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Architectural Myths #17: Genius Loci

The ancient Romans believed genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. Here’s genius in the middle, fresco-bombed by a serpent circa 70BC Pompeii. 

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These days we’re too modern to believe in spirits. Instead, we like to think genius loci refers to a place’s distinctive atmosphere or feel or spirit, rather than any guardian spiri per se. In 2,000 years we’ve gone from one type of intangible spirit to another type of intangible spirit. Great. 

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Mostly, we have the poet, Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) to blame for this. He made genius loci an important principle in garden and landscape design with the following lines from Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington:

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.

Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, is the bloke who had Chiswick House built in Chiswick, W4 2RP, UK in the Italian, pseudo-Greek style usually known as Palladian.

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Chiswick House had an Italian-inspired waterfall and symbolic grotto inspired by God-knows-where.

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Pope’s Epistle IV was written in 1731. Chiswick House was completed in 1729. We must assume Pope was either asked for or, more likely, was offering his views on landscape design in the hope of a lucrative commission. He didn’t get the job – that poem of his wasn’t the greatest – but Pope did like a grotto as he’d had one installed earlier at his own house in Twickenham.

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Pope decorated the grotto with alabaster, marbles, and ores such as mundic and crystals. He also used Cornish diamonds, stalactites, spars, snakestones and spongestone. Here and there in the grotto he placed mirrors, expensive embellishments for the time. A camera obscura was installed to delight his visitors, of whom there were many. The serendipitous discovery of a spring during the subterranean retreat’s excavations enabled it to be filled with the relaxing sound of trickling water, which would quietly echo around the chambers. Pope was said to have remarked that: “Were it to have nymphs as well – it would be complete in everything.”

Sadly for Pope, he died 150 years before the golden age of water nymphs, themselves a Greek myth, but touchingly painted by John William Waterhouse and his pre-Raphaelite brethren.

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If Pope saw business opportunity in Italianate mock Greek architecture in Chiswick and in his spare time built nymph attractors in Twickenham, misfits must conclude that genius loci is a fairly dodgy idea. When the very concept is a moveable feast we can’t expect much better from its invocation. Consulting the genius loci becomes just another way of saying “it’s what I think should be there”.

Our modern approximation of “context” is no less loaded and no less elastic. The grandpaw of modern architectural theory, Sigfreid Gideon, wrote that all architecture is a product of its time and place. [This is proto-Koolhaasian in restating the bleeding obvious as amazing insight.] Gideon told us why, when they built a temple, Heian-era Japanese built Heian temples. In Japan. Or why 1960s international American corporates built 1960s American corporate architecture. Internationally.

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Every building is and remains a consequence of its time and place – as it must be if Time and Place are to retain any meaning in our daily understanding of the universe. Even this next construction is a product of its time and place for where else but New Orleans in 1978 could it possibly have been built?

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Gideon did not anticipate the language of the global capitalist economy or its various dialects and he did not, for example, anticipate the Internet and how some inconsequential building in Seattle, Shenzen, Singapore, or Sydney would contribute to global architectural debate or what passes for it. In Gideon’s primitive time, the primary existence of buildings was IN THEIR PHYSICAL LOCATIONS. People not in those locations understood them as being SOMEWHERE ELSE and that a photograph of a building was just a photograph of a building and that, if they were really interested in finding out what it was like then they’d have to go to that other place and check it out.

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For better or worse, criticism accepted this too. A person was regarded as having greater critical authority if they’d actually been to see a building before mouthing off about it. This no longer matters. After all, when architects value image over substance, it’s easy to see why the bloggerati and likerati/dislikerati do as well. People are more sensitive to the purported content of architecture than architects and the people who write their press releases give them credit for. If architecture has become money-shot images of proposed realities, then people are free to like or dislike them as they feel, and to say so as they wish. There’s no need for opinions to be constrained by having any meaningful relationship with reality.  It’s all subjective reactions to images of proposed realities bouncing around in virtual space. Let’s keep it real.

After all, When an image of some wacky house in Japan is content in Abu Dhabi, Adelaide, Amsterdam or Atlanta, the context of that image is global. The physical context of these houses may be Japan where their neighbours might think whatever of them but, as images, they exist to amuse us when the magazines finally circulate to our desk or when we want to veg out on ArchDaily or Dezeen and not think for a while. In 1966, 15 minutes referred to fame that was short-lived. It’s an eternity on the internet where giving something fifteen seconds of your time is enough to brand it “attention getting”.

In the context of modern architectural theory, genius loci has profound implications for place-making, falling within the philosophical branch of “phenomenology“. This field of architectural discourse is explored most notably by the theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz in his book, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture.

Profund implications! Maybe, but – I’m sorry Mr. Norbert-Schulz – who is ever going to care? Phenomenology is the opposite of image-based architecture. Alerting us to a credible alternative isn’t sufficient if it exists in a dimension no-one’s ever going to know exists. Meanwhile, representations of genius loci abound. What could be more right than this next image? The little stream doesn’t call for a “Fallingwater”. There’s no clearing calling for a Farnsworth. The genius loci is obviously saying “keep it simple”. Many other factors were probably “saying” the same thing but do we ever hear about genius budget? genius schedule? genius brief? genii materials and construction?  Unless its owners really wanted a mixed-use high rise, a palace or a cultural centre, this building probably makes its existential best of its site.

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The following image is of another black-painted house in Japan, but I like the way it also makes its existential best of its site.

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Here, the architects were dealt a harder hand to play, but they do so with confidence and with respect for this site whose genius is harder to find, if there at all. Compositionally (errr, as an image) the size of the building mediates between its neighbours, but its colour and pattern bring the building to the far right into the composition as well. As for that dark building on the right – you couldn’t make up a pattern of windows like that if you tried.

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http://www.archdaily.com/209688/house-in-aoto-high-land-design/

All too often, the attractiveness/desirability of owning/experiencing a site/property is unfairly factored into our evaluation of the building and the architect’s skill in designing a building for it. As long as only attractive sites are claimed to have a genius loci, I’m inclined to think genius loci, as a concept, is useful only in drawing attention to an architect’s supposed sensibilities for recognising and responding to it. This is how Pope used it. This is how it continues to be used.

I think context affects the design … as clues come from the surroundings. I’ll work with context on a more esoteric level. Our work isn’t meant to fit-in in the conventional way, but to key in and accentuate the energy of what’s around it.
(Zaha Hadid, quoted on page 83 of Simon Richards’ “Architect Knows Best”)

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Genius loci is Munchausens’ Syndrome for architects. It’s something they invent in order to draw attention to themselves.

Highland Design‘s House in Aoto leaves the place exactly the same as it found it. It is a simple display of architectural skill that touches the internet lightly. It’s this aspect of it that, by its very nature, suggests qualities more enduring.