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)




Artists and artisans both demonstrate with perfect clarity that a person is least able to appropriate for himself those things which are most peculiarly his. His works leave him as birds do the best in which they were hatched.

In this respect an architect’s fate is the strangest of all. How often he employs his whole intellect and warmth of feeling in the creation of rooms from which he must exclude himself. Royal halls owe their splendor to him, and he may not share in the enjoyment of their finest effects. In temples he draws the line between himself and the holy of holies; the steps he built to ceremonies that lift up the heady, he may no longer climb; just as the goldsmith worships only from afar the monstrance which he wrought in the fire and set with jewels. With the keys of the palace the architect hands over all it’s comforts to the wealthy man, and has not the least part in them. Surely in this way art must little by little grow away from the artist, if the work, like a child provided for, no longer teaches back to touch its father.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities  (1809)


Alain Resnais, L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961)

Dominique Girard, Nymphenburg Palace Sculpture Garden (1715 circa)