Genius Loci

The most frequently quoted reference on locality is probably Christian Norberg-Schulz’s  book ‘Genius Loci’. He stresses the importance of place for our existence—whatever happens, happens somewhere i.e. in a place. Place is not an abstract or quantifiable but a qualitative phenomenon. He criticises the way that modern architecture deals more with abstract functionality that can be applied in a generic way than with tangible meaning that is specific to a place. For Norberg-Schulz, “the existential purpose of building (architecture) is therefore to make a site become a place, that is, to uncover the meanings potentially present in the given environment.”. In other words, the specific character of a site needs to be understood and developed. If this is achieved, people are able to really dwell there—a highly desirable goal for Norberg-Schulz, because it indicates a“total man-place relationship”. Two psychological needs are fulfilled in this ideal situation: orientation and identification. Following Kevin Lynch, he explains the importance of orientation for human dwelling: without orientation,“man feels lost’”. But identification with the environment is even more important. Identification means becoming friends with a particular environment and its properties.

Norberg-Schulz’s phenomenological call for real things and the importance of character and orientation are useful advice for designers of urbanisation projects—but the issue of identification is more difficult if you have a site that offers little with which people can identify. How can you design for identification then? This issue exposes a problem with Norberg-Schulz’s theory, which relies heavily on existing layers of history to which new construction has to relate. Although he stresses the importance of time and change in realising the genius loci by mentioning: “To respect the ‘Genius loci’ does not mean to copy old models. It means to determine the identity of the place and to interpret it in ever new ways.”, most of his arguments have a preservationist perspective, which isn’t much help in the face of rapid urbanisation. Another problem of his theory is the use of dualisms, like settlement versus landscape or natural spaces versus man-made spaces. Almost forty years after he wrote Genius Loci, these oppositions have become questionable in the light of contemporary debates on planetary urbanisation or the Anthropocene.

To summarise: Norberg-Schulz offers a deep analysis from a Western point of view and raises awareness of the topic. However, he gives scant advice on designing for locality in contemporary and future urbanisation projects on previously unsettled territory.

Paolo Bürgi, Cardada Geological Observatory (2000)



While Cosgrove notes that ‘landscapes have a special significance within heritage debates’, he also argues that it is heritage which forces an engagement with the ‘realities of a postcolonial, polyvocal and globalized world’. While a ‘landscape approach’ has aided heritage scholars to move beyond what was a site-based engagement with their subject matter, therefore, an increased recognition of heritage – both tangible and intangible – has encouraged landscape scholars to heed the importance of the affective qualities of how, as Holtorf and Williams note, memories and mythologies, community and personal histories were ‘inherited, inhabited, invented and imagined through the landscape’. With its focus on the present and future, I would argue that a heritage sensibility would appear to provide a sense of hope and engagement.

David Harvey, Emerging landscapes of heritage (2013)

The place can be described as an astonishing and complex geological structure. The tectonic gesture of the place is made visible by the sea eroded cliffs and its several lava and ashes layers of orange, black, brown and grey. An old conical lime kiln characterizes the image of the place. An artisanal industry of drying fish and salt extraction completed the principal local economic activity of fishing, more recently developed on touristic service. This social condition of very humble and poor economic situation was accentuated by a strong feeling of isolation and segregation shared by this community. The recent regional connection and several investments on public services, inverted a process of social erosion and conflict, stressed by a previous wrong policy on social housing. By adding the new and complex program of public space and connections, an extraordinary change took place on social and collective representation and valuation of space.

João Gomes da Silva, Project Description (2006)

João Gomes da Silva + GLOBAL arquitectura paisagista, Salinas Swimming Pools (2006)



How could one design for a site seen only in photographs taken by someone else? Impossible. Site analysis, at a large scale and recorded through detached rational mappings, has given way to site readings and interpretations drawn from first-hand experience and from a specific site’s social and ecological histories. These site-readings form a strong conceptual beginning for a design response, and are registered in memorable drawings and mappings conveying a site’s physical properties, operations, and sensual impressions.

Site Matters

Three premises inform this book. First, site knowledge, even if unspoken, exerts a powerful force in design that theoretical inquiry should acknowledge and critically assess. Second, historiography has sanctioned particular ways of engaging with site matters, and the dele- terious effects of these sanctions should be recognized and countered. Third, modes of representation construe sites, and their formative role in the production of site knowledge should be revealed and expressed.

Design does not simply impose on a place. Site and designer engage in dialogic interaction. At once extrinsic and intrinsic, a site exists out there in the world but acquires design meaning only through its apprehension, intellectually and experientially. Therefore, we claim the site as a relational construct that acquires meaning and value through situational interaction and exchange. This relational condition of the site derives from uninterrupted exchange between the real and the representational, the extrinsic and the intrinsic, the world and the world- as-known. (…)

Theorizing site thinking involves critically examining ideological, historical, and disciplinary frameworks to discern the sources of unarticulated knowledge and the ends to which it is put. We begin with basic questions. How are sites defined? How is value assigned to a site? How do meanings accumulate around the notion of site? Where do they come from, how are they applied, and how are they derived?

Carol J. Burns, Andrea Kahn, Why Site Matters (2005)

Shuishi, Nanchang Red Earth Park (2018)



Movements and Shifts

ln recent years l have become increasingly interested in movements and shifts of territory, specifically landscape experiences more than the apparent fixity of buildings and objects. l have therefore come to consider my work in provisional terms, as speculative constructions that are produced and trnsformed through continual reshaping processes: weather, seasons, light, growrth, erosion, deposition.

If I spend time and energy investigating the traces that exist on a given site, it’s certainly not for any archeological purpose; I have never been particularly interested in reconstructing an historical lineage. Instead, I regard these remainders as manifestations of dynamics generated by different sources, forces, activities, events, and actors. This process never ends, and one ought to appreciate all the possible future developments that are already inscribed in the land, lying latent or fallow. The dynamic mapping of these routes and traces at different periods allows me to understand the shifts and modifications of sites-on-time.

My main interest, however, moves from the trace at one moment -as memorial-  to the recognition ofcchanges in time and fuiture potential. Consequenty, I believe that both buildings and designed landscapes must not only make the passing of time visible but also make this passage effecting of further potential.

The architecture that is necessary to mark and make possible such shifts must be more than visual. For me, a haptic, kinesthesic approach to design in essential for any deep form of site appropiation.

Georges Descombes, Shifting sites. The Swiss Way, Geneva (1999)


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Georges Descombes, Parc en Sauvy (1986)



In The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods, Vincent Scully explains the symbolic relations between sacred classic Greek architecture and the natural setting:

Not only were certain landscapes indeed regarded by the Greeks as holy and as expressive of specific gods, or rather as embodiments of their presence, but also that the temples and the subsidiary buildings of their sanctuaries were so formed in themselves and so placed in relation to the landscape and to each other as to enhance, develop, complement, and sometimes even to contradict, the basic meaning that was felt in the land.

The symbolic significance of each religious sanctuary differed from place to place, according to the specific relations between the attributes of each god and the symbolic aspects of the topography. Thus the relations between landscape and architecture were fully reciprocal in both meaning and form: the gods existed as determinate, localized entities, and the site-specihc articulation of nature and artifice were central to the theological experience. But these relations obtained in the classic Greek era, before the retreat of the gods, before the final, ironic, ontotheological, neoclassic dissimulation of God. In the classic epoch, the gods were everywhere manifested in a profoundly symbolic landscape. In the neoclassic epoch, as Pascal recounts, God surpasses the very limits of the imagination, as well as the topography of the surrounding world, resulting in the total disproportion of man. For Pascal, the visible world is but a speck within a nature that is “an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. The ubiquity of infinity, the omnipresence of God in geometric symbolization, renders all theological personification and all symbolic landscapes obsolete.
Allen S. Weiss, Unnatural Horizons. Paradox and Contradiction in Landscape Architecture (1998)

Dieter Kienast + Gunther Vogt, Fürstenwald Cementery (1996)



Genius of Place


The death of Alexander Pope from Museus, a threnody by William Mason


To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the column, or the arch to bend,
To swell the terrace, or to sink the grot; 
In all, let Nature never be forgot. 
But treat the goddess like a modest fair,
Nor overdress, nor leave her wholly bare; 
Let not each beauty ev’rywhere be spied, 
Where half the skill is decently to hide. 
He gains all points, who pleasingly confounds, 
Surprises, varies, and conceals the bounds.

Consult the genius of the place in all; 
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale, 
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale; 
Calls in the country, catches opening glades, 
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades, 
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines; 
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

Alexander Pope, Epistle IV to Richard Boyle (1731)