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)


Spirit of Place

Genius loci is a Roman concept. According to ancient Roman belief every “independent” being has its genius, its guardian spirit. This spirit gives life to people and places, accompanies them from birth to death, and determines their character or essence. Even the gods had their genius, a fact which illustrates the fundamental nature of the concept”. The genius thus denotes what a thing is, or what it “wants to be”, to use a word of Louis Kahn. It is not necessary in our context to go into the history of the concept of genius and its relationship to the daimon of the Greeks. It suffices to point out that ancient man experienced his environment as consisting of definite characters. In particular he recognized that it is of great existential importance to come to terms with the genius of the locality where his life takes place. In the past, survival depended on a good relationship to the place in a physical as well as psychic sense. In Ancient Egypt, for instance, the country was not only cultivated in accordance with the Nile floods, but the very structure of the landscape served as a model for the lay-out of the “public” buildings which should give man a sense of security by symbolizing an eternal environmental order.

During the course of history the genius loci has remained a living reality, although it may not have been expressively named as such. Artist and writers have found inspiration in local character and have “explained” the phenomena of everyday life as well as art, refering to landscapes and urban millieus. Thus Goethe says: “it is evident, that the eye is educated by the things it sees from childhood on, therefore Venetian painters must see everything clearer and with more joy than other people.”

Christian Norberg-Shulz, Genius Loci: towards a phenomenology of architecture (1979)

Gunnar Asplund + Sigurd Lewerentz, The Woodland Cemetery (1920)