Beautiful Places in Adorno’s Aesthetics

Nikolaus Fogle


One of the more perplexing and frequently misleading distinctions preserved by philosophical aesthetics is the schism between natural beauty and art beauty. Although many philosophers are prepared to reject the metaphysical barrier between the natural world and the human world (or the related one between subject and object), the distinction remains significant as a casual supposition in discussions of aesthetics. It is not my aim to analyze the significance of the natural/artificial distinction as such, but to question the pervasiveness with which it is maintained in an area where it has outlived its usefulness. The topic of this paper is thus located at the intersection of natural and artificial beauty, and it is here that the tension between traditional thinking and the new (and still marginal) outlook is most intensely felt. The question I intend to take up is: how can a place be beautiful? I will begin with the philosophy of Theodor Adorno, who attempts in his Aesthetic Theory to reunite the varieties of beauty separated by German idealist classification. The solution that I propose will, however, bring Adorno’s ideas into conflict with the strands I have gathered from a Heideggerian phenomenological approach. As such, the result will both coincide and conflict with Adorno’s view. My critique of Adorno’s theory will, however, highlight the ways in which his view falls short of its objective, and will expand his largely Kantian framework to one that can serve the purpose of investigating the beauty of place.


            Adorno asserts that beauty is apprehended in the “unconscious consciousness, in the midst of the work itself.”[1] What he means by this is that true beauty can only arise when there obtains the possibility our accessing the object as it is in its particularity. Accessing the object in its particularity requires that we transcend the experience of it as mediated by concepts. The conceptual process through which we encounter our world and everything in it is, for Adorno, always a means of domination of that world. The application of a concept is tantamount to the application of an instrument of domination, since in the process of application, the object is “overtaken” by the concept. And, since the entire being and identity of the subject is constituted by its conceptual apparatus, the application of a concept is always the replacement of object by subject. In other words, all cognitions, all encounters with the object—including aesthetic ones—are always inevitably encounters with the subject. Strictly speaking, we never experience anything else.

            This is the inevitable consequence of any serious participation in the Kantian transcendental turn. Adorno is certainly a Kantian in this sense, but he is what we might call a negative Kantian in that he emphasizes the way our concepts alienate us from the world, rather than the way they enable us to apprehend it. In Adorno’s terms, all experience is essentially “identical.” Furthermore, insofar as the concepts employed in such identity thinking are necessarily universal, aesthetic experiences must also lack particularity. [2] Simply stated, the object is only encountered under a universal concept, since that is the condition for its being encountered at all. In Adorno's concise formulation, “To think is to identify.”[3]

            So if all cognition is conceptual and involves the object’s domination by the universal concepts of the subject, how then can “true” aesthetic experiences emerge—experiences that are objective, particular, and nonidentical? Adorno’s answer is that they can occur only in contexts where the object is marked by a striking non-averageness. It is with this solution in mind that Adorno declares that, “the average is already the bad.”[4] Artworks that are to succeed as such must be enigmatic: “All artworks—and art altogether—are enigmas.”[5] Adorno’s rhetorical idiosyncrasy is to attribute the title of “art” only to those works that satisfy his criteria, in this case works that are enigmatic. The mystery of these works, their unfamiliarity, makes it possible for us to apprehend them apart from the dominating function of our concepts. Adorno refers to experiences of such works as “metaphysical experiences.”[6] It is in metaphysical experiences that the subject and all of its conceptual baggage—effectively the dominating subject’s guilty conscience[7]—are transcended. In this way Adorno carves out a place, albeit a narrow one, for the possibility of experiences of genuine beauty. If Adorno’s view will allow for an account of beautiful places, it will do so by attributing to our experiences of them a transcendent character.

            This transcendence of the conceptual is an explicit reaction against Kantian aesthetics. That being said, it is also difficult to avoid the impression that Adorno is taking at least some inspiration from Kant for his notion of beauty. While it is an important feature of Kantian beauty that it is not governed by a determinate concept, it does involve the application of concepts to the sensory manifold. These concepts are, in Kant’s jargon, not determinative of an object, but are employed in a kind of free play by means of the faculty of imagination. Despite this indeterminacy, there is nonetheless a subjective condition for the possibility of beauty that lends it a universal character. This is what Kant refers to as the ideal of beauty—the universal subjective standard against which the aesthetic success or failure of a given experience is compared. So, although the concepts of the understanding do not function in a straightforwardly subsumptive way in the experience of beauty, the ideal of beauty does. The ideal of beauty imposes a subjective structure on the beautiful object, reifying both the ideal of beauty itself as well as the concepts employed in the process. Thus while Kantian beauty may appear on the surface to escape identity thinking—Kant does after all understand it as radically different from the work of the understanding—it remains dominating and violent in the ways Adorno wants to avoid.

            Instead of Kantian beauty, Kant’s notion of the sublime offers a more promising model. The notion of the sublime depends on our recognition of the finitude of the subject. The subject is not equipped to process the sheer enormity or strength of certain phenomena, notably those phenomena that occur in natural—as opposed to cultural or artificial—contexts: gigantic mountain peaks, staggeringly powerful storms, or the unfathomable ocean. The feeling of the sublime is thus best understood as a feeling of admiration for that which cannot be conceived. It is in this spirit that Kant describes the feeling of the sublime as a “negative pleasure.”[8] This negative pleasure, tied to an impression of the limits of the subject, would seem to avoid identity thinking, and this is what Adorno wants for his notion of beauty. Metaphysical experiences—experiences of genuine beauty—are, for Adorno, moments of doubt in the otherwise continuous stream of subsumptive thinking. In the moment of metaphyscial experience, the subject is aware of its cognitive limitations. In this way, experiences of beauty reveal to us our humanity—not by repeating it, but by showing us that there is something beyond it. Of course, Kant himself does not go this far with his conception of the sublime. For him, the sublime ends up as perhaps the most powerful expression of the kind of enlightenment domination that Adorno rejects, Kant writes, “…though the irresistibility of nature’s might makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical impotence, it reveals to us at the same time an ability to judge ourselves independent of nature, and reveals in us a superiority over nature that is the basis of a self-preservation quite different in kind from the one that can be assailed and endangered by nature outside us.”[9] It is this arrogant conclusion that Adorno resists. The feeling of the sublime ought to show us the limitation of ourselves not only as natural beings, but also as rational ones. This is precisely what Adorno aims to capture in his notion of beauty, and in so doing he effectively rescues Kant’s theory from Kant.

            Adorno intends his account of our experiences of beauty to take him beyond the realm of traditional aesthetics, in which the discussion of beauty takes place solely in terms of objects. Adorno wants to assert that art beauty is actually continuous with natural beauty, that our experiences of beautiful paintings are not of a wholly different kind than our experiences of beautiful natural vistas, and that the schism that has been placed between them is the product of a misguided theoretical tradition beginning with Schelling. According to Adorno, natural beauty was passed over in favor of art beauty as the appropriate subject matter of aesthetics because it was thought that the freedom and ascendancy of the rational subject were to be located in art, not nature. This was disastrous since the conception of the subject as free and rational became a central feature of the age of identity thinking, and is therefore the constant object of Adorno’s critique. He criticizes Hegel in particular for positing the false dichotomy between natural and art beauty. According to Adorno, Hegel saw natural beauty as less conceptually mediated than art beauty, whereas Adorno recognizes that in both cases our experience is entirely mediated by our concepts. Thus Adorno argues that “what Hegel chalks up as the deficiency of natural beauty—the characteristic of escaping from fixed concept—is however the substance of beauty itself,”[10] and that “natural beauty is the trace of the nonidentical in things under the spell of universal identity.”[11] All beauty—natural and art beauty alike—is apprehended in the dialectical moment when the mediation of the object is recognized for what it is—namely, mediation—and the phenomenon reveals itself in its particularity.

            Adorno does not seek to perform any sort of reduction with regard to art beauty or natural beauty, however. The point is not that there is no sense in which natural beauty and art beauty are distinct; indeed, there are many ways in which this is the case. The point is rather that natural beauty and art beauty are continuous with one another, that their range admits of many more points of convergence than are usually recognized by aesthetics, and these convergences have been overlooked, even suppressed, in the interest of elevating the value of the products of human creation over those that precede it: “Natural beauty vanished from aesthetics as a result of the burgeoning domination of the concept of freedom and human dignity, which was inaugurated by Kant and then rigorously transplanted into aesthetics by Schiller and Hegel; in accord with this concept nothing in the world is worthy of attention except that for which autonomous subject has itself to thank.”[12] And so, in order to place aesthetics once again on the correct footing, natural beauty must be embraced once again, and its convergences with art beauty explicated. Since identity thinking ranges over the natural world as well as the cultural one, the breaks—or hints of breaks—in its application are the general condition for the appearance of beauty. On the historical emergence of art beauty from natural beauty, Adorno notes that, “In fact, the spiritualization that art has undergone during the past two hundred years and through which it has come to maturity has not alienated art from nature, as is the opinion of reified consciousness; rather, in terms of its own form, art has converged with natural beauty.”[13] Although we are inclined to think of art as the opposite of nature, since, at least traditionally, art presents itself as a semblance of nature, art in fact continues the aesthetic function of nature in an extended sphere. Authentic works of art, for Adorno, take the same form as instances of natural beauty in that they bear the trace of the nonidentical. This is something that has only become clear in the present period, after the ascendancy of nonrepresentational works, since their obvious refusal to imitate nature (at least straightforwardly) has removed the biggest obstacle to our recognizing in them the function of revealing the object in its particularity. To draw too sharp a distinction between natural beauty and art beauty is to cover over this most important feature of both.

            However compelling Adorno’s diagnosis of the relationship between natural beauty and art beauty may be, he nonetheless spends the remainder of the Aesthetic Theory discussing art beauty. I submit that Adorno could very readily achieve his stated goal of reuniting natural and artifactual aesthetics through the notion of place, conceived as a basic phenomenon in which art and nature are not yet separated from one another. An account of beautiful places can be given largely in Adorno’s own terms. Such an account would explain how we experience places as beautiful, and would encompass not only natural places but man-made places as well, and would continue the project of repairing the damage done to philosophy in general by the preservation of a rigid distinction between the natural and the artificial. The discussion of places that I pursue below will concern itself with works of architecture, not only because they comprise a large portion of the places we find beautiful, but also because Adorno has much to say about them. Thus it will be helpful first to understand Adorno’s peculiar appraisal of the possibilities for architectural beauty.[14]

Architecture as Aporetic

            Adorno’s diagnosis of the possibilities for beautiful architectural works in late modernity is found mostly in his essay “Functionalism Today,”[15] but equally important aspects of it may be gleaned from his earlier comments on architecture in Minima Moralia, as well as in certain passages of the Aesthetic Theory.[16] Adorno’s view is essentially that there is no possibility of creating truly beautiful architectural works in the present period. The possibilities for building can be conceived of as lying between two antinomies. On one end of the spectrum lies the option of building within the traditional architectural idiom, that is, of continuing to draw on the rich and well-understood architectural vernacular. At the other extreme lies the possibility of building in the style of radical functionalism, entirely divorced from the traditional idiom, and exemplified for Adorno by the work of the architect and theorist Adolf Loos.[17] These two extremes represent for Adorno the most obvious options for the architectural profession, as well as the range within which Adorno sees architectural work being carried out. Unfortunately for the architect, as well as the public at large, Adorno’s judgment is that both ideals are entirely unsuitable for the present condition of society. Traditionalism is unsuitable since it is an expression of identity thinking par excellence: any encounter with a building constructed in a well-understood vernacular merely re-presents the subject to itself. Adorno is in complete agreement here with Loos’ condemnation of all architectural ornament. Buildings can no longer be adorned with the traditional array of stylistic embellishments. And, since new architectural ornaments cannot be invented (they would be meaningless as they lack any connection with the inherited and meaningful idiom), they can bear no ornament at all. This notion leaves the architect with little to work with, and indeed has supplied us with the sterile products of high modernism and its followers.

            The second antinomy of architectural possibility—the position occupied by the functionalists—looks at first like a promising, if somewhat unexciting solution. But Adorno is quick to eliminate this alternative as well. In functionalist doctrine[18] and practice, advanced industrial materials and technologies are embraced as a means of breaking with the tradition of handicraft that long characterized the art of building. This is entirely unacceptable to Adorno, who recognizes that technology is simply another means by which humanity subjects the world to its will—it is another form of identity thinking, except in this case the subject does not immediately recognize itself in the resulting work. As Adorno puts it,

Not least to blame for the withering of experience is the fact that things, under the law of pure functionality, assume a form that limits contact with them to mere operation, and tolerates no surplus, either in freedom of conduct or in autonomy of things, which would survive as the core of experience, because it is not consumed by the moment of action.”[19]

Buildings constructed towards this ideal are an expression of the subject’s domination of the object—and a particularly grotesque one at that, given the advanced state of industrial technology—but it lacks entirely whatever comfort we once took in traditional buildings. Adorno might characterize the mistake of the functionalists as a misunderstanding of the antinomies with which they are concerned. By moving as far away as they could from the traditional idiom of architecture, the functionalists imagined themselves to be liberating society from its past. But Adorno recognizes that architecture must concern itself not with the distinction between old and new but the one between tradition and industry, both of which are truly rooted in the identity thinking of the enlightenment tradition.

            Moreover, it is not only the use of technology to which Adorno objects in functionalism, but the entire notion of purposefulness in building from which the movement takes its name. Adorno is not denying that we must create buildings that perform their basic functions—we must still build stairways that it is possible for human beings of average size and dexterity to climb—but the functionalist move to reduce a building purely to its function is something Adorno sees as disastrous. As functional, any architectural element, be it a door, a roof or an entire building, is an expression of identity thinking, since it labels the element in question as existing for the use of the subject. When the functionalists stripped architecture of its ornamentation and presented it purely in its functional mode of being, they simply polished the mirror that the subject holds up to itself. In functionalist buildings, the subject’s consciousness is reified only in its dominating aspect—everything is presented as for it. Naturally, this development disgusts Adorno to no end, leading him to describe the modernist home as a mere “living-case,”[20] the pejorative version of Le Corbusier’s machine for living. Thus between the antinomies of traditional and functionalist building, Adorno is compelled to conclude that, save some truly imaginative development in architecture, genuine dwelling in late modernity has simply become impossible.

From Works to Places

            If the construction of beautiful architectural works is no longer possible, where does this leave architectural beauty? The answer that I propose is that the theory of architectural beauty continues to be excessively dominated by the notion of the architectural work. In almost every respect Adorno can be described as a singularly individualistic philosopher, flouting even the more radical trends in theoretical writing and avoiding alignment with any and all of his contemporaries. But it is Adorno’s discussion of architectural beauty, centred exclusively on architectural works—a tendency that pervades nearly the entire corpus of aesthetics as well as architectural theory—that prevents him from understanding the full potentiality of architectural beauty in contemporary culture. To be sure, it makes sense for Adorno to discuss architectural beauty in terms of works, given his conviction that we must strive to apprehend the object in its particularity. But the object in question need not be the object of traditional architectural theory. The particularity in which we must pursue architectural beauty is instead a particularity that includes a larger phenomenological context. Architectural beauty is to be understood not in terms of particular works but rather in terms of particular places. As places, the artificial work of architecture and the natural locale share a highly significant phenomenological core, from which a central dimension of their beauty originates. An illustration of the way places are experienced will help explain this.

            Recall Adorno’s Kantian conviction that all experience is entirely mediated by concepts. Conceptual mediation is what makes it possible for us to have experiences at all. It makes sense then that certain concepts should be more or less specialized than others, certain ones used more or less frequently, and that there should be a certain subset of concepts that are so fundamental so as to be in continuous operation. This is consonant with the Hegelian insight that our conceptual constitution is not static, but is accumulated and transformed through the history of our culture such that a certain primordial part of our conceptuality, although determinately negated again and again, is constantly preserved as the core component of our subjectivity. These are the concepts that are so fundamental to our very functioning in the world that we scarcely even know that they are there. Heidegger calls them “basic concepts,” and they form the largely unnoticed background against which the rest of our experiences occur. That the concepts governing our experience of place should be counted among these basic concepts is entirely consonant with the Kantian thread in Adorno’s thinking. Moreover, they are crucial to the survival of human beings, since it is by virtue of these concepts that human beings constantly have a sense of their surroundings and can therefore determine the dangers and advantages of a particular place.

            There is never a moment at which the subject is not in some place or another. Whether or not one’s place is the focus of one’s consciousness at any given time is of no consequence. What matters is that the portion of our conceptual constitution that governs the general state of being in a place is always “switched on.” It accompanies all of our activities and experiences, not just ones in which we contemplate the beauty or ugliness of the particular place in which we happen to find ourselves. Experience supplies the best direct evidence. My current activities and ambitions, my personal history, even my daydreams, have as a fundamental organizing feature the “property” of being in place, that is, they are situated for me by virtue of my self-representation of certain specific places. (I can scarcely think about the subject matter of this essay without calling to mind the corner of Paley Library at Temple University in which I have been composing it, a place that comes inevitably to mind whenever I reflect on even the most peripheral of its concerns). As has often been remarked, place pervades our experience to the extent that much or all of our intellectual life—at first glance a region that might escape the ubiquity of place—is itself thoroughly saturated with analogical places. We speak constantly of mental spaces, areas of thought, and so forth. (“Where will the solutions come from if not from the realm of mathematics?”) Most people are familiar with the memory exercise in which one can more easily locate pieces of information by associating them with the rooms in one’s house. If reason is simply the explanation of the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, as Nietzsche would have it, then the usefulness of this device testifies to the position of place as a paradigm of familiarity.[21]

            Place should be counted among the first and most basic determinants of personal and cultural identity. The reverse true as well: the identities of a place’s inhabitants collectively produce the particular meaning and character of that place. Place and identity are mutually formed and informed, meaning that causal and logical priority are unsuitably confining analogues here. Christian Norberg-Schulz puts it this way: “Place is… a qualitative, “total” phenomenon, which we cannot reduce to any of its properties, such as spatial relationships, without losing its concrete nature out of sight.”[22] Our identity is constituted by the way we are placed, not in the Cartesian sense that our position in abstract space can be identified and related to all others, but in the phenomenological sense that the layers of experience closest to the core of our subjectivity are the layers which can be called our awareness of being in place. In an immediate sense, we are described by our own topography. In explaining a similar line of thought, Edward Casey relates the important case of the Navajo Indians, who, displaced from their land by the US government, were severely afflicted by “alcoholism, depression, and acute disorientation,”[23] frequently resulting in suicide. The Navajo believe that the loss of their land—which is central to their cultural identity and referred to as “the Great Self”—is at the root of their lamentable condition. The Navajo case illustrates that place is indeed a fundamental constituent of the self, to the extent that to be parted from it is to lose one's very identity. Norberg-Schulz puts it like this: “The place is the concrete manifestation of man's dwelling, and his identity depends on his belonging to places.”[24]

            Following a roughly Heideggerian approach, we may treat place and places on the model of figure and ground in visual representation. The figure/ground model is the essential shape of Heidegger’s dichotomy between Dasein’s theoretical notions and its pre-reflective phenomenology. For example, various theories of truth (correspondence theories, coherence theories, and so on) are specific theoretical “figures” that appear against the constant but unnoticed “ground” of the phenomenon of Being-uncovering that Heidegger describes.[25] This Being-uncovering description of truth is presented as the primary pre-theoretical understanding of truth, which goes unnoticed precisely because it is too familiar: we lose sight of the background because we are so concerned with the images that appear against it. Heidegger constantly wants to draw our attention back to those things that we have forgotten but have never really lost in all of our theoretical wandering. As Norberg-Schulz points out, place can be counted among these pre-theoretical understandings, these basic concepts, as the ground against which individual places present themselves. This means that in all experience, place is never absent, due to the fact that the basic concepts governing place-experience are always active. In Heideggerian language, we are always already someplace. Experiences of specific places, like 9th Street in South Philadelphia or my bedroom at home, can be thought of as appearing as particular figures against the ground of this ubiquitous “someplace.”[26] 

            This understanding of (absolute) place and (particular) places[27] is compatible with the move to abandon the notion of the work that pervades Adorno’s aesthetics, since one is always in a place, although that place is not always an architectural one. Moreover, it allows us to talk coherently about architectural works as something particular arising against something universal. For example, imagine walking from the countryside into a small town. The character of the place gradually changes, but the sense of being someplace is never absent. And while there is certainly a moment at which you are decidedly in the town and no longer in the countryside, there is never a precise moment at which the transition takes place. There are many moments in which you are simply surrounded by small farms and wild trees, as well as the outlying structures of the town. Imagine now that there is a church with a beautiful façade, just inside the town. At which moment can it appropriately be said that you are “with” this church, so that your experience of its beauty should count as genuine? It is reasonable to imagine that whether or not you end up thinking of the church as beautiful will have as much to do with your walk towards it from the countryside as it does with the harmonious arrangement of the façade itself. The notion of an architectural work is perhaps still a relevant factor in your experience of the building as beautiful, but it is not the most basic one, and therefore should not determine the language in which the church’s beauty is discussed. Since your encounter with the church occurred in the peculiar mode of experience unique to human subjectivity, it ought to be understood as such. Your being in a particular—and particularly beautiful—place, namely the square or plot of land in front of a lovely church, arose against the universal background of being always already someplace, and it did so in a continuous succession of experiences of being in other particular places, namely in the countryside and in the outskirts of town.

            To some quarters of the architectural community, not to mention the philosophical community, the figure/ground understanding of place may seem like a radical departure from the ordinary way of thinking about place, and it should. The present theory, which conceives our experience of places as particular figures that emerge from a general ground, undercuts theories that attempt to understand place in reductive or physical terms.[28] Such theories fall squarely on the figure side of the Heideggerian dichotomy, and thus fail to straddle the divide and give a full account of the phenomena. To attempt to understand place fully in terms of bodies in space, for example, where the coordinates and dimensions of the church façade mentioned above could be recorded and analyzed, would miss the emergent character of the experience, and would for that reason be incapable of providing an account of the phenomenon of encountering the church as it presented itself.

            In a passage that would seem to make Adorno’s view entirely incommensurable with the one proposed above, Adorno complains that the understanding of works is a process “in no way comparable to that ominous lived experience [erlebnis] that is supposed to deliver up all secrets with a wave of the magic wand and indeed provide a doorway into the object.”[29] Adorno is missing the real potential of phenomenology here, however, by identifying its concern as “the object,” and, although this certainly is a feature of some approaches to phenomenology,[30] it need not be the case. Phenomenological investigation has as much to say about the subject—the identity that Adorno is so anxious to escape that he misses his best opportunity to understand that which he is escaping.[31] Adorno is right to insist on the particularity of our encounters with beauty, but he misunderstands particularity by contrasting it primarily with the general category. What he needs is not an understanding of the particular work understood in contrast to the category of works, but an understanding of the particular experience of beauty, understood in the here and now, and in which the work, whatever it is, is apprehended as concrete, immediate and utterly unique. It is also worth noting that Adorno's writings, vast and various as they are, also include passages that lend themselves readily to an interpretation more sympathetic with the phenomenological project. He discusses the experience of artworks as living experience, as well as the “processual character of artworks,” in order to highlight the dynamic tension between contemplation and encounter within which artworks “become animate.”[32] Although his intention here is scarcely an endorsement of phenomenology, it highlights the way Adorno covertly approaches a position that he denounces in others.[33] “The Artwork is a process essentially in the relation of its whole and parts. Without being reducible to one side or the other, it is the relation itself that is a process of becoming.”[34] This passage sounds almost Heideggerian in its emphasis on relationality, temporality, etc. In this respect, it could also be applied to the experience of natural beauty, although Adorno has at this stage left natural beauty far behind. The point here is that the unity of an aesthetic experience is not established by a concept or a set of concepts. Instead, what matters is the processual unity of the experience. It is this unity that is central to the experience of beautiful places.

Beautiful Places: The Non-Average

            Place can be a locus of beauty even within the restrictions of Adorno’s understanding of beauty, and points the way toward a new recognition of the possibility of architectural beauty. Particular places—in this case architectural ones—, emerging against a background of basic emplacement, can, indeed, be encountered in their particularity in the very way Adorno demands. Indeed, as Adorno notes in his aesthetic theory, what makes them beautiful and what makes them appear to us as particular and objective, uncontaminated by the sameness of the subject, turns out to be one and the same thing.

            Based on all of this, we can say that beautiful places are those that are unfamiliar to us; these places strike us as strange and alien. They seem to impress their particularity forcibly upon us. The reason for this is that such places allow us to look past the basic place concepts that we constantly and unthinkingly employ, and really focus on the particular and individual place that appears before us. In such cases, from the point of view of the subject, the ground concepts are overlooked entirely and the place emerges as pure object. Striking and unfamiliar places create the conditions for the kind of metaphysical experience that Adorno describes as the experience of beauty. A crucial feature of this phenomenon is that it depends on who the subject is—what counts as striking and unfamiliar depends on the biography of the individual subject and therefore precludes the possibility of any universal and objective criteria of beauty. For example, imagine a young man who has been born and spent the entirety of his formative years living in the suburban sprawl of southern California. While much of his basic conceptual apparatus for dealing with place is shared with all other human beings, there are sure to be highly developed differences as well. So, our young man has what we might call a “west coast” American conceptual scheme with respect to place, a California ground, against which California figures—freeways and tract houses—reliably appear. Now imagine that the young man takes a school trip and finds himself standing in London, say in Leicester Square, early in the morning. He finds the place beautiful—it strikes him as such because it has utterly exhausted whatever aid his ground concepts might have been to him at home, forcing him to take notice of its particularities. Our friend discovers not only a brand new kind of place, but also a brand new way of being in that place. He can walk from café to kiosk unhindered by traffic, enjoying the peculiar sense of enclosure that only a specific sort of rigorously urban place can provide. And all of this is inextricably bound up with what amounts to, for him, the non-averageness of the place. Innumerable additional examples can be cited as well: imagine a New York businesswoman succumbing to the silent pleasures of the American plains country. Beauty and enigma are constant companions, and the range of possible examples is not bounded by the distinction between the natural and the artificial.

            An immediate objection to this account is that place cannot be a locus of beauty in Adorno’s sense because, like anything else, place is never free of conceptual mediation. The young man from California is using some concepts when he navigates the streets of London. But even for Adorno, the absolute absence of conceptual mediation is not a requirement for beauty, just a moment in which, from the point of view of the subject, those concepts are left behind. For Adorno, a metaphysical experience is “to be entranced in one place without squinting at the universal.”[35] The concept has not disappeared, but it no longer blocks us from an encounter with the object in its particularity. And, in cases where the place in question is strikingly unfamiliar, whatever concepts the subject may be able to use in dealing with the situation are bound to be weak. The young man from California does not find himself as if on an alien planet when he arrives in London. He has seen films, spoken with other travellers, and so on. Perhaps he has visited San Francisco and acquired something of the pedestrian vernacular there. But these tools are only weakly in effect for our friend and are by no means well integrated with the concepts by dint of which he has experienced place in the past. All that is required for a place to be apprehended as beautiful is our experience of a moment in which the object—the place—is apparently unmediated. This means that the place is encountered by the subject purely in its objective particularity, as a für sich moment of Hegelian dialectic.

Beautiful Places: The Average

            That places can be beautiful by virtue of their non-averageness must, however, be recognized as only one part of the story. The fact is that many of the places that we are inclined to describe as beautiful are in at least some respect traditional, or else ones that appeal to a design idiom that is traditional in our culture of origin. And while this is not true of all beautiful places (Brasilia may seem beautiful simply for its alien quality), it is certainly true of such a great number of the places we call beautiful that it cannot be overlooked. That a great part of our aesthetic response to beautiful places is nostalgic is not only well-chronicled[36] but  immediately obvious to the majority of the inhabitants of the modern world. The romantic idealization of natural places during the onset of the industrial era and the dominance of rationalist science is a classic case. More recently, the international tourist industry has aimed at providing experiences that will bring its clients out of their subdivisions and back into a more authentic and charmed existence in the hill towns of Tuscany or some other suitably pre-modern locale.[37] Judging by these facts, beauty cannot be reduced to the non-average alone. But, as Adorno so forcefully argues, it cannot be reduced to the purely traditional either—we have not and will not relapse from modernism. We must resist the temptation to box beauty in to either one of these categories, and instead simply recognize that when a place presents itself to us as beautiful, elements of both averageness and non-averageness (at least) are responsible. This approach only marginally affects the way beautiful places are experienced, while avoiding reductive misrepresentation. To phrase the matter another way, beautiful places occupy a dynamic junction between enigma and nostalgia.

            To grant any kind of privilege to the role of nostalgia in our experience of beautiful places would be anathema to the spirit of Adorno’s elite brand of cultural criticism. It is at this point that I am forced to break with that spirit entirely. I am resisting, for example, the implication of Adorno’s culture industry thesis that the identity thinking involved in the tourism market precludes the possibility of its products being beautiful. Despite Adorno’s reasoned and impassioned declarations that anything touched by the identity thinking of enlightenment rationality cannot be thought beautiful, I can see no virtue in an aesthetic theory that would count Paris—the capital of enlightenment design—a base and ugly thing. The reason for this has to do again with the non-universality of the experience of place: the further removed one’s ground concepts of place are from those of the Parisian, the more likely it is that one will be rendered (delightedly) functionally incapacitated in that environment. Moreover, if one happens to harbour a feeling of nostalgia for the old world qualities of that city, one’s pleasure will not be diminished. On the contrary, it will likely be heightened, as it adds a layer of richness to the experience. After all, the separation exploited here between nostalgic and enigmatic experiences is a theoretical fiction: the American in Paris feels a complex mixture of nostalgia and enigma, of charm and wonderment, and many other things besides, affecting the experience as a whole.

            But perhaps this view does not differ so much from Adorno’s after all. To be sure, he would not phrase the matter in terms of cultural relativism, but Adorno subscribes to the Hegelian insight that all philosophies are, not true, but at best timely. Adorno is well aware that even his own philosophy has significance only in the context of the particular historical conditions of which it is critical. As he says in the opening paragraph of Negative Dialectics, “Theory cannot prolong the moment its critique depended on.”[38] Theory is not eternal: it is always addressed to a historically specific objective. While it is possible for the boulevards of Paris to disgust Adorno for their complicity with the “purifying” tendencies of the enlightenment, others may count themselves lucky in having been not so badly disturbed by them as their own subjectivity and the place in question collide in a historical context sufficiently removed from Adorno. A particular (historically, culturally and individually conditioned) set of ground concepts of place enable a unique set of places to be perceived as beautiful.

Beautiful Places: The Complex

            The matter of beautiful and mundane places can be described in terms of conceptual mediation, but it requires a little more than just the affirmation or denial of mediation, i.e., something’s being either mediated or not mediated by concepts. As Adorno holds, all experience is mediated by concepts, and it is only in certain “limit experiences that we seem to go completely beyond them and apprehend the object as it is in itself. But in order to capture the complexity of the situation, it makes sense to speak also in terms of the degree of mediatedness, that is, how strongly or weakly a certain phenomenon is mediated by our concepts. Talk of the degree of mediatedness is apt, since it is the condition of being conceptually ill-prepared for a given place experience that allows that experience to present itself as one of beauty. Beauty is always a surprise, even if we have planned for it. When the young man from California decides to make a trip to London, he knows that it will be beautiful, and perhaps this is more the province of his appetite for nostalgia, but the particular way in which it is beautiful will certainly come as a shock to him. It is a cliché in all artistic genres to say when one encounters something especially delightful that nothing could have prepared one for it. The experience of the Californian can be described as a weakly mediated experience of occupying and moving about in an enigmatic city, together with a more strongly mediated experience of nostalgia for the London of Dickens or Conan Doyle. Both of these elements must be taken into account in describing the particular way in which the subject in question experiences the place as beautiful, and this is something to which Adorno’s framework is not well adapted. Adorno’s dictum that art must be black does not allow for the real world possibility that art can be black—and thoroughly black—while also being a great many other things as well.[39] Perhaps the Californian is also interested in purchasing some rare British rock LPs while in the city, and so his experience will also be mediated, perhaps quite strongly, by a purposeful searching for record shops. Place, considered as a locus of beauty, reminds us that beauty in general is always a complex experience, and never simply a one-to-one subject/object relationship, an illusion fostered by the museum and picture gallery in which the patron is expected to contemplate the work with silent focus. Instead, beauty is the result of the innumerable strong and weak conceptual mediations that fluctuate throughout the normal course of experience.

            The suggestion presented here is not that we understand the beauty of place on a linear spectrum, between strongly mediated on one extreme and weakly mediated on the other. The picture of conceptual mediation we are working with cannot be sustained by our simply saying that one or another experience is more strongly or more weakly mediated than another, and then by our deriving from that the degree to which the experience must have been beautiful. Such an understanding reduces the complexity of our encounters with beautiful places to a highly simplistic and artificial abstraction. What we must remember is that experiences of beautiful places—indeed all experiences—are complexly mediated. This means that they are mediated simultaneously in a number of different ways, and that each of those ways will admit of a degree of strength and weakness. This is what makes it possible for the New York businesswoman's experience of the rural plains community to be beautiful—the New Yorker is conceptually unprepared to apprehend the place in a routine way, but at the same time it strikes a nostalgic chord in her. The city of Venice is almost universally agreed to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, precisely because it is at once absolutely bizarre and strongly nostalgic. The complexity of our possible mediations with the city of Venice is wonderfully illustrated in Italo Calvino's novel Invisible Cities,[40] which suggests that the explanation for the enduring fascination of that city is precisely the fact that the ways of seeing it are inexhaustible and our nostalgic memories of it interact with the new elements we encounter every time we return.

            The account presented here surely moves beyond the notion of metaphysical experience as Adorno formulates it. In fact, Adorno employs the notion in such a way that it is subject to exactly the criticism this account attempts to avoid. That is, it is possible to interpret Adorno as linearizing conceptual mediation. That is, by placing the transcendental experience at the limit of all conceptual mediation, Adorno appears to be positing a linear accounting of “mediatedness,” conceived as a comparative magnitude. A more liberal understanding of transcendental experience—as a moment of seeming to apprehend something in its objective particularity surrounded by, or appearing against, a background of normal, mediated experience, is an improvement on the view Adorno presents.

            I would like to emphasize the Heideggerian insight[41] that personal and cultural identity are partially and fundamentally constituted by place—by one’s being, in one’s very being, always already in a place. If this is true, how is it possible for a place to be nonidentical in the sense required by Adorno’s understanding of beauty? The answer is that it is only possible insofar as we are already displaced—only insofar as we have forgotten our sense of emplacement. When places of a certain sort are encountered by persons whose culture has alienated them from that sort of place, it becomes possible for those places to be beautiful to such persons, because they provide a metaphysical experience, an experience of nonidentity, in lifting the subject “beyond” the conceptual limits of its subjectivity. In cases when the encounter is tinged with nostalgia, these places reawaken or reactivate half-forgotten place concepts in the subject. This is what allows someone to reconnect with part of his or her identity in the experience of a beautiful place. This complex experience of the beauty of place as both identical and non-identical sounds paradoxical until we recall that experience is manifold and can include both. There is also a Hegelian way of treating the apparent paradox between identity and non-identity, although this too tends to overlook the nonlinearity of conceptual mediation. In Hegelian terms, we could say that at the moment of the experience of beauty, the beautiful place is non-identical for the subject, while also being identical in itself. Identity and non-identity converge, not head to head, but adjacently, from different frames of reference within the subject/object paradigm. The experience of a beautiful place would thus constitute a dialectical moment of synthesis in which the subject rediscovers its own emplacement—the role of place in constituting its identity—by encountering the place as something other. This approach remains a possibility for discussing beauty and place, but is subject to the limitation that it too treats beauty as a linear variable.

            Ultimately, our very way of speaking may have to abandon the dualism of subject and object, and the linear notion of mediation that this opposition preserves. Adorno stubbornly persists in speaking in the language of subject and object, since he believes that it is only through a discourse constructed in this way that he can approach the nonidentical:

The duality of subject and object must be critically maintained against the thought's inherent claim to be total. The division, which makes the object the alien thing to be mastered and appropriates it, is indeed subjective, the result of orderly preparation; but no critique of its subjective origin will reunify the parts, once they have split in reality.[42]

That may be so, but critique is not the only philosophical task. Heidegger arguably succeeds in reunifying the parts simply by refusing to speak the language of subject and object. What's more, Adorno's very motivation, the task of thinking the nonidentical, might itself be thought of merely as a more slippery version of the subject/object distinction. This is not to say that I disagree with the spirit of  Adorno’s project, but as Adorno himself recognizes, the idiom in which we attempt to think the nonidentical must not itself become a vehicle of conceptual subsumption. Adorno's strategy for resisting this subsumption—the method of constellation—is a novel and perhaps workable method. It is my suspicion, however, that there is a more direct way, which is nothing less than learning to think, speak and write in genuinely new terms. Heidegger's language, including the notion of Being-in-the-world, accomplishes just this, and by employing it we may genuinely be able to overcome the distinction between subject and object, thereby recreating the possibility of thinking natural and artificial beauty together.

            I would like to briefly revisit the problem of the possibilities of architecture that Adorno left in aporia. The resources of the adaptable figure/ground model of place experience drawn out of Heideggerian phenomenology help us reconceptualize architecture in ways that can be applied, for example by taking the effects of culturally specific ground concepts into account in the design process. When Adorno presented his essay on functionalism, his message to the architectural profession was essentially that the possibility of guilt-free[43] building simply no longer existed. An understanding of architectural experience as essentially place experience, and therefore continuous with the experience of natural places, provides a way out of this stalemate. Adorno's mistake was that he misinterpreted a recent (and genuinely important) crisis in the concept of architecture as a crisis in the very core of that notion. The human relationship with buildings is, however, much older and much more basic than the guilty conscience of industrialism. So, even if the details of the new architectural ideology cannot be determined with confidence, basic approaches to design can be culled from phenomenological research into the fundamental experience of place. [44] There has been an active tradition of such research for quite some time, and the best of it crosses and overwrites the boundaries between philosophy, environmental studies, architecture, geography, urban design, land use planning, and so on. Architectural design should reconceive its task from one concerned with the production of works, to one concerned with the creation of places, and as such, to one essentially concerned with the cultural forms of identity that it both exploits and creates.

Mimesis and Negative Dialectics

            Returning now to Adorno’s aesthetics, many of its features are worth preserving in spite of the limitations noted above. First, it is important that the metaphysical experience is always one in which the subject’s apprehension of the object initiates self-reflexivity. Remember, the experience of beauty, as a genuine encounter with the other, is a dialectical engagement. Since, in the objectivist moment, all that is apprehended of the object is that which has been subsumed under concepts, all that remains of the object as it is in itself appears to the subject only in relief—as a negative image suggested by the subject’s awareness of its own boundaries: “Even by artworks the concrete is scarcely to be named other than negatively.”[45] Or, equivalently: “The nonexisting in artworks is a constellation of the existing.”[46] To become aware that something remains unencountered (because it has been covered up) is precisely the dialectical move Adorno calls for—a turning of the attention back onto one’s own cognition. Only through a deliberate self-critique does the subject create the possibility that the object might present itself as it is: negative appearing as positive, and beautiful. It is true that all this sounds very laborious—and Adorno certainly thinks of it as a difficult and disciplined process—, but it need not be. When a place presents itself as suitably unfamiliar—when we are interrupted by its strangeness—the need for a whole process of self-mastery is circumvented, and the beauty of the place erupts spontaneously. Our conceptual apparatus, and the identity thinking that it perpetuates, is frustrated by the sheer incommensurability of the place, and not by the coordinated effort of the subject.

            The notions of mimesis and negative dialectics are helpful in understanding what constitutes a beautiful place. Works of art, as well as places, encountered in their particularity, resist categorization and reflect only their self-identity. Nonetheless, our conditioned aesthetic impulse is to understand an artwork by becoming identical to it. Since the genuinely beautiful, however, presents itself only in its self-similarity (the beautiful place is utterly unique—it mimics only itself) what is understood in the encounter with its beauty is one’s own self-limitation.[47] The beautiful place is an object lesson in self-critique. What Kant laboriously attempted to demonstrate theoretically in the first critique is handed over sensuously to the person who encounters a beautiful place. The dialectic that constitutes this encounter is not one in which the self finds resolution with the other through self-transcendence and determinate negation. It is instead a negative dialectic in Adorno’s sense: instead of resolving itself in the Absolute, the subject encounters the austere truth of its own brooding finitude. This is what Adorno calls the “truth content of the work of art.” Here, as elsewhere, Adorno stands halfway between Kant and Hegel, unable to share in the latter’s triumph of enlightenment, and unable to deny the implications of the former’s transcendental turn. A truly beautiful place thus confronts us—via our mediated reflection on the unmediated—with the truth (which is always the same and yet always different since it is discovered in different particularities) of our non-dominion over the world of things. In defense of the sublimity of the natural world from which Kant’s followers turned away, Adorno notes that, “ … natural grandeur reveals another aspect to its beholder: that aspect in which human domination has its limits and that calls to mind the powerlessness of human bustle.”[48] To experience a foreign place as beautiful is, then, at once an aesthetic comportment as well as a political act. Moreover, from Adorno’s point of view it is precisely the sort of act that is needed in the present age. In this sense, the theory of beauty presented in the Aesthetic Theory is the culmination of the problematic, which Adorno set forth in frustration in the Dialectic of Enlightenment.[49]


            It is essential to re-emphasize the historical character of the concepts we employ. The natural world and its artificial counterpart are historical creations. (Some version of this distinction has existed since the production of the earliest tools and artworks, although it has been amplified considerably by what Adorno refers to as the “enlightenment”—a traceable historical trend in thought rather than a well-defined historical period.) This does not mean that the categories of the natural and the artificial should be eliminated from every area of inquiry, for that very recognition reminds us how thoroughly our lives are a product of our cultural history. It does, however, offer an escape from dogmatism, should suitable contexts for such an escape be identified. The beauty of place, given its position in aesthetics as a whole, represents such a context.

            It has not been my goal to argue that the distinction between the natural and artificial has no impact on the experience of place. On the contrary, that this distinction plays a definite role is undeniable. However, understood as historically compounded, such experience admits of layers. It would truly be a misapplication of the distinction between the natural and the artificial to imagine that such a differentiation is always applicable in the experience of place. For, place, as a basic concept, transcends and undermines the division between the natural and the artificial, since “natural” places—lakeshores and treetops—as well as “artificial” places—office buildings and battleships—emerge against a background that is always already “in place,” resulting in a continuous and uninterrupted flow of places. The persistent discussion of the distinction between nature and artifice has obscured this fact from the attention of aesthetics.

[1] Theodor Adorno. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, 334.

[2] This is true in Adorno’s case provided that we make the requisite Hegelian adjustments to our notion of universality by limiting it to a specific historical context.

[3] Theodor Adorno. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 2004, 5.

[4] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, op. cit., 118.

[5] Ibid., 120.

[6] Adorno, Negative Dialectics, op. cit., 372.

[7] In a culture where identity thinking coincides with violence to the object, it is necessarily infused with the guilt of domination. This theme is pervasive in Adorno’s writing, and can be seen especially in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 1988.

[8] Immanuel Kant. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987, 98.

[9] Ibid., 120-121.

[10] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Op. cit., 76.

[11] Ibid., 73.

[12] Ibid., 62.

[13] Ibid., 77.

[14] See Hilde Heynen. Architecture and Modernity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999.

[15] Theodor Adorno. “Functionalism Today,” Trans. Newman and Smith, in Rethinking Architecture. Ed. Neil Leach. New York: Routledge, 1997, 6-19.

[16] The entire text can be read with an eye to the question of architecture, although it is most directly invoked in the sections on materials, industry and construction culminating in the “dialectic of functionalism.”

[17] Adolf Loos. “Ornament and Crime,” in Programs and Manifestoes of 20th-Century Architecture. Trans. Michael Bullock. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1970.

[18] Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier are exemplary of the functionalist tradition. See Walter Gropius. The New Architecture and the Bauhaus. Trans. P. Morton Shand. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1965 and Le Corbusier. Towards a New Architecture. Trans. Frederick Etchells. New York: Dover Publications, 1986.

[19] Theodor Adorno. Minima Moralia. Trans. E. F. N. Jephcott. London: NLB, 1974, 40.

[20] Ibid., 41.

[21] Friedrich Nietzsche. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: Random House, 1974.

[22] Christian Norberg-Schulz. Genius Loci. Rizzoli: International Publications, 1979, 8.

[23] Edward Casey. Getting Back Into Place. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1993, 35.

[24] Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci. Op.cit., 6.

[25] Martin Heidegger. Being and Time. Trans. Macquarrie and Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962, 256-273.

[26] Ibid.,145-148, on the spatiality of Dasein is illuminating on this.

[27] This distinction is frequently phrased in terms of absolute space versus particular places.

[28] Examples of this are Steen Eiler Rasmussen. Experiencing Architecture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1959 and Roger Scruton. The Aesthetics of Architecture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979. The problem is compounded by the ahistoricity of these approaches.

[29] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Op. cit, 346.

[30] This seems to be true of Husserlian phenomenology, as is evident in Edmund Husserl. Introduction to The Idea of Phenomenology. Reprinted in Twentieth Century Continental Philosophy. Ed. Todd May. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997.

[31] Adorno’s most explicit and extensive critique of Heideggerian phenomenology occurs in Part I of Negative Dialectics. For an analysis of that critique, see Joshua William Rayman. “A Heideggerian Defense of Phenomenology Against Adorno’s Negative Dialectical Critique.” Analecta Husserliana: The Yearbook of Phenomenological Research, Vol LXXIX: Does the World Exist? Ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. 2004, 637-648.

[32] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Op. cit., 176.

[33] Rayman emphasizes, “that Adorno’s and Heidegger’s projects of thinking a philosophy of difference are quite similar, in that each aims to resist the hypostatization of thought, to overcome metaphysics and positivism…, to determine the truth and untruth of popular consciousness, to increase reflection…, to transcend conceptuality through conceptuality…, to break through presence into its condition, to critique a transcendental logic, and so on.” Rayman. Op. cit., 2004, 639.

[34] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Op.cit., 179.

[35] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Op.cit., 373.

[36] An entire tradition of work, seeking to get to the bottom of contemporary architectural failure, and self-consciously rooted in nostalgia for places of the past, has existed since the 1950s. The most memorable are James Howard Kunstler. The Geography of Nowhere. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, the polemical aspects of Lewis Mumford. The City in History. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961, as well as Jane Jacobs. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books, 1961.

[37] The tourist industry does not simply exploit the nostalgia associated with of certain places, but attempts to coopt their enigmatical character as well. It should be kept in mind that Adorno’s notion of the enigmatic is not that of the tourist industry, from which all that is potentially dangerous about the enigmatic is reduced to a merely decorative air of mystery. While I maintain that it is not impossible for the places presented for touristic consumption to provide experiences of genuine beauty, it should be recognized that the international tourist industry is subject to Adorno’s general critique of the culture industry, and should therefore be regarded as active in the regular production of inauthentic aesthetic experiences.

[38] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Op. cit. 3.

[39] See Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Op. cit., 39.

[40] Italo Calvino. Invisible Cities. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974.

[41] This is view is shared by all phenomenologists of place cited above.

[42] Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Op. cit.,174.

[43] Building would be guilt free if it managed to escape the antinomies of traditionalism and functionalism.

[44] Dominantly E.Relph, Place and Placelessness. London: Pion Limited, 1976; Seamon, David. A Geography of the Lifeworld. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979; Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci. Op. cit. and Casey, Getting Back into Place. Op.cit., 1993.

[45] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Op. cit., 135.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., 125-126.

[48] Ibid., 70.

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