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Manhatta Sublimity

MANHATTA Sublimity

My video is affected by reading Manfredo Tafuri’s analysis of Rockefeller Center, in the context of his critique to the way in which monolithic stand-alone skyscrapers break relationships with the city. The Center’s multiple blocks are instead “full of possibilities,” relative to inducing urban grid’s correlations.

Analysis of Lyonel Feininger’s tensions

Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) was a German-American painter, born and grown up in New York City. He is known as a leading exponent of Expressionism, most of his works consisting of natural scenes, artificial objects/buildings, or a mixture of both with abstract geometries overlaid to each other. I focus on one of his urban paintings, Barfüsserkirche II (Church of the Minorites II).

Screen shot 2022 09 07 at 9.34.25 pm
At first glance, this image seems a conventional scene of a beautiful moment in front of a church with sunlight and people, yet there are a few points that make it very unique. First, the painting is not in perspective. It could have been made with several cut papers of orthogonal building elevations. Instead of perspectival views, it has some distorted window-like images on both the left and right sides. Second, it has silhouettes non-building like, some of which have a zig-zag shape and/or float in the air. I found a possible clue for interpreting this rendition in the ordinary phenomenon of looking outside of my room through a window, noticing that unusual images can be formed as reflections behind a viewer.
Screen shot 2022 09 07 at 9.35.14 pm
Next, I revealed the layering composition by extracting each element in front of and behind the viewer. This exploded axonometry tells that Feininger might have tried to compress the complex surrounding environment into a two-dimensional representation. The distorted perspective images can be explained in case the reflector, which I assume to be a flat glass plane, is slightly tilted. The painting achieved the effect of creating an effect of rich depth with flat elevations, by overlaying multiple layers.
Screen shot 2022 09 07 at 9.36.11 pm

I also explored two iterations, using the technique that I illustrated in the previous paragraph. The first one is applied to Rocky Mountains a painting by Albert Bierstadt. By applying some layers taken from the side portions of Feininger’s image, the center part of the Western landscape can be cropped, simultaneously showing multiple layers of sublimity. In another iteration I used Rockefeller Center, which consists of several buildings over multiple blocks, framed by two wings on Fifth Avenue. Although the main axis points towards the highest tower, the twin mid-height buildings in front, the buildings behind, and the view of the side streets, all mix-up different scales including pedestrians and cars. In my manipulation, each element intersects and integrates with others which are physically apart from it.

These analyses and manipulations offered to me a new way of looking at buildings, cities, and landscape. The focal point is not any more the subject itself but the relationship between a subject and her/his surrounding environment. The resulting three-dimensional network generates richer connections, while the overwhelming mixture of some of their components’ layering may suggest to address the notion of the sublime, as presented by Bierstadt’s rhetorical montage of a Western landscape with snowy alpine peaks, and to see this operation’s impact in the middle of a metropolitan condition.

MANHATTA sublimity – an analytical film

Through this animation exercise, I focused on the conditions of subjectivity versus those of objectivity, to explore the depth of perceptual layers in the cityscape. The video starts with the heartbeat of a woman, whose figure I took from one of Feininger’s works, Jesuits III. She is the first subject, standing in a busy crowd, which is a partial scene extracted from the film Manhatta by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand. Then, the audience will notice that this image, in fact, is a reflection on the eye of another subject, resulting from the animation of an image extracted from Selbstbildnis (Self-Portrait) by Feininger. With this layering, the position of subject shifts from the woman to the inside of a church, from where another subject is looking down towards the street. The view starts to zoom-out again, back to the woman in the street. This cut is from Barfüsserkirche II, the same painting that I analyzed in the previous section, although in this case the layering of silhouettes is manipulated and animated. The angle of vision is stable, but the image is dynamic; some areas are lightened-up or start showing other cityscapes. As described in the analytically exploded axonometric, this layering gives a clue about the environmental conditions surrounding the woman. Some scenes take place in front of her, while others are happening behind her, shown through reflected images. Although the video ends with the same sound as in the beginning, the audience by now may understand that the woman is not the only subject in the picture, but also other actors and the presences of activated architectural elements are at work.


The analyses and exercises reported in this paper describe some shared ideas about the influential and interdependent relationship between one element/person and others, and the conditions of duality/coexistence of subjectivity and objectivity. These relations imply that a city consists of multiple subjects and multiple layers in the process of constructing subjectivities. The feeling of sublime in a metropolitan context can be generated by a mixture of overwhelming profiles or sometimes the fear instilled by multiple activities happening at the same time and in the same place. When a subject’s attention switches to engage an object or an object appears to look back towards a subject, the oscillation of roles within what is supposed to be a wide gap triggers sublimity. Also, when one’s consciousness turns to deeper networks, unconscious connections begin to be activated. This rapid intersection, interaction, or integration powerfully urges getting inside “Metropolitan Sublimes.”

1. Tafuri, Manfredo. “The Disenchanted Mountain” in The American City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983. 453-503.
2. Lyonel Feininger, Church of the Minorities II, 1926.
3. Albert Bierstandt, Rocky Mountains, 1863.
4. Lyonel Feininger, Jesuiten III (Jesuits III), 1915.
5. Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, Manhatta, 1921.
6. Lyonel Feininger, Selbstbildnis (Self-Portrait), 1915.