the “weight of its walls”, and the quantity of shadow cast within them. For Kant, architectural imagination is constrained by its finality, yet architecture has ability to evoke the sublime. The Pyramids and the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica overwhelm the senses and absorb the observer… Kritik abounds in things vast, immense, and incomprehensible with bare senses too, and yet, his definition of the sublime might be seen as independent of the facts of scale and size. If the sublime, defined as “the cast of mind”, resides “in our own ideas”, the greatness and the smallness of anything must also be seen as a standard within itself. “Telescopes have put within our reach an abundance of material to go upon in making the first observation, and microscopes the same in making the second.” Kant quoted General Savary’s account from Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt “that in order to get the full emotional effect of the size of the Pyramids we must avoid coming too near just as much as remaining too far away”. Understanding that the estimation of magnitude of objects is subjectively defined is the first condition for any discussion on the architectural limits of the sublime. Already ruins, the pyramids were measurements of time for Horace: “Exegi monumentum aere perennius… regalique situ pyramidum altius” (23 BC). The quantity of similar structures; platforms, ziggurats, tumuli and mastabas, spread throughout the space-time points to the second condition: it is also the primordial form of those artificial mountains that qualifies them as objects of the sublime experience, not only their sheer size.

An architectural object, independent of any associated meanings, concepts and ideas, may address the Kantian/ Burkean sublime directly, as a latent cause of the sublime emotion in the Burkean, and a trigger of the mathematically sublime experience in the Kantian sense; or indirectly, magnifying the dynamically sublime experience of something else. Beyond the scope of single architectural objects, architectural criteria may also be applied at the geographic scale.

Kantian; “bigness instigates the regime of complexity that mobilizes the full intelligence of architecture and its related fields”, and Burkean; “bigness transforms the city from a summation of certainties into an accumulation of mysteries”, themes resonate in Rem Koolhaas’ discussion on “the problem of large” (1994). Huge infrastructural buildings clearly qualify as objects which may trigger sublime experiences. From a certain distance, artificial mountains in a range from pyramids to skyscrapers (which anyway appear like pyramids from a very low perspective) assemble and dominate the scene. From a close view, we are incapable of encompassing them within a single view, as described with the photomontage of the Rockefeller Centre Sigfried Giedion used to define the Space-Time-Architecture paradigm on the urban scale (1941). This is how architectural objects directly address the sublime. Beside the size, specifically architectural qualities of volume, form, mass and materiality contribute to the sublime sensation too, like in Peter Blake’s timeless impression of the first Unité, “rough and virile like rock, deliberately chipped and cracked, full of pebble surfaces here and sea- shell surfaces there… for this massive piece of brute concrete could be of any time: it could be an Egyptian temple of 2000 BC or a vision of the 21st century”.

Buildings are often approached as if they were ruins, rocks, or mountains. Rocks and mountains may be analyzed as if they were architectural objects, too, as they have interiors and structurally functional shapes. According to Lewis Mumford, in The City in History (1962), humans first settled in caves and the first permanent architectural objects resembled mountains, regardless their actual size. Drawing mathematical functions with form as function of time, Le Corbusier’s collaborator, Iannis Xenakis, architecturally projected musical notations similar to the mountain range surveys. The sound and the shape of his Pithoprakta (1957) may be described as sublime, but architecture and geology cannot be mutually translated. To really apply architectural criteria to the entirety of the physical world, the space- time scope has to be changed and the particular perspective obtained. A Kantian magnifying device in which the dynamically sublime meets the mathematically sublime may be displayed with the following diachronic sequence:

“A Greek temple portrays nothing”, says Martin Heidegger in The Origin of Work of Art (1937). A ruin in fact, it explains and through contrasts magnifies the natural elements: the sea, the wind, the rock and the fire in its intestine. “Temples are the cause of this landscape for young Le Corbusier at the Acropolis (1911) – above the horizon – outlining the modern paradigm of architecture greater than nature; “the straight line linking the fundamental laws – biology, nature cosmos…” from Mise au point (1965) published only a couple of weeks before he died “… like the sea’s horizon, this line can be inflected.”  In his non-fiction novel La pelle (1952), Curzio Malaparte receives Erwin Rommel on Capri and explains how his house was already there when he projected the scene. Like some infrastructural or military object driven by the pure engineering logic, Villa Malaparte naturally occupies the right strategic position. Jørn Utzon’s Platforms and Plateaus (1962) relates to the immediate surroundings in a similar way. The giant platform is a pediment for the temple, built exactly above the level of the dark jungle: “suddenly the jungle roof had been converted into a greater open plain”. The plateau on top of the mountain with cascading temples constructed around its rim is oriented upwards: “a completely independent thing floating in the air, separated from the earth… – a new planet.”  Exposed to the sun, the platform provides the horizon and magnifies the darkness of the jungle. The plateau magnifies the mountain into a giant telescope detaching the humans from the horizon into the depths of the Universe. On his clandestine escape from Australia, Utzon visits the ruins in Yucatan again and exclaims: “Sydney Opera House becomes ruin one day” (1966).  Enhanced by the commodity of air travel, Vittorio Gregotti’s expanded Territory of Architecture (1965) conquers the horizon and consequently disregards the difference in scale between the huge agricultural patterns and the decorative soil tillage in the Zen temple garden. The view rises above the horizon in Alexander Blok’s Aviator (1912), Guillaume Apollinare’s Zone (1913), Antoine de Saint- Exupery’s Night Flight (1931), and Jorge Luis Borges’ celebration of his native city (1923), “diced in blocks/ different and equal/ all alike/ looking like they are all just/ dull multiplied/ repeated memories/ of one and the same block”. Now perpendicular, it is sublimely explicated with Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) perceived from the air, technologically magnified, and – arguably – designed from this perspective. In this ultimate VIEW FROM ABOVE, scale and time differences between the Spiral Jetty and the microscopic ammonite fossil become obsolete.

In La Méditeranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’epoque de Philippe II (1966), Fernand Braudel enjoys a spectacular view from the airplane of the sequence of Adriatic and Ionian islands with mountain chains behind them, and outlines a surprisingly architectural definition of the Mediterranean. The sequence of mountain chains forms the solid “skeleton that is present everywhere and which constantly breaks through the skin”, yielding the “architectonic unity” of the Mediterranean basin with the liquid element at its centre. The form precedes the content and the limits control the longue dureé history on the vast geographic scale. In a similar way, the geopolitical perspective of the early 20th century’s geographical determinists Halford Mackinder and John Spykman encompasses the whole world. The tri-continental “World-Island” Europe-Asia-Africa is stabilized in the “Pivot Area” of Siberia surrounded by the “Inner Crescent”, stretching from Europe through the Middle East to North-eastern Asia, and the “Outer Crescent” along the peripheral geographic regions from Americas to Australia. Mackinder emphasizes two seemingly empty areas on his Geographical Pivot of History map too (1904, 1919): the “Icy Sea” in the far north and the “Desert”, the great sea of sand stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic coast of Northern Africa.

4. The Road to Makkah (Muhammad Asad, 1954):

In Genius Loci (1980), Christian Norberg Schulz designed the DESERT as the ultimate COSMIC LANDSCAPE, dominated by the single and total natural power: the sky. It is immense and monotonous with sudden explosions of sharp contrasts at the limits: between the void and the solid, the colourless and the green, the horizontal and the vertical, the permanent and the transient, the firm mountains and the unstable sea of sand. The extreme naturalness of the desert magnifies the actual presence of the exceptional material facts.

“It could not have been so very different in Ur 5000 years ago”; Aldo van Eyck’s begins his impression of primitive settlements along the south-western limits of Sahara (1963). But timelessness is only one aspect of human existence in and around the desert. Its opposite is the invention of linear time. As recorded in the Sumerian myths, with prototypical geographic situation in Mesopotamia far more complex than in the Sub-Saharan Africa, for those who settled along its limits for the first time in history, the desert was the primordial menace, that mysterious and unstable space where the burning winds, sand storms and savage peoples came from. Desert nomads, in turn, saw the earliest big cities as the embodiments of moral corruption and decay. Abraham originated from Ur of the Chaldees. Our history begins 5,000 years ago, with his tribe’s slow movement along the tectonic faults, mountain chains and narrow river valleys at the north-eastern limits of the great desert. In our contemporary world, this trajectory is often described as the Crescent of Violence. In contrast to the infertile desert, it is historically known as the Fertile Crescent stretching from the bottom of the Persian Gulf to the Nile Delta.

According to Norberg Schulz, understanding nature helps men to dwell. At first, primitive men discover special, sacred places where natural elements are in balance. Then they discover the higher cosmic order, looking at the sun, the moon and the stars. Eventually, advanced humans look for their own traces in nature, discovering the character of their physical surroundings, and architecture emanates from understanding of that character. Consequence of the form of the land, the sight of the men of the far north remains bound to earth, only occasionally pointed to the starry heaven. Around the Mediterranean, it is harmonized with the open horizon by the moderate climate. In the desert, the perspective is clear in all directions.

“The desert is bare and clean and knows no compromise. It sweeps out of the heart of man all the lovely fantasies that could be used as a masquerade for wishful thinking, and thus makes him free to surrender himself to an Absolute that has no image: the farthest of all that is far and yet the nearest of all that is near” for Muhammad Asad on The Road to Makkah, (1954). “The soil of Arabia, in its majestic monotony, was fitted by Providence for an existence entirely centered on tawhīd, the consciousness of Divine Unity” for Titus Burckhardt in Art of Islam (1976). The consciousness that there is no divinity, save One God, comes from this world of radical contrasts, where the conditions for permanent settlement have never been inviting, and yet humans have always been tempted to measure time and build artificial mountains. It eliminates any confusion between the relative and the absolute, separating the ephemeral from the eternal. From the monotheistic perspective, everything in nature has a purpose. This physical world is not accidental, we are in its centre, and natural facts are meant to explain the intentions of the Creator: for, verily, in the alternating of night and day, and in all that God has created in the heavens and on earth there are messages indeed for people who are conscious of Him! (Qur’an, 10:6). In the universe dominated by reason and order, ghosts and spirits (of places) evaporate under the burning desert sun. This radical understanding of nature has consequences for our intentions and interventions in it. Most importantly, all human makes are decisively artificial and must be regarded nothing more than distant shadows of the Divine act.

Originating from the Bedouin tent, three arts hold high positions in the world which denies representation, following the second commandment of the Decalogue. As nomads can carry around only limited quantity of artefacts, their eminent cultural influence is exemplified in the preservation of the archaic form of the Arabic language. It materializes as the ART OF CALLIGRAPHY. The ART OF WEAVING, adopted and sophisticated in urban surrounding, exemplifies their decisive contribution to the material culture. With a simple frame structure and pitched woven textiles, the tent itself denies the existence of any excessive space between the inside and the outside. Exposed to the extreme natural elements, colourless and without any definite shape from the outside but rich in colourful patterns on the inside, it may be regarded as a non-conceptual paradigm of the ART OF BUILDING.

Calligraphy is considered the most noble of the arts because it gives the visible form to the Word. Writing is cognate to weaving: both refer to the crossing of the cosmic axes. In Le Symbolisme de la Croix (1931), René Guénon compares the horizontal lines of the text to the visible weft of the piece of the woven textile. The vertical threads of the warp are the invisible essence of things. To pull them out from the carpet would mean the dissolution of all its immanent forms expressed with the visible, horizontal threads of the weft. If the art of calligraphy may be considered the vertical shadow of the Divine text, the art of weaving may be considered the horizontal shadow of the created world. “The most perfect carpets represent nothing in particular; they reflect the cosmos on their own level”, according to Titus Burckhardt. For Gottfried Semper, in Die vier Elemente der Baukunst (1851), the art of weaving is at the origin of the art of building, the principle of Bekleidung is at the origin of the spatial enclosure. The carpet is the essence of the wall; the invisible vertical thread of the warp elevated from the horizontal desert into the vertical plane. In Immanuel Kant’s definition, the sublime is not a quality of the object observed but it lies within observer’s reason. Like in the immanent physical world around us, the vertical axis mundi is unseen, but remains substantial. According to one hadith (saying of the Messenger Muhammad), “the whole world has been made a place of prayer, pure and clean”. The daily practice of Islam requires orientation in space and time, but this orientation is referential to the order beyond the easily perceptible, natural one. Consequently, the non-interference with nature should be the ruling principle beyond architecture of prayer spaces. An ideal mosque refers to the actual physical surroundings only in terms of necessary adjustments to the actual topography, to natural laws only in terms of load distribution manifested in bearing structure and adaptation to the climate. With immanent void, not the solid, as its main objective it is another non-conceptual architectural paradigm. The repetitive, horizontal structural pattern of the Grand Mosque of Cordoba grows directly from the horizontal world of the desert nomads. Denying the rules of the perspective, it could ideally extend to infinity – a kind of carpet in its own right.

According to Ibn Khaldun’s observations on the rise and decline of the Caliphate in Muqaddimah (late 13th century), the main impetus to the course of human history is given by the urge of the nomadic culture to take the place of the sedentary culture once it declines. On this trail, Titus Burckhardt defines the nomad and the sedentary as two different yet complementary halves of the humankind. Nomadic culture is detached from ephemeral things. Free in space, outside time and history, it remains always at the point where it began. Sedentary culture is attached to the value of material things. Restricted in space, it relies on the recurrent terms of time. Translated into spatial terms, the horizontal world of the nomads aims to stabilize itself into the urban form. The city naturally grows from the desert as an artificial consequence of the extreme natural conditions, at the same time opposite and complementary to the nomadic way of life.

The equilibrium between the two ways of life is exemplified in the holy city of Mecca. It is a stable and dynamic urban centre surrounded by fluctuating tribes to which the actual and the ideal nomads converge for the obligatory pilgrimage every year and once in a life time, bringing the order to the unstable existence of humans. The centre of this convergence is an eminently artificial architectural object, central to the culture whose spatial expression is detached from the semblance of things and primarily architectural. It magnifies the horizontal desert, protecting from the extreme natural elements the void in its centre: PURE SPACE, which is more than the volume of the air contained within the solid mass of the walls. Ka‛ba is approximately a cube built in simple masonry and covered with black textile with four corners pointing to the cardinal axes of the visible horizontal world. The circumambulation around it sublimely reproduces the rotation of the universe; the seven heavens, around the invisible vertical axis, as if this most archaic architectural form were brought alive.



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24.Feb.2016 1009 views 59 shares
Krunoslav Ivanišin

Krunoslav Ivanišin (Dubrovnik, 1970) holds the diploma in architecture from the University of Zagreb and the doctorate from the University of Ljubljana. He is a practicing architect with international teaching and publishing experience, founding partner in IVANIŠIN. KABASHI. ARHITEKTI since 2003, and professor of architectural design at the University of Zagreb – Faculty of Architecture since 2015. He won competitions and constructed buildings for public and private purposes, lectured and exhibited internationally, including the Venice Biennale in 2010. He is the co-author of Dobrović in Dubrovnik: A Venture in Modern Architecture (Berlin: Jovis, 2015) and Middle East: Landscape, City, Architecture (Zürich: Park Books, 2013).