Sterile Spaces, Synthetic Humans, and Disentanglement: High Modernism and Our Alienation From Nature, #1.

Mr Nemo
8 min readMay 9


By Otto Paans

Figure 1: Shigeru Ban’s “The House Without Walls.” Image via: Photograph by: Shinkenchiku Sha.

High modernism] is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. (Scott, 1998: p. 4)



1. Introduction

2. The Center Does Not Hold

3. The Deadly Danger of Playing God: Prometheus and Covenant

4. High Modernist Space: Four Aesthetic Themes

5. Epilogue



This essay will be published in three installments. This is the first.

But you can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text of this essay, including the REFERENCES, by scrolling to the bottom of this post and clicking on the Download tab.


1. Introduction

In 1997, a striking building designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban was completed in Nagano, Japan: The House Without Walls. Partially dug into a mountain slope, the house sported a horizontal roof and an equally horizontal floor plane, but its walls were made almost entirely of glass. The space in-between the two planes formed the interior, looking out over the surrounding forest in all directions. The floor protruded like an extended platform from the mountainous environment. The whole was sterile white. If anything, this building took the core tenets of architectural high modernism to an extreme. The much-praised modernist transparency and emphasis on simplicity expanded to a whole new level of artificiality that even Le Corbusier could have scarcely imagined.

Figure 2: The interior of Ban’s House Without Walls. Image via Photograph copyright Hiroyuki Hirai.

In its clean, sterile and almost surgical whiteness, this building could have been the backdrop for a science-fiction movie. As we’ll see in section 3, it’s not surprising then that Ridley Scott’s 2018 movie Alien: Covenant contains an opening scene that feels eerily like Ban’s House Without Walls.

There is a deep and elective affinity between Ban’s architectural gesture and high modernity’s (see, e.g., Scott, 1998) relation to nature. Moreover, I maintain that contemporary high modernist culture (also acccurately labeled “supermodernity” or “hypermodernity”) of this sort fosters a truly anti-ecological and anti-organicist attitude, and that its relation to nature is therefore dangerously schizophrenic — characterized by a deep insecurity about its own limits — even despite its ubiquitous presence (Augé, 1992).

By examining this type of high modernist representation of “nature”, we can trace the fault lines of the modern mind, but we can also indicate a possible direction for a reconciliation with nature, one that may begin with an aesthetics of entanglement rather than distance; with engagement rather than technocratic control. This essay aims to diagnose the problematic character of high modernism’s attitude towards nature and provide the outlines for such a reconciliation.

Section 2 describes the tensions between high modernity’s two core tenets: (i) continuous change geared towards progress and (ii) the simultaneous static ideal of the “generic eternal” (Paans, 2019). Section 3 traces the similarities between the CIAM-inspired strand of modernist architecture of the late 20th century and the corresponding aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Alien: Covenant movies. Based on this philosophical analysis, section 4 provides a concise characterization of high modernist space, its aesthetic underpinnings, and its relation to nature. Section 5 then describes an “aesthetics of entanglement,” based on the neo-organicist worldview (Hanna and Paans, 2020; Paans, 2022) and process philosophy, and proposes how such an aesthetics could form a viable antidote to the anti-ecological tendencies operative in high modernity, without falling into the trap of wishing to return to a pristine Eden.

2. The Center Does Not Hold

One of the paradigmatic figures of high modernity is perhaps not a historical individual, but the lonesome wanderer overlooking the clouds in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.

Figure 3: “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” by Caspar David Friedrich (1818).

In his silent presence, this figure represents a relation towards nature that would generate some of the most tension-laden currents of thought in the 19th century: the human individual in all its fragility and finitude set in opposition to the imposing forces of the cosmos. Not coincidentally, the raw power of nature is in Romanticism imbued with an emotional, almost demonic force:

The following environment can cause [awe] in an even higher degree. Nature in turbulent and tempestuous motion; semi-darkness through threatening black thunder-clouds; immense, bare, overhanging cliffs shutting out the view by their interlacing; rushing, foaming masses of water; complete desert; the wail of the wind sweeping through the ravines. Our dependence, our struggle with hostile nature, our will that is broken in this, now appear clearly before our eyes. (Schopenhauer, 1969: p. 204)

Humanity is confronted with his limits in an endless universe. Yet, humanity is simultaneously also lord and master over nature. Friedrich’s Wanderer is the archetypical individual who contemplates nature in its overwhelming power, but at the same time harnesses its forces to keep it subdued — and thus at a safe distance.

The tension between nature as untamed power and as a controllable stock of resources took shape during the 19th century, and we are still experiencing the after-effects of this deeply schizophrenic attitude. During the Industrial Revolution, nature was believed to be a conglomerate of resources that could be transformed at will. We can find a striking illustration of this thought in Marx’s and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, in which they proclaim that the final realization of communism is “abundance” for humanity. However, what they envisioned has little to do with ecology, but with material abundance. Clearly the worries and pressures of ecological degradation were not yet an issue during the 19th century, despite the fact that the detrimental effects of industrialization were clearly visible, even prompting a “return to the land” movement in Britain (Marsh, 2010: pp. 16–17). Despite being ideological opposites, both the communist and the capitalist dreams of material abundance were premised upon the dream of endless natural resources.

In a similar optimistic vein, the urban theorist John Claudius Loudon wrote in 1829 that oil and coal would be the prime fuel sources for the future city of London that would emerge:

Under every street we would have a sewer sufficiently large, and so contrived as to serve at the same time as a subway for the mains of water and gas, and we would keep it in view that hot water, hot oil, steam, or hot air, may in time be circulated by public companies for heating houses; and gas supplied not only for the purposes of lighting, but for those of cookery, and some for manufactures. The matters conveyed by the sewer we would not allow to be all wasted in a river; but here and there, in what we would call sewer works, to be placed in the country zones, we would strain the water by means of machinery, so as to gain from it almost every particle of manure held in mixture. (Louden, 1829)

The mechanistic worldview — which says that everything in the natural universe, including us, is essentially either a formal automaton or a natural automaton (Hanna and Paans, 2020) — was implemented by relying on the twin doctrines of processing and efficiency, sweeping entire nations before it, involving them in the grand operation of transforming natural resources into products by means of steam, mechanization, and engineering. As Marx and Engels did in their Communist Manifesto, Loudon premised his reasoning and his steadfast belief in progress on the endless and unproblematic availability of natural resources.

There is a deep paradox in the conception of nature as it emerged during the Romantic era: on one hand, its vastness and its power confront one with one’s finitude; and on the other hand, it exists as a mute collection of raw materials that modern production processes transform into commodities, products, and ultimately the symbols of high modernity itself. But those two opposites cannot be reconciled within one single frame of mind. They give rise to tensions that tear the modern subject apart from the inside. Seen this way, the Wanderer in Friedrich’s same-named painting is a tragic figure who involuntarily unites those forces in himself: his urbane, calm and collected appearance is a fragile ideality, the schizophrenia and tension of modernity personified in a single individual.

Marx’s and Engels’s dictum that “all that is solid melts into air” may therefore be regarded as the epitome that captures the cultural experience of high modernity (Berman, 2013). It is not just that the existing world seems to dissipate, but that it congeals into a new world beyond recognition. Old certainties disappear, only to be replaced by new structures and possibilities, often at a maddening speed. This process of change gives rise to inner tensions that characterize the modern subject, and that stamp modernity as an edifice with deeply unstable foundations, a palace about to turn into a ruin.

Yet, in attempt to counteract the speed of its own development, modernity erected a new world on the speedily disappearing remnants of the past: a generic eternal, universal in its functionality, and eternal in its objectivity and therefore of timeless artistic value (Paans, 2019).

But what is this space of high modernism? It is — as postmodern thinkers pointed out — the space of Man, or better, of Humankind, a relentlessly anthropocentric space. It is the space in which nature is not present in its threatening form, but as a supplement, or harmless spectacle or a controlled representation (Paans and Pasel, 2022: ch. 1).

In the high modernist conception, natural forces are mere things to play around with, ranging all the way from combustion engines to atomic fusion. And yet, their inherent dynamism is juxtaposed to the immutable character of the created, architectural, and pure order. The white houses, white museums, white art galleries, and white schools of high modernity all represent an eternal order of functionality that is justified by its application of functionalist thought and instrumental, engineering rationality. These buildings represent a distance and sterile environment in which the sublimity of nature is on display like a commodity or a caged animal. In a very real sense, high modernity is a “society of the spectacle,” but it is not just the spectacle of consumerism that captivates the modern attention. High modernity fosters an attitude that attempts to reduce nature to a controlled representation, regarding it as a malign and fickle entity that must be watched closely, and — if possible — be disciplined and curtailed.




Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 8 May 2023

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.