The term ‘genius loci’ originates from Roman mythology and refers to the protective spirit of a place. In antiquity, the genius loci was often depicted in religious iconography as a figure holding bowls or a snake. This is similar to Asian architecture, where spirits of places are often honoured in outdoor spirit houses, as well as indoor and outdoor shrines.
In contemporary usage, it can refer to a place’s distinctive atmosphere.
Often quoted in discussions about ‘spirit of places’, the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope advised landscape designers to ‘consult the genius of place in all’. This has been interpreted as emphasising the importance of attending to the distinctiveness of landscapes as well as local natural systems and environmental processes.
The concept of the genius loci was expanded upon and secularised as part of the philosophical branch of ‘architectural phenomenology’. This was an intellectual movement which began in the 1950s, and focused on the study of architecture as it appears in the human experience.
This was in sharp contrast to the anti-historicism of postwar modernism and would go on to influence post-modernism, especially with regard to contemporary design learning experiential lessons from historical buildings.
In his 2001 essay ‘Can spirit of place be a guide to ethical building?’, Isis Brooks identified a range of ideas that have been associated with spirit of place, including:
- Energy fields (a point of intense energy).
- Local distinctiveness.
- Narrative, with layers of history.
- Empowerment of ordinary people.
- Essence or interiority.
- Character and individuality.
- Panpsychism (the idea that all things, including inanimate ones, have consciousness).
- Health of a place or emergent property.
Brooks suggested that a solution to this ambiguity with regard to the genius loci is to accept that spirit of place has its own legitimacy as a means of preventing homogenised design, rather than simply reflecting human feelings about places.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Design principles.
- Form follows function.
- Living in the hyperreal Post-Modern city.
- Modernist architecture.
- Monument and context.
- Public space.
- Vernacular architecture.
 External resources
- Placeness - Spirit of place
Featured articles and news
Have a look at this incredible Möbius strip-inspired media centre in Beijing.
OMA's plans for new arts centre to revitalise city's culture given planning approval.
Select committee criticises DEFRA for failing to take up its recommendations.
Nicola Sturgeon presents ICE's People's Choice Award to the Forth Road Bridge reopening.
Green paper published for consultation.
Mental health issues effect 80% of construction workers. Read our interview with the founders of a new wellbeing initiative.
Would Stephenson be disappointed by the lack of progress on the high speed transport of Hyperloop?
The immersive pop-up cinema experience that could revolutionise on-site health and safety training.
5 out of 10 filtering facepieces fail HSE tests.
Eleven Magazine announce the winner and runners-up in their Moontopia competition.
As January is the time for hitting the gym, Designing Buildings Wiki lists the best gym architecture in the world.