Last edited 11 May 2021

Genius loci

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).
  • Authenticity.
  • Local distinctiveness.
  • Narrative, with layers of history.
  • Empowerment of ordinary people.
  • Essence or interiority.
  • Character and individuality.
  • Ecosystem.
  • Pantheism.
  • 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.

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